Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: the power of arts in education, episode 15

Victorious Collymore-Bey

One of the goals that most teachers have in their career is to offer valuable lessons to kids that are lasting and will inform the rest of their lives. One of the goals of this podcast is to see what those foundational experiences are and how they have impacted my students as they transitioned into their adulthood.

In this episode, my guest is yet another graduate from that famous class of 2015 (there will be others, give it time).

Victorious Collymore-Bey came to Spring Valley High School as a sophomore. He was the new kid from out of town and was looking for a place to belong. Lucky for me, he was of the “theater ilk” and quickly found his happy place in the dance studio and with Thespians. It didn’t take long for him to get comfortable, taking dance classes, auditioning for shows and making new friends. His first foray on our stage was the Scarecrow in The Wiz, and was in both powerhouse productions of In The Heights as Sonny and West Side Story as Baby John.

Some of my powerhouse Thespians. Victor is second from the right.

Even before he walked through my door, he was a theater kid. He happened to come in at just the right time with just the right group of young people surrounding him. Despite a very challenging childhood in the foster care system, his enduring spirit and positive outlook allowed him to be open to everything my classes and activities had to offer. Very quickly, Victor opened his heart to us and gave everything he had to the program and the people in it. He so taken with the experience that he decided to continue his performing arts studies in college, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Musical Theatre with a concentration in dance at Seton Hill University.

There are several a running themes on this podcast. Victor’s current experience highlights one of them: how so often, we decide to switch gears. We make plans, we do the work, and somewhere down the line, we realize that the plans have to change. After graduating college in 2019, he decided to pursue another passion that he held dear, and pursued a graduate degree at the Pratt Institute, where he earned a Masters of Library and Information Science w/ a concentration in Archives this past May.

As of this interview, Victor was in that transitional period of trying to figure out how his passions might intersect. Another running theme of this podcast is how we are made whole by the sum of our parts. When we recognize that it is important to acknowledge the many facets of ourselves, a larger world opens up for us to consider what path we want to take next. While working on his degree, he was getting experience as a librarian for the New York Film Academy.

In that capacity, his goal is to work in archives and libraries that collect, preserve, and create materials that support both the arts and Black excellence. Of course, once a theater kid, always a theater kid; now that he has finished his degree, he also wants to return to his performing roots that he loves so much:

Trying to combine my love of libraries, books reading and helping people with my passion for the arts and being on the stage, performing and supporting that side of me. I realized that in life, there’s duality. I can be a dual person; I can have my foot in the library world and be a librarian and archivist and still perform in a show five, six times a week.

Shortly after our conversation was done, Victor landed a position at the New York Public Library as the Reference Librarian at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The mother ship called him home. One piece of the puzzle was solved.

Young Victor

Back in high school, Victor was quietly processing his identity as a Black, gay young man. This intersection created real insecurities in himself:

I’m a proud gay man now, but that wasn’t always the case. When I was in high school, I was very much in the closet, shy and unsure about who Victor is supposed to be and who Victor actually is.

That caused him to stay silent for things that he would otherwise speak up about now. He saw himself as the “emotional support blanket” for his different friend groups, and dealt with what he describes as “middle child syndrome,” always being in the middle of the people he cared most about. To make things more complicated, he also spent years navigating the foster care system.

Adolescent Victor was trying to find his place in the world. If the world is a big puzzle piece, he was always missing one part from the end corner, one part from the middle, one part from the side. He was trying to fill in those gaps and figure out ‘here I am, who actually am I? Who do I want to be and what can I do to live authentically as myself without being ashamed?’

He understood that the negative opinions and words of other people did not matter, but they were often still hurtful. He knew he had to build his confidence and figure out where he belonged.

Despite his very challenging life, I always saw Victor as eternally optimistic, cheerful and hopeful. I did sense his observation of his environment, evaluating what he could trust and what he had to guard himself from, but it did not get in the way of him pursuing the things that he loved. With that first Spring Valley musical audition under his belt, gregarious Victor found his home base in high school. Apparently, I had told him that he “had the moves” in the dance audition, the rest of the group, strangers, cheered and applauded for him. From that point on, he knew he was safe to explore more of what he had to offer, and not have to change who he was or how he expressed himself. In the studio, he could just be unabashedly Victor.

He appreciated everything about the creative process in the studio. Apparently, my “tough love” approach was well-received when it came to responsibilities like time management, preparation, interpersonal relations, communication and keeping your life together. Being trusted by an adult to participate in the collaborative process enabled him to use his voice to provide valuable feedback that helped drive the creative process. Those lessons stuck with him and helped to inform his college studies and beyond.

What also stuck was something even more valuable as a human being.

This can be translated a bunch of different ways, but [I learned] to not let myself succumb to the thoughts in my head; to not psych myself out before I’ve even attempted to do it.

Adolescents are so often plagued by rumination. I spend a lot of time trying to distract them away from their own damaging thoughts (Look! Squirrel!) so they can go forth into uncharted territory and discover new things about themselves. It’s nice to know that effort actually helps.

Victorious now

Now that he’s all grown up, Victor is brimming with confidence, independence and pride. He knows who he is and what he has to offer the world. Maturity has helped him become more level-headed, and the polarizing factors in his personality are now more in balance. Having found his voice, he is not afraid to speak his mind, and has realized that he needs to make decisions that he can live with, rather than choosing things that will make other people happy. He is following the path that he thinks will lead him to his best life, and is doing the work to set himself up for a stable, successful future.

If he could go back and counsel his younger self, he’d say,

One, don’t listen to the people around you, listen to your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, or you don’t want to do something, or if something is off in your gut, just listen to it because nine times out of ten your gut is right. It’s going to clue you in on the things you are uncomfortable with.

Two, cherish your time in high school. You’re never going to be that young again. You’re never going to have that much fun. Enjoy not having to pay any bills and worry about the rest of your life.

As far as his life and career go, Victor feels like he is on the right track. He’s paying his bills, is not struggling with financials and has made peace with his past. The only missing piece? Love. I’m just looking for someone to share my life with. I’m a hopeless romantic. He’s now looking forward to meeting the love of his life, making a family and reaping the benefits of all of his hard work. I’ll play a little Yente the matchmaker here: I can say with certainty, Victor is an excellent catch.

Then and now

Victor misses that unabashed exploration of himself that adolescence offered.

High school was very enlightening for me; I did track, show both inside and outside of high school, I worked as a library volunteer. The ‘firsts’ of high school I miss; my first dance, first kiss – all those experiences that are so fresh and so new and raw.

I’ve heard that a lot in this podcast. Adolescents definitely do not have that hindsight perspective of ‘enjoy it while you have it.’ Of course, why should they? Everything that is happening to them is so intense, it’s hard to have any sort of life perspective, but I try to remind them once in a while to slow down, take a breath and try to enjoy the ride – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Victor captured the adolescent perspective of new experiences beautifully:

It seems like the world to you in high school, ’cause that is your world; I miss having a smaller world view, not knowing what’s going on in the Middle East or having to worry about politics.

One thing Victor was happy to report was that since he became an adult, the terrible acne he suffered throughout his adolescence has since cleared up. More importantly, he talked about the value of his friendships, which have strengthened and flourished since they started in high school:

They have become such an integral part of who I am; 95% of those friendships started in your studio. Whenever I talk to someone who I did a show with in 2012 that I haven’t talked with in five years – I can talk to them and it’s like we’re starting up a conversation that we left off last night.

These lifelong friendships keep getting better with time. He credits the time in the studio, where they all had the latitude to be their authentic selves, for the existence of those valuable relationships. That’s the feedback that an educator wants most to hear. It’s a validation that when your values are reflected back to you from so many people over time, you must be doing something right.

Sage advice

Victor had many, many wise words to share for high school students.

  • Listen to your gut. It’s always going to tell you the things that you’re not listening to.
  • Enjoy your time in high school. Don’t be an adult, be a high school student. Live in your moment because this is as young as you’re ever going to be. This is the only time when you are going to be around all those people at the same time.
  • Find your people and stick with your people. Find those people who are going to say ‘I don’t care what you are; you as a person is enough.’ They’re going to love you and cherish you because you are a human being and you are worthy of being on this planet. There are people out there who are going through and thinking about the same things and you are not alone. Those people are going to be community later on in life.

Finally, something everyone needs to hear: It gets better.

Self care

Victor is very much a homebody and cherishes being surrounded by his home space. These are the ways he restores himself:

I leave work at work. Making sure you have a good work-life balance; once I get home, TV, bed – I’m relaxing. I eat – that’s very therapeutic to me. Keeping a clean house and making sure that your house is your peace. There are so many things you cannot control once you’re outside, that coming home to a place where you know that your bathroom is clean or your favorite scent is going to waft through your nose. That stuff is comforting and will permeate through every single part of your adult life. Invest in your home so your home can be your peace. If my home is out of order, I won’t be in order.

As Kayla Tavares reminded us in Episode 9, “protect your peace.”

What a joy it is to sit and reflect with people who you once spent so much time with. The wisdom they carry from the lessons they learned is so valuable.

I have so much gratitude to have crossed paths with people like Victor, who have so eloquently shared things that those that need a boost the most can benefit from. From coming to terms with who you are, to expressing your identity, to finding the path that leads to your independence and happiness, these conversations are a treasure trove.

Click below to watch our whole interview on YouTube!!

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