Kids are mean in elementary school. They are mean in college. When I first began teaching I befriended many students the way many theatre faculty do. Between rehearsals and classes and so much down-time in the green room, we can spend upwards of twenty-plus hours a week with any given student. I spent a lot of time engaging in ‘drama’. I heard them tell tales, tales about each other. I thought this pretty harmless until a few years later when I came to a period in my life where the student tales included commentary on my private life, particularly as my marriage was falling apart. Kids are mean. Adults are mean too. It was at that point that I completely took myself out of the drama loop. I didn’t want to get involved with any student drama whatsoever. I would walk out of conversations that turned to who was mad at whom, who broke up with whom or who said such and such about so and so which got back to her and now she hates her. Sound pretty high school? You’d be surprised.
I stayed pretty far removed for the most part until this past year. It was a particularly dramatic year in the theatre department. I witnessed student friendships fall apart, factions form and good kids from both sides torn to shreds. There was a point, I am ashamed to say, where I was even tempted to join the fight. One of the students, with whom I had always gotten along well, was crushed by a casting choice I made and then subsequently vocally furious. It felt easy to agree with those that had already written her off, students and faculty alike. And yet somewhere inside me was this nagging memory of being a very unpopular Indian girl on the blacktop at recess and having to choose between being called ugly and smelly or calling Julie G ugly and smelly. At seven, you throw poor Julie G to the wolves. It never has the effect you’d hope for. You just feel much worse by proxy.
I once heard a joke at a faculty senate meeting about members of the faculty senate. The saying goes: sociologists hate working in groups, philosophers don’t like ambiguity and historians don’t always remember what happened in the last meeting. I often add theatre types don’t like the drama. Here at the end of the academic year, I find myself sharing what I have learned about ‘drama’ with my soon to be ex-students. I encourage them to let bygones be bygones and let themselves off the hook by letting others off the hook. Right now they all just seem like great kids. All of them. Great kids that are sometimes cruel and sometimes unforgiving and sometimes cruel because they are unforgiving. If only this could have all been solved on the blacktop years ago.
At the end of the semester I invited my disgruntled student out for coffee to talk about the situation and also about how we could have handled it better. It went well. I am thankful I never completely wrote this girl off just as I am thankful that she forgave me for not being everything she hoped I would be. It feels wonderful to be able to let it all go. Now if only it didn’t end there. I see so many of these kind, intelligent students moving on, graduating and taking the bitterness with them. I see them carrying this baggage into their future lives, and I am saddened. If there was anything I could send away with them it is a wish for very little “drama” in their future lives. May all the drama stay on stage and all their kindness and generosity of spirit be reflected back on them in wonderful and surprising ways. Kids are mean, adults are mean, but we cannot spend our lives responding to meanness in kind. It never has the effect you’d hope for – we end up throwing ourselves to the wolves.