role models.

I’ve finally reached a point in my life where I can firmly say, “Sorry, NO” when asked for my phone number. There are many wonderful things to be said about the Golden Rule, but when you’re an adult and you haven’t learned why you’ve had to change your cell phone number twice, then it’s time to realize that “being nice” is simply a cover for blind naivety. I know I don’t speak for everyone when I say this, but as a female, especially one who is “Iowa Nice,” it’s really hard for me to find a balance between polite and protective.

I was slowly working my way into being assertive with random men who think for some reason I would be interested in chatting on the phone with them, when one day I gave a man in an alley directions to Foster Avenue and he tried to repay me with a kiss. It wasn’t until a male friend of mine pointed out that it was my fault for giving him directions in the first place that I realized the Golden Rule is something we made up for children. Then you grow up. (Also, my friend was wrong, it wasn’t my fault).

While we were packing up after a performance at an elementary school in Leesburg, VA last week, I made eye contact with a little girl who was standing in line waiting for her class to be dismissed from the gym.

“Tory!” She waved me over. “Can I have your phone number?”

This child was not a taxi driver, a drunk, or a random man at the Dunkin Donuts in the Western brown line station who was looking for a wife. She had thick black glasses, sticks for legs and constellations of freckles spread across her tiny face. I had no idea how to respond in the moment, so I did what any nice idiot would do instead of simply saying “sorry, no.”

“Uhhh, I don’t know if that would be a good idea but maybe I can give you my email address?”

As I hurried over to grab a piece of paper I suddenly realized who the predator was in the situation. (ME).  I mean, that’s dramatic, but you just can’t be too careful when it comes to other people’s kids. So I grabbed a Bright Star business card and gave her that instead. And as I handed it off to her, I was flanked by MORE little girls asking me for my email address. This time I told them that I didn’t think it was a good idea, and how about I leave my contact information with the secretary. Which I thought was a good answer, even though I didn’t end up following through with that.

Doing this tour has made me realize the value of being a female mentor. Little boys don’t care much about these programs when they’re over. They’ve already moved on to the next spastic moment of their lives. But it seems to me like most of the girls who watch this show take it with them, so it’s important to me to be a good role model to all the students who could possibly be learning from my behavior. However, as much as I’d like to be a contact for these young women, I just didn’t think it would be appropriate.

One time though, I gave my phone number to someone with some hesitance, and so far it’s worked out. Maria is a woman with developmental disabilities who came to the Imagination Workshop program I taught last fall. I love talking with her on the phone. The other day she told me that she was sad about her new therapist being too “goofy.”

“She does goofy things to make me laugh. I don’t like it.”

“Well that’s very human, isn’t it? To try to make someone laugh when they’re feeling down?”

“Yeah, but I’m not ready to laugh. I told her I don’t feel like laughing yet, and she needs to respect that.”

And here we have a woman that knows the value of saying no. My hero.

young offenders.

Joshua and I performed for the South Carolina Department of Justice last week. We did three performances of “Struggle for Freedom,” for young men and women in a juvenile detention center. I knew that the writer in me was going to find all sorts of ways of having it “mean” something. And with or without that part of my brain moving at a high speed all day long, it was quite an experience.

Last Wednesday was a gray, cloudy day in Columbia, South Carolina. As we passed through security and drove toward the chapel where we would be performing, we were mostly astonished at how many geese there were. Hundreds of geese. It seemed as though we had taken a wrong turn off a busy street in the state’s capital and landed on a farm. I’m sure that on a sunny day it is a nice place to be. Acres of rolling hills, a large lake, a wooden building reminiscent of a barn. The redoubtable white steeple protruding from the church in the distance. All of this surrounded, of course, by barbed wire.

Our first performance was for a packed auditorium full of young defiant faces and police uniforms. But they listened attentively and afterwards we answered a lot of questions, which is unusual for a group of people in their mid-teens. Usually nobody opens their mouth and if they do ask a question they get laughed at. Someone asked if we ever make embarrassing mistakes onstage. I told them about the time I flew off the stage during a performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream and ended up in a pile of mud with a sprained ankle yelling “wait for me, Demetrius!” They liked that. After the show a young man named Isaiah approached us backstage and told us that when he got out he wanted to be an actor. We chatted with him for a long time. It was hard to believe that a room filled with so many seemingly nice people had to get arrested in order to see our play.

The second performance was for a much smaller, much more serious crowd comprised of young men in brown suits and orange bow ties from a nearby camp. Usually when nobody has a question after the show, Joshua talks a little bit about why it’s important for them to see the play- because without the Civil Rights Movement, we wouldn’t be able to be in this theater together. During this particular speech, Joshua threw in something about following your dreams, so I jumped in on that and joked, “Anybody out there have any dreams that you want to share with the group?”

The crickets liked it. They cheered wildly from the silence in the back of the room. Eventually Joshua said, “I think she was just kidding.” One kid in the front row laughed politely. Then he looked as if his own laugh caught him by surprise.

Our last performance was for a different center down the road. As we set up in the gym, young men in jumpsuits marched by. Literally marched. In a line. Our contact for the performance, Ms. H, sighed as she set up a table for us adorned with Valentine’s themed decorations and cookies. “Today has been… hard,” she admitted. And that was when I realized I had no clue what we were facing.

However, it was a pretty good show. Most of the kids seemed completely enthralled. Only one person had to be taken from the room. And by the end of the show if anyone started acting up I made direct eye contact with them until they got uncomfortable and started listening again. Getting questions out of this group for the Q&A started slowly.

“No questions?”

“Yeah, him over there. He got a question.”

We scanned the crowd but didn’t see a hand.

“Right there, on the end.”

And there he was. A kid who couldn’t have been more than 11 years old. A little boy drowning in a blank, gray sweatshirt with a tiny pink face and large ears. He had a high pitched voice, and a large mouth full of big crooked teeth. As he spoke, the room erupted into laughter, but he was unfazed.

“I just wanted to say, y’all did a really good job. And I learned a lot about Martin Luther King that I didn’t know. I had a really good time.”

Officer? Can I take him home? Wait. This is an adjudicated juvenile in an evaluation center. What happened? This kid looked like Opie Taylor. He should be fishing with his Grandpa, not sitting in a sea of jumpsuits.

Either way, he opened up the room and we answered questions for at least 15 minutes. As we packed up, Ms. H prepared a bag full of snacks for us to take on the road while another teacher super glued one of our prop chairs back together. The officers put the folding chairs back. I showed Ms. H where I had haphazardly sewn the armpit of my dress back together a couple of weeks ago and she gasped and said, “You know I have a sewing machine, I could’ve fixed that for you.” Another teacher, while helping to carry our equipment back to the car pointed to one of the officers and said, “Got a voice like you wouldn’t believe. I told him he should go to Nashville.” While this went on, a line of young men faced the wall and stood quietly waiting for us to pack up, only looking back when I dropped a folding chair on the ground and yelled “my bad.”

As we walked out of the gym to the car, they had been released from the line and were playing basketball. I thought about how at the beginning of the day I had walked past a line of young men with my head down, so when I left I made sure to smile at as many of them as I could. And they all smiled back.

I don’t know why anybody was in that room. I don’t know how serious their crimes are. How violent. I’m in the middle of reading a pretty detailed MLK biography. He was a flawed man. Spent a lot of nights with a lot of women. Spent most of his life feeling terrified. I think about that principal in Richmond, VA I wrote about last month and how frustrated she seemed because she could only do so much work before she sent her kids back home into an environment she couldn’t control. I think about the “school to prison pipeline” or the “schoolhouse to jailhouse” phenomenon. I think that for a long time I will wonder about Jailhouse Opie with the big ears and the big smile surrounded by large teenagers in jumpsuits, giving us compliments. I think about how lucky I am because I’m pretty broke and I’ve made a few mistakes but at the end of the day if I’ve given up I can go back to a good home. And I think about how the phrase “theatre can change the world” makes me feel naive.

But those kids were listening.

universal truths.

I have nothing to write about.

Well, that’s not true. I think what’s happened is that I’ve successfully turned my brain off for the first time in my life and I’m scared to reignite anything for fear of getting lost in the fire. The proof of this is that there’s an excellent metaphor in that sentence about firefighters in my head but I can’t… write it out.

I’ll tell you about a kid in a camouflaged sweat suit at the Hendersonville Public Library who said, “Dingleberry” when I called on him during a Q&A after a show last week. I said, “I’m sorry. Did you say… dingleberry?” He burst into a fit of laughter and I really can’t tell if he was tricking me or if there was some sort of chemical in the camo sweat suit that had leaked into his bloodstream. At least I can check “say ‘dingleberry’ in a room full of small children and senior citizens” off my bucket list now.

Last week, Joshua and I were taken to lunch in a high school cafeteria, and it was nothing short of terrifying. I’ve never been a new student anywhere. I don’t recall walking into the lunchroom and having nowhere to go. And even if I did, my school was big enough that I didn’t feel the need to hide in my spaghetti when every head in the room turned to stare. Clearly, we made it out alive. But the spaghetti came with us, unfortunately. And not in a good way. Anybody else miss high school?

I’ve stumbled upon a few seemingly universal truths. Here are the important ones:

-Elementary school principals are the BEST principals.

-Middle school principals are the WORST principals.

-No matter what part of the country you’re in, Wal-Mart (and all of its patrons) is exactly the same as the one in your hometown.

-Elementary school children are the very essence of beauty, truth, freedom and love. Middle schoolers are the scariest humans ever. Thus explaining the Principal non-phenomenon.

-When in doubt, go with Beyonce. This includes ad libbing in a show about George Washington Carver.

C’est tout. Tomorrow we are performing at the South Carolina Department of Justice. Perhaps I’ll have something insightful to say about the power of theatre to change the world, or I can share some cute and funny things that teenagers in detention centers say after a show about Martin Luther King Jr.

PS: Shoot I forgot what I was going to say.

PPS: I’m bummed out about that. I think it was going to be really funny and clever.