S&R Literature

S&R Nonfiction: “The Courage Knob,” by Aimee Stahlberg

It’s mid-October and I’m bundled up, wearing long sleeves that cap the tops of my hands, a normal thing for me. Ever since I started doing outreach with teens, I’ve become even more self-conscious about the scars that run down my wrists from cutting, and the tattoos that remind me about the journey I’ve made. I still feel edgy when they notice them, when they ask questions, so I hide them.

I’ve got a notebook with a list of things I want to make sure I say, and a note that says: “Smile!” It’s my first day as the lead writing instructor with a new outreach group: Teens Together. They are the only non-incarcerated writing group of teens who work with Storycatchers Theatre, a not for profit organization whose mission statement is to prepare young people to make thoughtful life choices through writing, producing, and performing original musical theatre inspired by personal stories. I remember how inspired I was after I first started telling stories from my life creatively, how inspired I felt about living, and how I felt like I had accomplished something. I take a deep breath, hoping I’ll be able to make it through the day.

I study the room, reminding myself that I am in a place that I call home. I remind myself that I learned how to teach a class of students in this very room. “I know how to teach,” I tell myself. But it doesn’t matter that I’m in the same room I have several classes in on the 12th floor of Columbia College Chicago: a chalk board lining one wall, windows on another; deskless chairs scattered around the room now arranged into a semi-circle; coat hooks that I’ve only seen used once or twice. These common things are only so much comfort, and I feel my first finger start to rub the skin around my thumb nail, wanting to peel the skin that sits around it, something I can’t help but do when I get agitated or nervous.

Within minutes of my arrival, my program manager Hillary arrives. She wears calmness; she comes in smiling, her strawberry hair tucked behind her ears, eyebrows raised, “Ready?” she asks. I nod, even though I’m not.

And soon, kids start filtering in. A tall black boy with a bald head who’s wearing dark jeans and a worn sweater bolts to Hillary and gives her a hug. His voice is full and warm, deep.

A shorter black boy with a mohawk comes in. He runs straight to Michael and speaks in a tongue I don’t quite understand. I later learn that it’s a language they’d made up the previous summer. Michael’s already, apparently, grabbed a contract for this boy, and Hillary explains that this is Jermaine, a boy who isn’t in high school just yet, which is not something that Storycatchers does very often–all the participants in Teens Together are usually in grades 9 through 12. Her extensive knowledge of these teens makes me nervous that I will mix them up or not win them over in the same ways. She manages to hold it together so well, and that’s something I only wish I knew how to do.

Soon, a calmness creeps over me when two kids that I’d taught in another teen outreach program–After School Matters, or ASM for short–arrive, Christian and Alex. They are both chubby and latino, but from different families. Alex is a senior in high school, but being very short, she tends to hang out with the younger crowd. A prime example of this would be later in the year when Alex invites Christian, a sophomore, to her senior prom as her date.

Behind them are some other kids I don’t know, who Hillary identifies as Michael’s girlfriend Myia and a new girl who Hillary had already met, Tazhaniq. Myia is tiny and dark skinned, with sleek black hair and a thin, muscular, dancer’s body. Tazhaniq is a full-figured girl, with braids, and baggie clothes.

We have only one white student. He stares at his hands, fingers interlocked in his lap.

“And this is Danny,” Hillary tells me. “We’re so happy to have him back. This is his second year in the writing program with us, and when the play is done, I’m sure this will be his third time in Summer Theatre Ensemble. He’s grown to be quite the actor.” She nudges me in the arm, smiling.

All I see is a tuft of light brown hair.

“Hi, Danny. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Miss Aimee.” I reach my hand out toward him, but he’s so folded into himself, I feel I need to pull my hand back. It’s hard to offer any of myself. It’s even worse because I know Hillary will let me know anything I’ve done wrong or right at the end of the day. That’s her job as program manager. I’m trying so hard not to have a list of wrong.

He doesn’t look up.

Hillary says, “Think Clint Eastwood, Danny, and introduce yourself to Miss Aimee.” I don’t know what this means, or why she would suggest Clint Eastwood, but I think I see the rims of his glasses creeping up for a moment. I’m wrong. It is still only the top of his head, that mound of light brown hair.

Before Teens Together had started, Hillary told me that there were several teens who would be returning from the summer program. She warned me, “Some of them are extremely outspoken, loud, and wild. They’ll say things that will surprise you. But all of them are amazingly gifted, talented young people.” There were no words within that warning about anyone paralyzed with shyness. There were no words about a teen who would appear as though he would rather die than look an adult in the eyes. And on my first day, this is what I came face to face with.

Once all of the teens arrive, we have them go around the circle, say their names, ages, and what school they attend. We also want them to discuss how they heard about the program and why they joined or what they hoped to get out of it.

“I’m Tazhaniq and I’m a Junior at Fenger. I heard about this program when Miss Hillary visited my school. It sounded cool that we’d be doing acting and writing. I really like both, and think I have talent in both, but I’d like to see my talent blossom.”

We fly around the circle until we land on Danny.

“Danny, who are you? Tell us about yourself,” I ask.

He glances over the tops of his glasses at me, blue eyes big and frightened.

His mouth opens and he drops his hands to the sides of his legs in the chair. They are balled into fists and he fingers the nails on his thumbs.

A breath comes out of his mouth.

“Danny.” His voice is so quiet that it is difficult to tell whether I actually hear him speak or wish I hear it.

He hears Hillary’s voice and his head tilts up. He faces her, looks her in the eyes. “Tell everyone your name so they can hear you.” I want to learn to master the magic she has with this boy.

He clears his throat, but still barely loud enough to hear, he says, “My name is Danny and I go to Lincoln Park High School. I am sixteen. I like the way this program helps you make friends and helps you build confidence?” His tenor, and what could be full voice, curves up at the end of the sentence.

I feel my lips curl into a smile.

Danny isn’t just one of those kids who is shy the first day. He is a kid that every time you have a first day with him, it’s like the first time you meet him all over again. The shyness comes back. Heck, Danny is the kind of kid that day four you need to remind him that he knows you; he can joke around with you; he can be loud! He isn’t one of those kids that will just open up after his parents leave the room. This is a kid who is terrified of everyone. He is terrified to speak in public. He is terrified of what people think. He is terrified to share his voice.

I don’t smile because I am happy that he’s paralyzed with shyness. I smile because in a lot of ways Danny reminds me of me. My first days at Columbia were after a major bout of depression and I became tremendously introverted. (And no, this is not me diagnosing Danny with depression. I don’t know enough about him in the moment to do that, and what I’ll learn over the course of these next couple of years working with him will show me that he is an extraordinarily happy kid.) I couldn’t look people in the eyes. I couldn’t speak without shaking. And I hated the sound of my own voice. I was terrified of people and their reactions to me. I was terrified of what people would think when I spoke. I was terrified of people hearing my story. I was terrified of hearing my own story. But, I learned how to use that nervous energy as excitement. And I want Danny to be as excited to come to program as I would be every Saturday. And even though this first day, I’m nervous too, his shyness makes me commit to a goal, and it makes me less afraid that I’m going to mess up, or worse break a kid.

We read aloud in session every week, and I’d been told that over the summer, Danny was given a soliloquy to perform. They had him research Clint Eastwood–which I began to assume was a choice made because of his love for TV and watching it with his entire family, including his parents–in order to figure out different ways of delivering the lines. Anytime Hillary coached him to “Think Clint Eastwood!” his face would change, eyes would glaze over, and he would become enveloped in some kind of act.

As a writing teacher, however, I wasn’t trying to find an actor. I was trying to find the writer. And as someone who this kid might someday see as a mentor, I wanted to find Danny!

I’d manipulate coachings while having him read, trying to play with the information I had about him in order to get him to have more fun, open up. I felt I owed it to him to help break him out of his shell, to let him find a comfortable space within the group to build his voice. I owed it to the teachers who had helped do that for me. I needed to knock away my nervousness and listen to all of my mentors’ advice. “What does he need right now? Say those words to him.”

“You’re an actor, right Danny?” I said when it was his turn to read, and posed my hand in front of me, like any and every Shakespearean actor I had ever seen. He nodded at me. “Okay great! So, go ahead and address it as a letter across the semi-circle. And when you do that, exaggerate your voice. Allow it to carry to the very back of the theatre in your mind. Think about the way you deliver lines on stage, your favorite character you’ve played. Give that much energy to the reading.” All the while, I moved my hand in a big circle, emphasizing just how much space I hoped he’d fill. My arcs grew wider and wider, and my focus stopped being on whether or not my sleeve would slide up my arm and the teens would see my tattoos and my scars, but instead on the theatre I was trying to create in Danny’s mind.

He bit his bottom lip, and then nodded again.

“Dear Myia,” he was still whispering. He’d chosen a girl, which was out of his comfort zone, but Myia was someone he was already close with from having participated in Summer Theatre Ensemble the last year.

“Let’s see that actor come out! Get that volume way up!” My voice was so loud I wanted to plug my ears. My hand was out in front of my body, twisting radio knobs I was imagining on him.

The kids stared at me.

“What are you doing?” one of them asked. Christian remembered my coachings from ASM, and he chuckled, removing his football-player hands from the pockets on his sweatshirt and putting them over his mouth. Those few months without the coachings seemed like a long void, and brought the amusing quality back for him.

“She’s turning up his volume.”

The rest of the kids wrinkled their foreheads.

“She told him to get his volume up and she started turning a knob. See it.” As a returning student, he’d picked up on my lingo, that writing teacher language I’d used with him all summer.

Danny’s breathy, gasping laugh erupted. He pulled the book up in front of his face, lifted his feet off the ground, knees high in the air, and then slammed them down as he reset the book in his lap. “You’re turning my volume button!?” It was the first time I really heard his voice, deep and full, much too big for that lanky kid’s body, I thought. I laughed along with them, realizing that for the first time I was smiling without really thinking about it.

“Listen to your voice. Now keep that volume way up. Read that story, and listen to your voice as you tell it to all of us.”

By the time all of the teens were turning in their final drafts of their stories for the anthology in the middle of the year, Danny had started exploring some personal material–a relationship with a girl where there may, or may not, have been an attraction. He wrote about the way the weather seemed to change whenever they were together.

“How do you see her, Danny? How does she make this boy feel? How does her being there change things?” I would sit in front of him, watching the way his face would illuminate when he would start to write. Sometimes, I would even sit next to him when we had the privilege of getting time in the computer lab, and have him tell me everything he saw in his head when he thought about her.

He wrote about how he couldn’t even feel the coldness or the snow. He wrote about how they would spend every moment at school together. He also wrote about how he started to watch new TV shows, ones he wasn’t really interested in so that they would have even more to talk about. Soon, a new side of Danny was being explored. This was a relationship he had developed in the Drama Department at Lincoln Park High School, and we started to see the humor he had hidden inside.

I forgot about myself. I only cared about the things that this ensemble of teens had to say. And soon, he started telling me without me having to ask.

I am asked to take a role as an instructor with the Summer Theatre Ensemble, even though I don’t know much about theatre, and I’ve never been a part of this program before, but I accept the opportunity. In fact, I’m excited about it. We encourage the kids to take the project from beginning to end, to see the arc of their project.

  1. Write Creative Non-Fiction stories.
  2. Rewrite them until they are of publishable quality.
  3. Find the common themes and perform them as a staged reading.
  4. Understand the growth of the staged reading and develop it into a musical.
  5. Perform the musical.

As a first time staff member, I am learning this process with the kids. And as a staff member who facilitated writing the musical and their “writing guide” I have no choice but to be excited to have a role in the summer. I want to see how the kids react to seeing it come full circle.

Danny applies for his third summer with Summer Theatre Ensemble, and he is accepted. He is one of four writers to take things all of the way to the end.

I’m more confident in giving jobs to the teens and figuring out what a day is supposed to look like. I am more confident in running a bigger group, and believing that everyone will get home safely and happily. And the more confident I become in myself, the more I realize that a lot of teaching can be hands off, that some of the kids grow on their own if they have the right nurturing.

I play a role in helping decide how the teens audition and who is cast for what. The girls are competitive in what they audition for. Every girl wants to be one of the main female characters. The boys, on the other hand, are more self-deprecating and place themselves in smaller roles for the audition.

The Artistic Director and I both see tremendous growth in Danny. “Let’s see him in the role of Carlos,” she says. Carlos is one of the biggest roles. He is the character that changes the most. He has a ton of lines, a solo, and a rap.

Danny stands on a box during the audition and loudly delivers lines. His body seems to have filled out in the four short weeks between Teens Together ending and Summer Theatre Ensemble’s start. He holds his shoulders back while he delivers lines, and his tenor voice now seems appropriately full for his body. It isn’t long before he’s in front of audiences of at least 70, singing, challenging himself to be loud, and rapping over the music. Danny makes eye contact with every person in the audience. On the last day, he tells me, “I think I found my volume knob. It’s up now.”

1 reply »

  1. The only thing harder than being a teen is teaching one. I remember taking writing classes in my junior year of high school; they were the only parts of my week I truly looked forward to, and until reading this essay it didn’t occur to me how much my teachers agonized over my creative process. It’s thanks to people like Aimee that teens like Danny have a place where they feel both comfortable and confident enough to reach their creative potential.

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