Arts and Architecture

All In: 'Leaping into Faith,' part II

Susan Russell, associate professor in the School of Theatre and 2014-15 Penn State laureate, was a speaker at the "All In at Penn State" kickoff event in October 2016. This is the second installment in a six-part series that is part of the University's ongoing focus on diversity and inclusion. To read the first installment, go to:

To be, or not to be, that is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?  — Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1

Since we are following a group of middle schoolers through their Hamlet experience, it seems fitting that we begin our trail with words. Just to remind you, the children I was working with were the lost kids you see everyday on the news, on the streets, in the detention centers, and maybe sitting next to you right now. Heck, this kid might be you, no matter what age you are.

These are the kids disappearing right in front of us today, but just like you, everyone is someone’s daughter and someone’s son, and everyone speaks some language of love. In fact, in all my travels, I have never met a kid who didn’t love someone or an adult who didn’t want to help, but I have met many kids who couldn’t put “love” into their own words and even more adults who couldn’t tell me what “helping” looked like.

Words and actions are what Shakespeare is all about, but like anything new, Hamlet’s words look …weird. To the middle school kids, his weird words got the guy dissed and dismissed. The “weird words” threatened to dissolve our classroom agreements into chaos, and we started sliding. I hoped somebody would offer some solid ground for us to stand on and I was sure if we could break the words down we could get some traction on the ice.

We started with the first line: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” This first line has been ruminated over for centuries and for good reasons. It’s the question on everyone’s mind, even at 13. I knew these kids could get it, and that day the traction we needed came from a most unlikely source. The unlikely source was that kid in the back of the room who seemed like the most dangerous boy, the boy most likely to fail, and the boy most prone to acting out before looking in.

This boy was sitting in the back of the class, between Teacher Mom and the security guard, and whenever he made a move, all eyes were on him. I remember thinking, “How can a 13 year old kid be so big?” And he was big, and he was loud, and angry, and struggling with everything and everybody, so he had to sit between Teacher Mom and the security guard.

That day I got a big lesson in what teaching is about, because Teacher Mom knew he knew something. Teacher Mom was just waiting for her moment, and when a lull in the chaos appeared, Teacher Mom turned to the Big Kid and said, “What do you think the words mean?”

Then it was his moment. Would he hide his thoughts or share them? Would he take a chance on us listening, or would he repeat a familiar action and retreat to the back of his own personal room? The Big Kid waited for a full thirty seconds, and then he said, “Am I who I am, or am I who you want me to be. That’s what's up.”

Sometimes when the truth is spoken, it pulls all of the air out of the room. But this time, the truth started a beat box session with a kid across the room. Once the beat box session found its groove, the Big Kid said his line again, and again, and rhythm, poetry and courage moved all those kids to the front of the room.

So, the kids and I are asking: Are you chatter on social media, or are you something more? Are you what someone says about you because of your race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, ethnicity, education, job qualifications, grade point average, degree program, or are you someone who thinks about the world, feels deeply about what’s going on, and wants to talk about it?

This question might seem simple, but it’s the simple questions that start big conversations. If you are thinking, tell someone what you are thinking about. If you don’t know how to empathize with other people who are having hard times, ask someone how they do it, and if you want to help, then look for an opportunity in your own backyard. Words have meaning, and from meaning come actions that define the meaning of the words. Decide on a few words like, “help,” “serve,” “listen,” and see how they feel. Here’s a word for today: “Possible.” I am… possible. And as my Nana would say, “So be it ‘til you change it.” Peace.

Susan Russell, associate professor, Penn State School of Theatre Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated January 30, 2017