I was a bad baseball player in high school. And I mean bad. Don’t get me wrong: I loved the sport; I just didn’t play it very well. You would be more likely to find me up in my room reading a book (not necessarily the one assigned by my English teacher) or writing nature poetry (during my Robert Frost phase) than out on the diamond taking practice swings or playing flag football with the neighborhood kids. During my sophomore year of high school, I read pretty much all of Stephen King’s novels, and wrote enough bad horror stories to fill up a half-dozen binders. In the unchanging annals of high school stereotypes, I guess I was your typical “nerd.”
In a broader sense, schools have, for decades, engaged in an “annual struggle [that] can pit the artist against the jock.”* Some of this deals with school budgets, but that’s a topic for a different article. I’d like to keep the focus on the two different student types. Perhaps unfairly, the “jock” gets a lot of the attention in your typical American high school. I take nothing away from the talented athlete; we need them and I wish I had been one, but rather I enter a plea that we also encourage our more humanities-oriented students. We all remember how cliquish high school can be. We’ve all seen Mean Girls, and a lot of us remember being pigeonholed as a “nerd” or a “jock” or a “band geek” or an “art freak” or any of the other common labels tossed around in your average high school.
I recently tutored a student who shared with me that he didn’t want to tell his friends that he had been clandestinely attending drama club meetings, and was trying out for a role in the school’s production of Beauty and the Beast. He felt they would make fun of him or consider him a “sissy.” What could I do? I’m not a psychologist; I’m the kid’s SAT tutor. But I realized then that even a modicum of encouragement from someone might build his confidence. As I do with all of my students who are musically or theatrically inclined, I told him I was envious. And I am. I can’t act and I really, really can’t sing. I give tone-deafness a new definition. And this is tough for someone who loves music. Anyway, I wanted to do my small part in letting this student know that not only did I envy his talent, but also that he should be proud of it and never, ever feel ashamed because of it.
I have no idea if my words of encouragement had any effect on this student, but the incident got me thinking about how important it is to foster these types of interests in young people. I think, for better or worse, there is a tendency to maximize sports-related activities in many high schools and to minimize arts-related activities. I think we need only look at what programs are usually cut first when it’s time for budget restraints in high schools. I’ll give you a hint: it’s usually not the football team. I appreciate the fact that my parents were ok with me being a (bad) one-sport athlete, and being more interested in other things, even though reading The Shining instead of Othello didn’t always bode well for my G.P.A. I want to make it clear that I am not advocating against football or lacrosse, but rather putting in a little plug for the power of the arts, which I think we sometimes underestimate. I like Barbara Benglian, the 2006 Pennsylvania state teacher of the year’s way of putting it: “Arts education gives children a place where they can express themselves and channel negative emotion into something positive. Students are well-rounded and required to be academically healthy in all subjects to perform. To be honest, what is learned in music education is truly immeasurable.” I hope I got this message across to my student who felt the drama club was too embarrassing to be attached to his public high school persona. If I didn’t, maybe he just needs one other person to back him up, validate him, tell him it’s not only ok, but also impressive, fantastic, wonderful, and any of a multitude of positive adjectives from which a parent or teacher or tutor could choose. Now I’ll go back to ruing the fact that I want to sing, but that if I did, I’d scare half my neighborhood away.
*from the article, “School Districts Getting Creative in Order to Prevent Cuts in Sports and the Arts,” The Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY) by Barbara O’Brien, May 13, 2014
Written by Phil Lane