Blog · Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: the power of arts in education, episode 1

I am so excited about this new project I’ve started.

The seed developed as I was figuring out what my next blog topic would be. I felt like I had run dry on Geriatric Gymnastics (for the moment) and needed find another idea that I could expound upon. It felt so strange to keep drawing a blank.

This idea came to me at the kitchen table, which is where I do most of my writing. Focus on what you know. You’re a teacher with thousands of students who have passed through your classroom. Not just passed through; they thrived in your classroom. For a while now, I’ve wanted to tap into their adult selves and talk about where they are in their journey. I want to know if and how the lessons they learned in my studio inform any part of who they are now by asking them ten questions about their high school experience.

I’ve always felt that teaching is much more than the content in which you specialize. Arts educators in particular have the superpower of connecting to kids in ways that they will remember forever. We hope we have the skill to teach the important life-lessons that make long-lasting, positive imprints that help soothe the chaotic, often traumatic experience of adolescence. We want to contribute something that will help those kids to eventually settle into grounded grownups.

Most teachers never hear about the impact they had, because the guarded nature of teenagers often prevents them from sharing it in real time. Kids usually don’t realize the benefits they are receiving when they are in the classroom. It takes time for those things to marinate in their minds and once they graduate and time passes, well, “out of sight, out of mind.” Sometimes we get lucky and someone comes back and exuberantly shares their impact story, which certainly feels pretty good, but if you want to know, you’ve got to ask.

I decided it was time to dig in and learn about what I might have done right, what I should keep focusing on, so I can continue to provide those lessons while I’m still a teacher. I sent a bunch of texts out to some former students I’d kept in touch with and asked if they would like to be interviewed. A resounding bounty of “yes” responses flooded my inbox. This was going to be a real thing. I am proud to present…

Episode 1: Manuel Piedra, Jr.

Fast forward to my first interview, one of my all-time favorites from the class of 2015, Manny Piedra. I met him as a freshman; a charismatic, personable young man who absolutely couldn’t sit still. During our spring musical Footloose, he was an ensemble member and I remember how I practically had to tie him to his chair to get him to sit and concentrate in music rehearsal. As much as I wanted to wring his neck, I also developed an affinity for him – there was something special about this kid. I couldn’t tell you why, especially since he drove me crazy, but thankfully I had patience. He loved dancing, had some charm, attracted the other kids, and was really a respectful kid who just needed some TLC and time to grow up.

Despite his distractibility, Manny seemed to feel at home in the studio. He performed in every Thespian production, and took my dance class for three years. Of course, he loved being around all of the ladies, but he also loved moving and being creative. He was truly himself when he walked in the door, and I developed a deep respect for this young man who, despite the prevalent, yet antiquated social construct that many adolescents have that guys don’t belong in a dance studio, decided to make his mark there. He actually made a significant contribution to changing the culture in our building.

Manny was interested in everything related to dance. He was a great hip-hop artist, but he wanted to keep building layers of skills in whatever dance form he could; he proudly performed a ballet routine in one of our dance concerts. He created self-choreographed solos and performed in small group works with his friends, stretching the boundaries of what everyone understood dance to be. In his senior year, he performed a trio with two of his classmates that I choreographed to “Take Me To Church” that made me cry. Those rehearsals were amazing, because I had three really skilled dancers, including Emily Dowd (see Episode 2), so anything my brain could think of played out on stage. Whenever Manny stepped on the stage, the audience blew up. Everyone wanted to see him and his friends dance; they wanted to see what their next big idea would be.

His charismatic aura played heavily into the success of two of the biggest and most memorable productions of my career: In The Heights and West Side Story. Those projects revealed his unfaltering work ethic; once his brain locked on something he was passionate about, he poured every fiber of his being into the effort. Someday, I’ll chronicle more about those experiences, but suffice it to say, these shows are where his strength and confidence as a leader emerged.

Another epiphany about Manny when he was in high school was his talent as a visual artist. One of his passion projects was painting sneakers, then selling them (or, more often, keeping them for himself), and created a little side business. His contemporary, urban style developed early and permeated every aspect of his creative outlets. He was refreshing; he challenged my comfort zone, and gave me an opportunity to stretch myself to meet him where he was. While he was often all over the place, there was one thing he always wanted to come back to: creating something inspiring that felt connected to his soul.

For me, there was a symbiotic, two-way nature to the teaching and learning process that I don’t think he was aware of then, but as much as he may have learned from me, I learned just as much from him. Being his teacher for four years is something I am grateful for; staying connected to his evolution is a gift.

Following MANUEL’s trajectory, I am so proud of his transformation into adulthood. No longer the hyperactive adolescent, he is now a mature, mindful 20-something with a deeply philosophical perspective about who he is, where he started, and how he is moving forward on his path.

I proudly attended his first gallery show in SoHo in January 2020, clearly the least “hip” chick in the room, but I was beaming for him like his proud parents were. He is arriving, coming into his own, defining who he is and what he wants as each day passes. I could say “I knew him when,” but I’m happier to be able to say I know him now, too.

Watch the full interview here!

Follow Manuel Piedra, Jr. on his website and on Instagram @manuelpiedrajr.

2 thoughts on “Changed for the Better: the power of arts in education, episode 1

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