In the Broward County public school system, “Learning Centers” are the most restrictive schools. Highly structured, prepared to deal with the challenges of children and young people with severe behavioral and emotional issues, even in the best of circumstances, they are a long way from what we call “normal”.
First at Sunset, and now at Whispering Pines, Sherod and I have had the privilege of attending a ritual called the “annual talent show”. These events have a different feel than other talent shows I have been to. First, I am struck by the ways in which the teachers and staff members pour themselves into their performances—and there are usually 3 or 4 teacher/staff acts in the talent shows at learning centers. They invariably make me laugh till I cry with their sass and their energy and their bravado.
It takes a very special kind of heart to choose to be a teacher at a learning center. It isn’t just that there is the stress that comes from knowing you are in effect, putting yourself in harm’s way. Nor are these teachers special heroes because most of the ones I’ve met know that the successes they get to witness are often modest to the point of being invisible to most people ‘on the outside’. No, what I most admire is their willingness to allow that what it means to be human is far broader and deeper than we are usually able to accept. As the mother of my own daughter who only seems able to find her place in a learning center, I know that it takes so much energy and so much willingness to be defeated and stand up again, to keep recognizing the humanity of the boys and girls, young women and young men who are placed in learning centers as the option of last resort.
If the staff move me, it is the beauty of the student performers that always reduces me to a puddle of tears (I know, I end up crying a lot but I’ve quit apologizing for that). You see the tremulous fragility of their beauty. At Whispering Pines there is a panel of judges that gives each performer feedback. You can hear a pin drop as each young person goes to the judges’ table. There is always some kind of talent that catches me by surprise. There is irrepressible joie de vivre and laughter and pride. Many of the members of the audience today had poor “impulse control” and their spontaneous expressions of encouragement were somehow more beautiful for coming from those who others might say have nothing to give.
As the short clip from the girl María’s performance suggests, there are few inhibitions; these kids let lose and pour themselves into their performances. At some point you realize that the line between Justin Bieber and Maria Mallow, Erica and He is We is razor thin, so much thinner than those of us who inhabit the ‘normal world’ want to or can understand or accept.
Above all, these talent shows are the very incarnation, in the holiest sense possible, of the statement that so struck me in the recent post on the WIT blog. It is this simple: the performers show me unequivocally that “the greatest act of defiance is to still exist”. The talent shows are what make that simple statement “ a bold affirmation, a prayer, and an ethical assertion” (Brandy Daniels, http://www.womenintheology.org). Just astoundingly beautiful and blessed boys, girls, young men and young women, together with the men and women who abide with them…