Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: episode 29

Jessica Butler

La Presidenta is in the house! This tiny force of nature was a Thespian staple. She had taken notice of our drama club in middle school when she came to see 42nd Street. In that moment, she made a decision: by the time her senior year rolled around, she would be our troupe leader.

Challenge accepted.

She joined as soon as she stepped foot into our building in the fall of her freshman year, taking an understudy responsibility in Rumors and being a tap-dancing cowboy in Crazy for You with Alex Domini (episode 20) and Elya Shavrova (episode 24). I saw her potential as an engaged and exuberant participant, so I appointed her to the apprentice board, Caps and Bells, to see how she took to a leadership position. It was like I unlocked the candy store and let the kid run free. Sometimes, you have to open the door for a young person to realize the full extent of their their potential.

From that point forward, she continued to rack up experience onstage and off, acting in principal roles in our fall shows, ensemble roles in the musicals, and taking the dual role of actor and assistant director in the fall of her senior year. From the students’ perspective, Jessica was the boss Thespians, making sure everything we did ran smoothly. When you know you have a reliable student who can handle responsibility, you have to show them just how capable they are and then let them follow that path. To her, it sometimes may have felt like it was more than she could handle, but in the end, she always proved me right. Oh, and of course, she did all that as the Executive Board President of Thespian Troupe 721. It was her destiny to fulfill and she did it with pride and joy.

After she graduated in 2011, she passed the torch to Tendrina Alexandre (episode TEN), and headed out to New Paltz, where she started on an education track. After realizing that education felt more limiting than she had expected, she wanted to go for more “broad strokes,” earning a BA in Interpersonal and Intercultural Communications, with a double-minor in Linguistics and Black Studies in 2015.

Meet adult Jessica

Jessica’s modus operandi was always about making a difference in people’s lives and the systems in which they operate. True to form, her first job after graduation was with a healthcare architecture firm. She was hired as a project clerk: They joked that they wanted me because I was better at powerpoint than any of the higher level people there.

Five years later, she had worked her way up to studio project administrator for over 60 people and then stepped in to the role of office manager, when the woman who was on maternity leave didn’t return. Jessica has always worked to add value to her community, and whether as a leader of her Thespian troupe or in the professional workplace, she makes it her business to pay attention and learn what needs to be done so the organization can thrive. To be honest, it doesn’t take long to appreciate the value she brings to the table.

About a year ago, she took another step forward in her career and accepted a position as project coordinator (one that she originated) at M Moser, a workplace design firm. The company’s mission is to design and deliver workplace environments that bring out the best in people. The fact that the business is so people-centered resonates deeply with Jessica. She loves her co-workers’ passion for creating spaces where people can spend their day being comfortable and inspired to do their best. She loves the collective passion for meeting the needs of clients and engage with them after the job is done to reflect on what they did well and what they can continue to improve.

As Jessica explained her work experience so far, I kept thinking how it all tracked with what I know about her. From her high school years, starting out at the bottom, she set her sights on rising to the top of the heap, using her passionate drive and immense capabilities for working for the good of her community. This is who she is at her core; someone who puts her energies into creating and maintaining an environment in which she can be proud to operate. What’s interesting to me is despite how engaged, focused and capable she has always been, Jessica tends to feel somewhat insecure in her place.

It’s something I’m still learning to accept. It’s very strange for me to enter a new space and then be trusted with a) responsibility and b) the thought that I know what I’m doing because to this day, I never feel like I know what I’m doing.

Join the club, Jess. It’s called imposter syndrome and we discuss this often on the podcast. Look at episode 25: Chizi Duru for an example. It’s so prevalent amongst high-achievers (particularly female) that I posted a meditation on my other podcast A Moment of Mindful Meditation. The good news is that despite the self-doubt that leaks into her consciousness, Jessica has been blessed with strong female mentors who bolster her confidence and who take interest in helping her to prove to herself and everyone else just how effective she is in the workplace.

Let’s take a look back to her the time when I received the benefit of Jessica’s passion and drive.

Who was Jessica in high school?

In her adolescence, Jessica was quite the busybody. It always seemed like she was balancing 10 different things, and she was, especially in her senior year when she was President of Thespians and Reality Check, going for her Gold Award in Girl Scouts, working at a horse farm, volunteering for Penguin Repertory (a local theater) and applying to colleges, all while keeping up with her high academic standards. It was certainly a “burn the candle at both ends” situation, but she seemed driven by all of that activity. More on the effects of that later.

Jessica remembers being so overly concerned with bringing value and pleasing the people around her in every way. Part of that perseverant drive was a need for distraction from her home life, as her family was enduring a long, drawn-out divorce, and she was an only child.

When you’re in that unstable situation, everything around you is changing. The only positive reinforcement you’re getting is when you’re doing things well; when you’re bringing home A’s, killing it at Girl Scouts, working at a horse farm. That’s when you get the positive attention and the acknowledgement that you’re doing okay. Then, you tend to dive into that and make it everything.

I have become very mindful about kids like Jessica in school. They walk in, desperate to set aside the difficulties at home. It’s not easy, since it takes up so much of their mental space. My job is to remind them to allow themselves to do just that, take up an activity in which they can find success, and capitalize on the work they do. At the very least, it can provide a good distraction for a while. At best, kids can discover all sorts of hidden talents in themselves, share it with peers and adults in their community, and celebrate that every day. Often, it is these kids who prove to be the most effective leaders.

Jessica was exactly the kind of individual who I needed to lead the organization. Often, I can see a kid like her coming. From their freshman year, they are latched on to everything we do, wide-eyed and seeking any kind of experience that will fulfill their deep-seated interests. She had a collaborative disposition, a cool demeanor, and wasn’t afraid to learn something new. In the chaos of her adolescence, I also saw the fortification of her resolve to be a leader as she worked on each production.

When she was elected Thespian President, she suddenly became the go-to information source for students. She remembers how kids would come to her with questions about auditions or crew meetings, some of whom had in the past been less than kind to her in school. In that moment, she understood her role:

Okay, you can’t be Jessica, you have to be the President. This is a place that’s welcoming for everybody; it’s not on you to ‘gatekeeper’, make anyone feel anything less than welcome.

She knew that part of her responsibility was to create the best space where people were valued and could be comfortable. Despite whatever difficult feelings she might have had about personal interactions in the past, she knew how to separate that from the title she held and took very seriously. She understood that her job was to lead an organization that was much bigger than herself.

What helped La Presidenta to stay centered?

The routine and set expectations of Thespians provided a grounding force for Jessica. After school, she always knew where she was going and what she was doing. There was always an activity happening, either in the rehearsal studio, in the auditorium with crew or in the Guidance office where our Producer took care of the business end of things.

There were so many aspects that there was a space for anyone at any time. It was so hard to find a place where it felt like I belonged and where just showing up was enough for you to be welcomed into something. You didn’t have to come in with exceptional skill; all you had to come in with was a willingness to learn, listen, and be respectful of those around you. That’s not a ground-level expectation that’s found in many places.

On top of that, she felt valued for that willingness to step up and take advantage of the myriad opportunities available. The same mentorship she spoke of in her workplace was originally modeled by the upper-class students early in her high school career. Being embraced and nurtured by the peers she viewed as successful leaders as a young adolescent, she started to understand her own potential through a breadth of experience. If she didn’t know something, she could learn it by doing and by leaning on the support of the students she looked up to. As President, she became the mentor, paying those lessons forward to the newbies so that when she graduated, the troupe would be thriving for the future generations.

Important lessons learned in Thespians

Figure it out

“Figure it out” is probably the phrase I use most in my work with Thespians. Every day, we are creating something that didn’t exist before. We brainstorm, problem-solve and do the hard work to accomplish the task. How do you make fire out of paper? How do you costume a show with the limited resources? How do you transfer blocking from the studio to a cramped stage? How do you make some money to support the show? Students learn to dive in, share their voice, and collaborate to make the best use of the available resources.

One of the things I loved was that there was no ego. Best idea wins, and you always had a voice. If one idea didn’t work, the floor was open to figure out something else.

Embrace your ability

Theater is fluid, unpredictable, and requires an open mind to keep things moving forward. This is the magic of theater: if there’s a great idea that works, POOF! Success! Everybody wins. When a student is the source of that idea, they receive a powerful confidence boost as they discover their own autonomy. They are capable of figuring something out and contributing their genius to the collective good. Jessica was full of those genius ideas and learned that sharing them was a source of strength and support for the entire group. By embracing her own ability, she could contribute, in real time, to molding Thespians into the space where she felt most comfortable.

Things adult Jessica now understands

In high school, Jessica thought she knew exactly who she was and what she was going to do with her life. She had planned out her future path and set the expectation that this is what she would follow. As the years passed, her actual path in life was a different and, according to Jessica, much better. Exploring this new territory after high school, she gained some wisdom that she sees very clearly now.

You can’t pour from an empty cup, you can’t burn yourself out for the sake of those around you, and it’s going to be okay if you’re not always on. High school students, particularly the high-achievers, think that in order to live up to expectations, they must be “on” and available all of the time. Adolescent Jessica fell into this trap, which led to a burnout period in her senior year where she couldn’t get herself out of bed. Adult Jessica is working to find a better balance between bringing her best self forward and making herself too available.

I’m much more comfortable in accepting that I can’t do everything. In high school, Jessica was the welcome wagon, open to everyone and everything. She enjoyed the fun and freedom of exploring every opportunity that was available and she found the time and energy to pour herself into those activities. Now, to avoid burnout, she has just a few hand-picked social activities that she enjoys; book club, the farmer’s market – these activities feed her interests, and give her a social experience outside of work, but she is able to control how much of herself she gives away.

It feels so good to accept that this is where I am right now, I don’t have a crystal ball, and where I’m going to be tomorrow and five years from now is exactly where I need to be then. College was a big part of her adult metamorphosis. Growing up in a town where she knew everyone and was so familiar and comfortable with her surroundings, leaving for college was a culture shock. She didn’t have the loving embrace of her friends nor the routines that she followed for so many years. Forced to make new patterns and foster new relationships, she had to open her mind and allow different thought patterns to cross her mind, which often contradicted the narrow expectations she had previously set for herself.

There’s so much that you can’t do anything about. You can’t control the storm that’s outside, you’ve gotta control what’s going on inside. She still grapples with accepting things that she can’t control; adolescence and the pandemic were some great challenges to her ability to find that acceptance, but knowing that we can’t do much about the world around us means that all we can do is stay mindful of what’s happening in our own mental and emotional sphere.

Just because someone doesn’t see things the same way that you do doesn’t make them a bad person. It just means that you’re coming from a different place and you have different lived experiences, and you’ve formed different opinions based on the knowledge that you have. This is a big lesson that Jessica has learned in recent years. It’s an inherently difficult concept to grasp for so many people, especially in light of the polarizing socio-political climate in which we exist, and requires a maturity and patience that many struggle to possess. Jessica believes in the art of conversation to develop better understanding so that people can coexist peacefully. She has grown beyond her former black and white/right and wrong outlook and now sees the world in shades of grey, and living with being slightly uncomfortable in the realm of public opinion.

In the end, if she could go back and have a heart to heart with her teenage self, she’d say this:

It’s okay to ask for help. You don’t have to have all of the answers all of the time. We are human, we are not machines. It is okay to recognize when you need a little bit more support, love, time or space. If you can recognize what you need, and take the time to give it to yourself, then you’re going to be able to give back so much more.

Some more sage advice for teenagers

There are a few more words of wisdom that Jessica offered to help young adults in their most challenging years:

  • This too shall pass. Whatever you’re feeling in the moment, it’s temporary, it’s going to pass and you’re going to be okay.
  • Don’t knock it ’till you try it. I think it’s more important to try things if you have any inkling of interest in them because that’s the kind of stuff that you’re going to be questioning later on down the road. You’re not going to remember feeling like a fool for trying [new things]. What is likely to happen is you’re going to be in your late 20s and someone is going to be bringing stuff up and you’re like ‘man I had the option to do that and I didn’t.’

Self-care strategies

Jessica is ever-so aware that she must periodically take self-care breaks in order to avoid the need to completely shut herself down. She makes sure there is enough “me time” where there is no expectation to “be on” for others. Rituals like reading on her balcony before her morning commute, lighting a candle when she gets home and focusing on the soft flame and perfumed air all help to provide warmth and calm to her day. They help her to stay cognizant of her feelings as she grapples with acknowledging the things that are in and out of her control.

  • I am a total list person. She has a book of lists that is color-coded for each aspect of her life. She revels in the act of crossing out a task completed. It makes her feel organized, accomplished and is tangible proof that she has done something. When all of the tasks are crossed out, she enjoys the catharsis of ripping the page out of the book. I can just hear the rip now. Ahhhhh.
  • Being connected to nature. Growing up in Rockland, it was easy to breathe fresh air and enjoy the outdoors – there are trees and parks everywhere. When she lived in Harlem for a bit, that was not as accessible to her. Now, she lives in Jersey City, with a balcony to read on and a backyard where she can enjoy being outside again.

Having these conversations is like drinking a cup of hot chocolate. They are sweet, warm the soul, and fill me up in a way nothing else can. I am so grateful to hear how the experiences my former students had in my classroom were so special to them, and that they received powerful lessons and connections when they needed it most.

Click the link below to watch the full conversation between Jessica and I – she has so much more wisdom to share!

One thought on “Changed for the Better: episode 29

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