Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: the power of arts in education, episode 17

Sofia Poe

Sometimes, students cross your path for just a short time, but they make a big impact when they are there. I was fortunate to meet Sofia Carillo (now known as Sofia Poe – a family nickname that she held onto) in 2011 when she was a freshman, and I saw that she had a lot to offer our dance and Thespian programs. She took my ballet and modern dance classes during the school day and showed off her acting and dance chops in the fall and spring shows, taking on small roles in The Wiz and Footloose. Most notable was her fall performance as Sylvia Barrett, a newbie teacher struggling to find her way in a challenging high school classroom in “Up the Down Staircase.”

Sofia exuded a Mother-Earthiness and was always showing how she fully embraced her creative sensibilities, either in the funky earrings that she would wear (that she made from random objects she found in her house) or in the way she thought out of the box. Sadly for me, she left Spring Valley in 2013 and moved out to Illinois, gracing another school with her presence. After high school, she moved further west to California and studied Product Design Engineering at Stanford University. I remember seeing all sorts of her fun accomplishments through social media, like her flippy swing dance performances and more displays of her jewelry design skills, and I was thrilled to reconnect and catch up with her after all these years. 

Post-high school Sofia

As it so often goes, the expectations that young people face, whether from external sources or self-imposed, tend to wreak havoc on the mind of a person emerging from adolescence and facing the perennial question of “What am I going to do with the rest of my life? What does any of this mean?” Sofia was always academically gifted and socially connected, as evidenced by her Stanford acceptance and engagement in the school community, but that doesn’t mean that all the puzzle pieces fit properly.

I struggled with navigating college life and academics, so after college I spent time healing and focusing on understanding myself.

After Stanford, she spent a month in Puerto Rico with every intention of kickstarting her jewelry design business and becoming an entrepreneur. Instead, she spent that month in her bed ruminating and fretting over those looming life questions. She eventually went back home to her parents, who gave her a book about managing your quarter-life crisis, and set on a path to figure out some answers.

During the pandemic, when the world joined her in shutdown mode, she fell in love with cooking.

It was the one thing I could do during the day and all the restaurants were closed and I love eating, so I would spend eight hours a day cooking whatever I could. I just loved the energy around cooking.

She focused her attention on the exercise of menu planning, which gave her a mindful activity while the time passed. Eventually, she got a job at a brewery to make some money and to get some experience working for a small business, which was attractive to her entrepreneurial spirit. After the brewery closed, she moved to her aunt and uncle’s farm in upstate New York, which had always been a welcome respite for her whenever she was in a period of crisis. She spent that first pandemic winter there, working the farm, cooking for everyone, eating fresh vegetables, and giving her the space to reset herself. As the world started to emerge from the collective cocoon, Sofia was ready to move forward.

I finally felt like I was in a place where I was ready to get my next big job, make the full move away from family and be really on my own.

She started looking at engineering jobs, which is what she studied in college, but every job description she’d read was unappealing to her. None of it felt right; sitting in an office all day, working on business software, spreadsheets and meetings. It was not the direction Sofia wanted to pursue. Serendipitously, she came across a website called Good Food Jobs, and on the second page was the key to open the next door:

Come work on an island and learn how to be a chef and an innkeeper. I thought, ‘that sounds cool.’

A few months after applying, she was offered her next big job on Orcas Island in the Puget Sound, off the northern coast of Washington state. This was the perfect next step for Sofia; she packed up, headed to the west coast, bought a car, and started a new adventure. It was the best of all worlds, checking off all of the boxes: it satisfied her love of learning, cooking, the outdoors, and being close to a vibrant cultural and performing arts community. She now works in a learning kitchen, as a prep chef and line cook in the cafe of an historic hotel. This position gives her valuable experience in the restaurant world to help prepare her for her future aspirations to someday become a chef and small business owner.

Now that she has a foothold in this community, she is digging into everything Orcas Island has to offer. She has revived her love of dance and theater, having already performed in two shows, and taking dance classes offered there. She enjoys swimming in the many bodies of water available on the island (more on that later) and running the roads (she just completed a half-marathon!). For now, she seems settled in this new, exciting chapter in her life and is allowing herself to enjoy the way it naturally unfolds.

Reflecting on young Sofia

I remember Sofia being incredibly bright and capable, with an eager, wide-eyed approach to learning. As a performing arts teacher, she was a refreshing take on the typical adolescent, because her mind enabled her to think out-of-the-box.

She was very creative. She took every opportunity she could to figure out ‘how can I make this interesting.’ It was my main motivator. I was definitely weird. I’d make earrings out of all kids of materials that I found lying around the house and I loved matching them to my shirts so I had this Miss Frizzle kinda thing going on. I wasn’t afraid to put myself out there and be a little bit different; I really embraced that which I loved about myself.

Again, this was refreshing. So many teens are afraid to be themselves, and they hide the best parts of who they are for fear that they might be looked down upon or even condemned for it. They literally need to have permission to and also learn how, because the peer pressure and social expectation to “fit in” is so unforgiving. As much as Sofia loved who she was and was unafraid to express herself, she still struggled in high school.

She was also kind of lost. I always felt like I was missing my people or missing my home and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I struggled with that privately, even though I was excelling at school and had friends.

One thing that settled Sofia’s racing, overactive brain was doing yoga in the dance studio. The complete switch from the daily academic grind to focusing her attention inward to her mind, body and breath gave her time and space to decompress. We were practicing mindfulness before it became a buzzword. Now, she really appreciates a good Savasana at the end of her physical practices; she now calls it a California stretch. Whatever you call it, lying down and melting into the floor is good rest for the body and brain.

Having that moment made a big difference.

Another carryover from her high school studio experiences was losing your ego a little bit. She recalled a story about when she was painting the set for the musical Footloose. The crew was painting flats to look like basketball nets and she had specific ideas in her mind about what colors they should be to reflect the realism of the visual representation. She remembers that the decision had been made to go with purple, teal and pink (I have no recollection of picking those colors, but I’ll go with it.) Apparently, this made Sofia’s head quietly explode, fearing that the color combination would ruin the show. To her dismay, and despite her protests, she lost that argument and the basketball nets were painted in the unlikely colors.

Then I went to the back of the auditorium, looked at it and thought ‘it looks great! It looks perfect! It fits in with the show! It’s supposed to be this way! Their ideas can be just as valid and maybe even better than what you thought.

This was an epiphany for her; she realized that she didn’t know everything and that she could trust the creative, collaborative process, and the people in charge making the final decisions.

In that same vein was the idea that as much as she excelled in her core classes, she observed that she was not quite as gifted in the rehearsal studio as she was in her academics. Those same students who she sailed past in her other classes often sang and danced circles around her. This was an important revelation for young Sofia; she appreciated how other people can present the best versions of themselves through their different strengths.

It was a very humbling experience to recognize that we all have our own talents and skills; they’re all to be celebrated.

A quick selfie when Sofia came back to visit in 2015.

How has Sofia changed?

Moving out west to college, the biggest change was gaining independence. At Stanford, she felt the freedom to try lots of different things. It was later in college that she also took a hard look at herself and the personal issues that she had always felt, but suppressed for years. As she researched, she realized that it was likely that she had been dealing with undiagnosed ADHD throughout her life. When it seems on the surface that you are performing just fine, functioning on higher levels, producing the work that’s required, it’s easy to talk yourself out of getting support.

In high school, I struggled a lot but I always managed to skate by at a level that I didn’t think I had to address any of my issues and so I suppressed them all. In college, I couldn’t push it away anymore and it kind of exploded in my face. The papers were bigger and longer and harder. I failed a class because I couldn’t write a three-page paper.

In high school, she’d pull an all-nighter, crank out the paper and get the A. In college, that was no longer a strategy that worked. Time management, organization and sleep hygiene were all major deficits that made her feel stuck.

When she came home after college graduation, she went through an extended and necessary healing process to figure out why she felt so lost, starting with the month in Puerto Rico and extending through the pandemic year spent at her family’s upstate farm. During that time, she was able to answer so many of those questions about who she is, what she needs and what she really wants.

Now, I understand myself more. I know what environments work for me, who I want to surround myself with.

She misses being entrenched in the variety and discipline of the academic structure, having all of the possibilities ahead of her, and being able to explore every facet of knowledge in a school setting. The good news is that Orcas Island has so much to offer, including the learning opportunities of her job, which is like an adult version of the academic and cultural experience that she loved in high school. Since she figured out this new path, her self-confidence has improved immensely.

Sofia has experienced another major shift since high school:

I’ve learned to fail. In my major at Stanford, the big ethos was ‘fail early and fail often.’ It’s something they drill into you as a product designer. ‘You’ve got to make bad prototypes in order to get to the good ones.’ I just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t until I started cooking that I was like ‘aw man, this didn’t come out right’ and I was like ‘that’s okay, it’s still edible, I’ll still eat it. I’ll just try again next time.’

Suddenly, she was doing the thing that she could never do before: fail with confidence. When you are so invested in learning something, failing is just par for the course. Get up and work it out again. Now, she is applying this to everything she does, including the food prep videos that she posts on her Instagram page that make me yearn to travel to Orcas Island and eat her food.

Sage advice for kids like her

When you go through significant personal struggle and come out on the other side with some good perspective, it’s important to share. Sofia had lots to offer:

Regrets are just part of maturity. It’s painful to regret, but that’s just a sign that you’re going forward. Just lean into it. Don’t be scared to move forward because you’re worried it’s going to hurt.

Sofia also used a technique that a friend offered, for when she’s going through a hard time. If there’s no one around to lean on…

…ask for a hug from your future self. Just be like, ‘Future Sofia, I need a hug right now. I need you to tell me that things are alright, things are going good, please come and hug me.’ And then just accept that. You will eventually be in a better place where you can go back and give those hugs, so don’t be afraid to ask for that.

And yes, you then proceed to hug yourself and sit with it for as long as you need. Later, once healing has been done, you can go back, reflect on the reason why you needed the support, and do it all again. It’s the ultimate way to self-soothe, a skill with which many people struggle.

Another struggle that is real for young people is having the feeling that you are supposed to have your life choices planned out right now. That’s not a realistic expectation, nor is it possible to achieve. Our lives actually unfold over time and what we want emerges as we experience things. Sofia offers,

Forgive yourself for not knowing what you want. It’s okay to think you want something and then and then you get there and then you’re like ‘oooo this isn’t it.’ Honor whatever you can do in the present moment, keep doing that and eventually everything will follow.

There’s something very wise about this. Not knowing what you want to be when you grow up isn’t about freezing and panicking. It’s about finding the smaller things that you like and are passionate about, and doing those things to feed your soul. In time, your next steps will illuminate themselves.

In a way, her experience mirrors my own as a woman towards the end of one career and figuring out what the next steps will be. I have decided to follow the creative impulses that I have to explore new possibilities, to see what path I might follow next. There’s something exciting about it. It also cuts some of the anxiety related to not knowing what the future might bring. You can start to form your path, figure out what you want, and work to manifest that destiny.

What does Sofia grapple with now?

Wanting to do it all; all the clubs, work the job, have the social life, go out. I’m still trying to cram it all in and that’s what I struggle with most on a day-to-day basis.

This seems to be a carryover from her high school days, always wanting her hands in everything. When you have curiosity about everything, you want to explore all of those interests. She is, and always has been, a creative spirit. That’s not something that goes away with age. If anything, you want to develop it further because you have the freedom to do so. The only real caveat is time and energy.

Join the club, kid.

Sofia’s self-care

Self-care can come from unlikely places.

Once upon a time, Sofia hated running. When she moved to her new high school in Illinois, everyone ran. Her ego was challenged when she had the slowest mile run time of the lot. When the final exam for gym class was a 5k run, it was a humbling and depressing experience. However, during the pandemic, her anxiety and depression shot up, and she turned to running as a form of exercise that might help. Between that and meditation to help her sleep properly, she was running every day, using her breath to support the effort, and participating in an activity with others she loved. The pieces started to fit together. This activity also played into her philosophy of doing something hard, maybe sucking at it, and persevering through the suck.

Looking at clean-faced Sofia, you’d think that makeup had never touched her face. However, she has recently taken to experimenting with wild makeup looks, which gives her a daily dose of quick, easy creativity. It’s another mindful activity that gives her repetitive practice with something, and allows her to express herself in different ways. She used to come home from work, put on a face, and wash it off the next morning. She has since gotten bolder, taking that fun face to the store or out into the community.

Perhaps her boldest version of self-care,

I have this thing called ‘dip a day.’ I try, every day, to hop in some body of water. I go 2-3 times a week to the Puget Sound water, it’s probably around 32 degrees and I do a little cold plunge and it totally makes my day.

This activity, while it seems utterly ludicrous, is actually a great mindfulness practice. Even in January, when the air temps are below freezing, and the water temp is even colder, she follows through on her plan. Of course, most people aren’t the cold-plunge type (myself included), but there is an important lesson here: we spend more time talking ourselves out of the hard things that we really want to do. Sometimes, you just have to take the plunge.

It’s an every day reminder that as soon as my head goes below the surface I’m like ‘Ah yeah. That’s good.’

It’s so important to expand your comfort zone, even in small bites. We have a tendency to find ways to stay comfortable; the pandemic was the great enabler of that. Part of “growing up” is learning to sit in a space where you don’t have control over every variable, that pushes your buttons and still tolerate those feelings of awkwardness and instability. I hope that the stories of my former students give you some inspiration to look at your own situation and wonder “How can I stretch myself today?”

You can follow along with Sofia’s cooking and other adventures on Instagram @ilypo.

One thought on “Changed for the Better: the power of arts in education, episode 17

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.