I wonder where Tyshawn is today. He'll be 17 in July.
I graduated from UC Berkeley in June of 2005 and moved to
City that same month with the dream to start a theater
company. By the end of that summer, not only had I not started a theater
company but I didn’t even have a job. I spent four painful, ego-shattering
months pounding the pavement and being confounded by the fact that a Bachelor’s
degree from one of the best universities in the country didn’t guarantee me
gainful employment. Needless to say, New
York City was not the city of bright lights and
theater dreams come true that I expected it to be.
After nailing down a job at a non-profit sexual health organization and falling into two production management gigs, I suffered from serious theater burn-out and subsequently took a year off, wondering if I really wanted to pursue a career in the arts. By the spring of 2007, I had been at my dead-end day job for a bit more than a year, making little money, and dealing with a creative and moral depression that crippled me. On a suggestion, I decided to pursue volunteering and discovered a music project for children, ages 6-14, at a shelter on the
Lower East Side. I had never
worked with or overseen children and was panicked that I’d feel steamrolled by
them. However, I figured that
volunteering twice a month wasn’t a very big time commitment, and I found
encouragement in the subject matter, music being another serious passion of
mine. It seemed a potentially ideal project, fulfilling a creative hunger I
hadn’t been able to satisfy since graduating.
My first day as a volunteer, I met a nine-year-old boy named Tyshawn. I sat down next to him and asked him his name, feeling slightly self-conscious and not really knowing what to expect. He was enthusiastic and hilarious and we spent the day working together. We went around the circle and told everyone our names and what our favorite kind of music was, pairing it with a gesture and sound that indicated that music style. When the project leader asked if anyone could recite each person’s name and repeat each person’s gesture, Tyshawn didn’t volunteer. However, when we took a break, he did it perfectly on his own.
The leader of the project had been a musical theater student and injected each class with opportunities for the children to be the centers of attention, to tap into their creativity in a very accessible and non-threatening way. This became an essential part of the project every week we gathered, and I continued to enforce it when I became a co-leader of the project in June. We set a high standard for participation in the class, asking our volunteers to work closely with the children to create songs, dances, or poems that they rehearsed and presented to the rest of the group.
Tyshawn and I spent three weeks working as a duo. I learned that he liked writing. That he had a baby sister and an older brother. That he was turning 10 in July. I learned that I had a natural gift with kids. That they gravitated toward me, seemed to respect me, responded to me in a way that felt really special. I had fun with them; I learned from them; I was moved by them. It was an epiphany.
Summer holidays interrupted our bi-monthly meetings and I hadn’t seen Tyshawn for a couple weeks when I arrived at the shelter one week and discovered that the project had been cancelled that day. As I turned up the street to head back to the subway, Tyshawn was crossing. He saw me and bolted across, throwing his arms around me and yelling my name. I nearly burst into tears, realizing that I really had connected with him over the previous weeks. He dragged me back across the street and insisted I meet his mother, who wasn’t much older than I was and who was preoccupied with a baby in a stroller and having just lost her contact lens. She also didn’t seem to have any idea who I was, but Tyshawn introduced me as his “favorite teacher” anyway. The shelter was a transitional living situation for female victims of domestic abuse. Soon after this meeting on the street, Tyshawn stopped coming to class, and I can only hope that means he and his family found a more permanent living situation somewhere else.
I co-led this project for almost six months before moving back to
where I prepared to enter grad school. Over the months, we introduced the kids
to blues and rock n’roll; we sang Christmas carols with them; we tried to teach
them about rhythm and rhyme. Every week, we led an introduction game, made a
craft, broke up into groups and had them create pieces to perform at the end of
the night. Every week, it was evident how important these gatherings were. I
didn’t know anything about what these children’s lives were like outside our
meetings, but I could tell their recreation time was important and special for
them. They were being creative in ways I knew were different from what they
were used to. They were working together in ways I knew were different from
what they were used to, and they were being led by caring and patient adults in
ways that I knew were different from what they were used to. Even more powerfully,
they were working with young men who paid close attention to them, listened to
them, and were gentle with them.
Working with these children was educational to me in ways that I’m not sure I’ll be able to fully articulate until I have some more experience under my belt. They being the first children I ever worked with combined with the vulnerability and potency of their situations made the work such a heady and emotional experience. It planted the seed for my ultimate goal as a theatre teacher and artist: to establish an organization that will allow populations of children a creative outlet that they don’t have in any other capacity. Theatre, with its tenets of collaboration and expression, seems an essential medium for urban children, arguably our most vulnerable community. I want to foster the enthusiasm I saw in Tyshawn with kids just like him, and I hope he is somewhere continuing to express himself as he was able to do with us.