Rachel Kara Perez, a 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow, will be sharing monthly blog posts about her experiences teaching the arts through ASTEP on STAGE! This program gives over 1,500 NYC youth access to the transforming power of the arts by bringing performing and visual artists from the Broadway and NYC community to after-school and in-school programs. ASTEP on STAGE! partners with schools and community organizations serving youth affected by the justice system, incarceration, gun violence, homelessness, immigration status, systemic poverty, and HIV/AIDS. Through the arts, these young people learn they have what it takes to succeed no matter the obstacles, which is key to breaking cycles of poverty.
Blog Post #1:
March 31, 2018
March was quite the month. I have had to say goodbye without the opportunity to actually say it, to a few of my students who had been with us the longest, nearly 6 months. It is important to note that each week the size of the group alters. Some children come and stay for a couple of weeks, some several months, though it is rare, and some only once. As all of the children are protected as Refugees under U.S. law, once they move on, and for their own privacy and protection, they are not permitted to maintain contact with anyone who works at the Social Services agency, nor with each other. So imagine our heart beak upon discovering young love had blossomed between two of the teenagers. One in particular, whom I will refer to as Jose, had been with us for about six months. He was generally reserved, and more brooding once he fell in love with the “new girl” who arrived a few weeks after him. The children are not permitted to date one another and for many months I have dreaded the day that took place just two weeks ago. I walked in, asked where Jose was, and discovered he had left that morning. I could not disguise my disappointment, and the girl who told me expressed her observation that I looked as if I would miss him. Of course I will, I told her that each week is difficult, and I will miss him. A younger boy popped his head up and asked if I would miss him when he left, and I said of course. The girl who told me, she has also moved on since that week.
When asking each child to go around the room and say their name (for review and also to meet the newcomers), the girl he loves was still there, and bravely and honestly said that she was feeling sad. I thanked her for her honesty, and told her I respected her. I did not push for her to participate in all the activities. Just two weeks prior there had been a grey cloud over the heads of the older group, as two other students who had been there for a long time had also moved on. It is hard to explain the feeling, the impermanence, the hope, and yes even joy that is also found in this classroom. I have seen children arrive and be despondent, head hung low, tears streaming down their faces because they are far too recent arrivals in a new place, a new land, with a new language, and new cold weather that seems to be adding insult to injury. I have witnessed these same children, miraculously, come running into the classroom to meet me, jovial, playful, delightfully rambunctious, at times content, verbal, expressive, smiling. Sometimes it takes weeks, sometimes a few days. To see them again just being children.
These children have traversed and overcome great odds just to be here. Alone, for that is truly what Unaccompanied means..these children have experienced much more in their 5-17 years than many of us will in a lifetime. Many are escaping violence, poverty, gangs, hoping for a better life, hoping to succeed and thrive, sent ahead by families desperately hoping they will do better without them, or by joining others who are already here in The States. And this is where we come in.
ASTEP. An art class. A reason to laugh, to create, to channel one’s anger, or to express one’s joy. I am always amazed at how respectful, and eventually willing to play the children are. I admire them when they advocate for themselves, when they tell me they feel uncomfortable dancing or acting, and ask to observe, ask not to be pushed, not yet. And when they do it anyway, awkwardly, laughing, getting out of their heads if only for an hour.
At times we explore deeper themes, such as the day I led an activity with poetry and music from our cultural backgrounds, where the children were encouraged to write poems of their own, many expressing their pride for their native lands, for their culture, how they carry their flag in their heart wherever they are. Other days I just want them to laugh; we play theatre games, we make weird sounds, we dance.
A couple of weeks ago, our Volunteer Teaching Artist taught a dance class, and one little girl, whom I will call Liana, who had recently turned 9, and is often a very vocal and helpful and expressive participant, sat in the corner with tears streaming down her face. She had danced the week before and this had not happened, but at times we can be triggered unexpectedly. As the Volunteer Teaching Artist continued her lesson, I went to Liana in the corner and asked her why she was crying. She told me her father had taught her to dance, and it made her sad to think of him. I said I understood, that I had also learned how to dance from a parent. I let her know that to dance we don’t always have to be happy, that I even dance when I am sad, that it helps me, to literally move through it, that it can help her feel better. I said if she wants to come back and join us, I will be waiting, but if not that’s ok too. She nodded while more tears splashed on her cheeks, and I went back to the group. 5 minutes later she walked back to the circle, I motioned to her to stand beside me. We danced together. We laughed, we smiled. She taught me some words in her native indigenous language, Mam. Promised me a vocabulary list, one I am constantly worried I will never receive, for she keeps forgetting, or perhaps won’t be here the next week to give it to me.
Another boy who taught me how to say “thank you”, in Mam, also from Guatemala, lit up as I attempted the pronunciation. Quiet, shy, hesitant, this was the same boy who the week before during our poetry and music exercise I mentioned above, showed me his work, a paragraph written in both Mam and then translated to Spanish. Telling me a little about his life. Because I had asked him to write, or draw, express something. This is the power of storytelling. And this is what we do, this is why I use the arts as a tool for empowerment, for social justice, to foster empathy, to build community. To give them a voice. To facilitate the space in which they may discover it for themselves.