Blog · Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: the power of arts in education, episode 11

Hilary Becker-Jarusinsky

Growing a leader requires an infusion of trust in a young person and giving them the support it takes to help them trust themselves. Becoming a leader requires taking that trust and further developing it yourself.

This episode goes waaaaaay back. This week, I had an amazing conversation with Hilary Becker-Jarusinsky, who has the distinction of being the first freshman to ever be cast in one my my Thespian musicals (Crazy for You, 2000). When I first started teaching at Spring Valley High School, the building only housed kids from 10th through 12th grade. In 1999, we welcomed our first freshman class. Four years later, Hilary was walking in her cap and gown with the class of 2003.

A little side note: back in her high school days, we didn’t have the dance studio; that went into service in 2005. Early in my career, dance classes were held in the gym, beside the partition wall that separated us from raucous basketball or volleyball games. Play rehearsals were held either on the stage or in music rooms. It was a different time then, but we did our jobs the best we could and had a great experience nonetheless.

I’ve had the pleasure of observing many facets of Hilary’s evolution into adulthood. Back in the day, when she was an adolescent dance diva, she was one of the students who helped me to build the strong foundation of dancers that Spring Valley High School eventually became known for. It was kids like her, who took dance very seriously, that helped to create the mold for future classes to fill year after year.

In her tenure with Thespians, she was one of my early dance captains for her upperclassmen shows: Anything Goes and Kiss Me Kate. This was a notable step in her role as a leader, because for many years after high school and college, Hilary continued to take my tap classes in a private studio, occasionally subbing for me when necessary, and eventually taught classes of her own.

Now, Hilary is married and working as a video producer at a New York advertising agency, and she has put her hefty leadership and organizational skills to good use, leading her own production teams. You know those commercials touting different medications? Yup – her hands were likely on those.

Who is Hilary?

She describes herself as an “introverted extrovert” who makes friends easily and enjoys being social, but in order to come out of her shell, she must feel comfortable. Like most adolescents, she definitely felt a sense of insecurity in high school. Where she felt most secure, most at home, was in dance class and musical rehearsals. Before she entered high school, she had many years of private dance training under her belt, so as a freshman, she was quite a valuable asset to me from the get-go. Little did I know just how far past high school that would extend.

Hilary reflected a bit on the insecurity piece:

I grew up dancing and by the time I was in high school I was in all of the advanced classes, with other peers who were better dancers that I was; they were also the ‘ideal dancer body type’ which I was not. Being in the [Spring Valley] studio and being able to excel and be one of the ‘better dancers’ actually helped me grow very confident because I wasn’t getting that in [private] dance class.

In the private setting, she was much more aware of what her limitations were; in the high school setting, the focus was more on what she could do. She felt more valued in her high school dance classes and play rehearsals.

Hilary was not wrong in her perceptions about her value in school; because she brought years of training to the table, I relied heavily on Hilary’s expertise, performance abilities and steel-trap memory over the years. Even long after she graduated high school, we stayed connected in the private setting. I was teaching tap in a private studio and Hilary came back as an adult to keep dancing.

Being part of Thespians in general taught me, being one of the ‘relied upon dancers’ gave me the confidence to actually perform too. That also resonated through college. A lot of 20-somethings probably would have been intimidated going into a class with a bunch of teenagers, and I just didn’t care.

Eventually, I was able to lean on her if I needed an occasional sub, and from there she eventually led her own classes. It’s funny – most teachers don’t get to see the fruits of their labors; I love that I was part of her evolution from insecure adolescent to a confident educator.

To be honest, having Hilary as a part of my dance classes was a gift. She provided a model for all students involved: if you love dance, it doesn’t matter what your background is, what you look like or where you came from. If you work hard and give of yourself unabashedly, you fit right in.

Lessons Learned

The lessons Hilary learned were rooted in guardianship and leadership. She learned, first through the eyes of others, how to motivate, inspire and encourage. From those models, she absorbed the best offerings from her elder peers and stepped into those roles for others.

Pay it forward. As the only freshman in her first high school show, the seniors took her under their wing and created a protective shield for her to grow into herself; Mess with Hilary and you mess with me. She learned to do that for the subsequent incoming classes and give them that same loving tutelage and guidance.

Trust yourself. Apparently, I gave Hilary a lot of what I would call “little responsibilities”: try choreographing four counts of eight; teach Trang how to be “cute” (she didn’t have to do much – Trang was already “cute”). To an adolescent, those “little responsibilities” are momentous. For a kid who is insecure, unsure of themselves, they are a test – can they envision themselves rising to the occasion, believe in themselves and follow through? For Hilary, the answer was a resounding yes.

It was so beneficial, as an insecure teenager who was trying to find out who she was, to know there was an adult that trusted me. And I didn’t know it at the time, but it also paved the way for me to learn how to teach. It was the start of me knowing that I could do it.

LESSON TO TEACHERS FOR GROWING A LEADER: It was those experiences that enabled her to build her confidence in herself so she could see herself as a leader. To be honest, I’m sure that when I gave her those tidbits, I was short on time, ideas, energy, whatever, and I was hoping I could employ a student to help generate some content. Now, I make it a habit to throw some responsibility to my kids with some leadership potential to see if they can handle an opportunity to take a little load off of my shoulders. If they follow through, not only do they get a great learning opportunity and confidence boost, but I get to work collaboratively with someone who has some other good ideas. For creative people, that’s a win-win situation.

A quick personal story: when I was in high school, my senior musical was a show called “High Spirits” based on a play by Noel Coward. NO ONE had ever heard of it. I can’t remember the exact situation (I think the director had a drinking problem, to be honest), but I was appointed the student assistant to the director. I figured I’d take down blocking, rehearse some scenes once they were set, and assist. Turns out, the director was, quite literally, never there; I wound up blocking and rehearsing the entire show. If it hadn’t been for that strange and unlikely opportunity, I may never have had the courage to go down the path to take other directing opportunities.

Those experiences change kids forever, for the better. As a teacher now, I realize that if those early opportunities were valuable for me, then they would most certainly be valuable to my students. They could learn to rely on themselves and apply their gifts – organizational skills, creativity, leadership, ingenuity – and build the confidence to take a leap and make an even more valuable contribution to the project. While I’d never abandon a kid (I’d be fired for that today), I will give them a task that makes their eyes bug out and say “ME???” Yes you. Be quiet and get to work.

In one sense, that sometimes feels like a “throw ’em to the wolves and hope for the best” sort of venture. The reality is, that’s called “growing a leader.” Kids need challenges so they can learn to rise to an occasion and show what they’re made of. Teachers hold the key to open new doors of opportunity for their students and give them a shove. Arts educators have the added benefit of tapping into the things kids discover they feel most passionate about and give them a stage upon which they can show their stuff. There, the spotlight illuminates their true abilities both to an audience and to themselves.

How has Hilary changed since high school?

Now, Hilary proudly proclaims she is 100% confident. I know who I am and I don’t really care if you like me or don’t like me. This is who I am as a person. She says that this is a huge shift from her more insecure younger self. She did have a good experience in high school, but if she could go back and whisper into young Hilary’s ear, she would remind her that it gets better; sometimes high school was rough. Once she got to college and beyond, the things that troubled her just didn’t matter anymore. Knowing that may have made for a less stressful experience for her.

Despite the dramatic nature of adolescence, there is a piece of her that misses the innocence of high school Hilary. Unlike today’s teens, whose intake of the greater world is made intensely immediate with the accessibility of social media, Hilary’s world view was, thankfully, much smaller and simpler. In that respect, she’s grateful and misses that version of her younger self.

Another shift: now that she has grown into herself as an adult, I don’t put up with a lot of BS. She has found comfort with her authoritative voice and can easily stand up for herself when she finds something that is unjust, unkind, or doesn’t serve her. When that happens, she now knows it’s time to move on.

What does Hilary grapple with now?

The pandemic was rough from a mental perspective; for the last six months, I’ve been trying to figure out who I was as a person. A lot of the things I used to love I wasn’t doing, I wasn’t seeing people. I’ve been struggling to redefine who I am or re-find myself again.

Pandemic aside, this is not an unusual challenge. Most people, as they get older, find that they come to different crossroads in their lives. Their perception of themselves shifts, their interests change, relationships play a factor in all of that; how we look at our lives is not at all static. We ask ourselves “who am I now?” as we move into different phases in our lives.

Sometimes, that struggle is real.

Pandemic living forced everyone, in our isolation from the rest of the world, to take a close look at who we were, what we want to do and evaluate whether or not we were actually getting to do those things. For many people, there was a lot of re-evaluation of the self that happened in that process. For the extroverted part of Hilary, isolation proved to be an extra challenge, because she wasn’t able to do most of the things that soothed her soul.

Hilary’s self-care stuff

Now that we are crawling back to “normal” activity, Hilary has finally started to participate in those social and creative things that had to be set aside for two years. Reading has always been a restorative activity for her, but it couldn’t make up for the other things, like painting ceramics or seeing friends, that calm and settle her busy brain, distracting her from the stresses of life.

Paramount to everything else, the self-care ritual that brings her to her “happy place” is dancing in a studio. After the tap dance teaching opportunities dried up (mostly for COVID-related reasons), she felt a void in her bucket-filling capabilities. Last fall, as the pandemic restrictions eased, she started looking for a fresh start. She discovered a local adult dance troupe called Spotlight Dance Ensemble and auditioned for the company. She got in, and will be performing this month in her first recital in many years.

Like so many others before and since, Hilary recognized early on how important movement is to her physical and mental health and keeps herself in the world of dance as much as possible. She finally recognizes that part of herself that she felt had been lost and welcomes back that version of herself with open arms.

Sage advice

You don’t have to have it all figured out by the time you graduate. You have time to figure it out. Explore what makes you happy. You’re allowed to change your mind; the plan can change.

She shared a little story: of all the students in her college film and video program, she is the only one who is currently working in the industry. Things change, people change, and they are all okay and happy now in their respective career paths. I have talked about this so many times with my students. I’m glad they might hear it from someone else this time.

Out of all these incredible conversations, several running themes have cropped up. From one guest to the next, they shared exactly how their time spent participating in performing arts activities had truly changed them for the better. I was inspired to write a separate post called the value of arts in education. Check it out when you can.

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