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 #5:
September 5, 2018
My padrino tells me, obsessing over the past is what breeds depression. Fixating on the future is what breeds anxiety. That we can only truly ever appreciate and have a life well-lived if we focus our energy on the present, allowing ourselves to be fully here and now.
In this work, and especially in this mighty city, it is easy to find excuses not to follow this thoughtful and somewhat sage advice. The trains are late, we are waiting for our next check, one of the children may be gone next week, new sets of expectations, someone is late, we didn’t get that gig…the list is long.
Working with refugee youth, and specifically unaccompanied minors during my time with ASTEP has granted me a different relationship with impermanence. It came almost all at once, as I spoke to a fellow teacher from the Refugee Youth Summer Academy about my work at our site with Lutheran Social Services. I expressed my struggle with endings, how saying goodbye (or harder still, not being afforded an opportunity to say goodbye) never got easier with this work, how I had cried and not known how to channel that sorrow after a child leaves, especially when they’ve been at LSS for a long time and then one day are just not there anymore.
The advice she gave me was a total game changer. She suggested at the end of each class I take a moment to let the children know how much they mean to me. That way, even if I don’t have the opportunity to say an individual goodbye to each of them before they leave, I can rest assured that they know how I feel about them, that I believe in them, and that I care. Little did I realize how effective this would be and also how soon I would need to say a goodbye of my own.
I am moving on from ASTEP to further my work in arts activism, working full time for an arts and social justice organization. It’s a wonderful opportunity, and yet I will miss ASTEP dearly. Of course, I will find ways to collaborate and stay connected, always.
My last day with the children at LSS I actually didn’t have a Volunteer Teaching Artist and was able to take the lead as opposed to offering on site support. It felt fortuitous. I threw them a little party, we had snacks, listened to music, and drew together. I took the advice of my colleague, and now friend, and explained that this was my small way of expressing my gratitude. That I wanted all of them to know that they are important. That whether we have been together one day, or two weeks, or seven months, that each day is special to me, and that I will always think of them. I told them the time I have spent with them has changed my life. I thanked them for their time and for their presence. And I thank everyone at ASTEP, for your support and encouragement, for the Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellowship, for the honor of carrying on this work for those who no longer can. And though I must say goodbye, please accept this modest writing as an expression of my gratitude, and know that each day was special to me.