Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: Episode 33

Melissa Denizard

Sometimes, in your teaching career, you cross paths with a superhero. These are the kids with an activist spirit, aware of the inequities of the world, and somehow possess the energy and drive to try to do something about it.

Melissa Denizard was one of those rare teenagers that, despite the constant uphill battles she faced, she was determined to make her voice heard. In school, she found as many outlets as possible to exercise her vocal chops: Thespians (of course), Forensics, Captain of the Color Guard of the Marching Band, President of the NAACP Club, President of her sophomore and senior class, President of her own club called Ladies of Light, and the lead organizer of StrongER Students, which organized a rally that helped the district win a $3 million grant to restore arts and music and full-day kindergarten in the district for three consecutive years.

Like I said: she’s a superhero. Dare I say, a divine gift.

She made her creative mark in many ways as well. In Thespians, she tackled huge shows like West Side Story and Aida. In her senior year she ascended to portray Billie Bendix in Nice Work If You Can Get It, where she crooned Gershwin standards like a pro. We also collaborated through Dance Club; she wrote and performed a spoken word prose called Where Angels Fear to Tread beside the dancers who created a movement piece interpreting her work. The result was a powerful social commentary on the state of racial injustice at the time, long before we knew the names of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

This is the performance of Where Angels Fear to Tread from our 2016 dance concert.
I was so proud of these kids, bringing Melissa’s vision to life.

Alas, as is always the case, our brightest lights must shine elsewhere, and after graduating in 2017, she moved on to college to study entrepreneurship and graduated in the middle of the pandemic with a Bachelors of Science in Business Administration. She now works as a social media manager for a Black-owned company called Somewhere Good.

Since she apparently doesn’t like down time, and she still loves getting her voice out there, she has been feeding her dreams of becoming a star. In 2021, her alter-ego known as MELLY was born (our interview marked MELLY’s first birthday), and is building her own multidisciplinary music empire that glamourizes the cultural worker, and explores the same social justice values she embraced as a teenager, unapologetically smashing the boundaries of art and the status quo.

Her connection to her hometown is still strong and her work though the years has not gone unnoticed. On December 10, Melissa was honored by the Spring Valley chapter of the NAACP with the Leader of Tomorrow Award.

Who is Melissa?

In her formative years, Melissa Denizard led a chameleon’s life. Born in Haiti, she was brought to the US as a child and placed in mainstream classes where she learned English at an accelerated pace by reading books and watching Dora the Explorer. Ever the people pleaser, she worked hard to make people happy and had trouble accepting praise and compliments because she never felt like she offered enough. Her modus operandi was always to downplay her achievements, rather than celebrate them.

We grew up in such a desperate environment, so it felt like if I was being complimented, it was being taken away from somebody else, and I didn’t want that to happen.

When you bridge two different worlds like Melissa did, praise is confusing. At school, her motivation and achievements eclipsed her peers by a great magnitude. Her home life provided a very different set of emotional feedback. Home, to her, was a place to be ashamed of; a small one-bedroom apartment for her family.

When I went to college, that was the first time ever having my own bed.

That dissonance in her dual-lived experience made her feel like she needed to be exceptional in the outside world in order to escape the feeling of being trapped at home. She did not ever want her future to be limited by force of circumstance or environment.

Music, theater and activism provided a platform for Melissa to ultimately design her escape. Being seen and heard in high school fed her childhood desires to perform, perchance become a star; she even practiced award acceptance speeches in her mirror. However, Melissa couldn’t ever see herself as deserving of the spotlight. You’re not good enough, so don’t even try was set on repeat in her brain.

I was so opposed to being vulnerable that I just became this shell, protecting my spirit from ever being hurt.

After college, Melissa found herself in the throes of uncertainty, stemming both from the pandemic and from a nagging questioning of who she had been up until that point. In that period of time, she faced an identity crisis (as many young 20-somethings do), searching for the person she wanted to be. I remember young Melissa: as powerful a force as she was, she was also very uncertain of herself. Working with kids like her, you pray that they find it in themselves to own their power. It seemed everyone saw it but her. The post-college pandemic gave her the space to explore and transform herself in ways that eventually helped her to explode out of the box.

Turning to music was part of that transformation. She moved to Houston for a short time, created music, made a music video, and has been riding the wave ever since.

I think a lot of things just worked out and I ended up pursuing music seriously. Since then, life has been unfolding in a really beautiful way. Now, I’m a music artist. I get to create new worlds on screen, create the art of the future, speak to the times that we’re in, and illuminate new ways of being.

Being vulnerable

The exercise of looking back was a challenge for Melissa. There were so many parts of her young experience that she made a point to set them aside, too painful to dredge up. Always a forward-thinking person, Melissa had trouble connecting to the girl she once was. I had asked her what she missed about her younger self; she thought for a moment and then replied, would it be bad if I didn’t say anything? That’s her protective instinct talking. Being vulnerable can be painful, but she did have this to offer:

My younger self, in a lot of ways, is reflected in my older self. She’s very ambitious, dreamy, in a lot of ways uncompromising. I’m still very determined and I owe a lot of that to my younger self. But I also think my younger self was very controlled, rigid and very vulnerable. A lot of the things that I was advocating against, they were not only outside of me, they were things that I was experiencing on an every day basis.

Today, Melissa’s work in music and social justice is focused on bringing light to the people who are most marginalized. She delves deeper into the ugly, the things that people don’t want to look at or acknowledge. Her mission is to create art that illuminates the unseen people, those cast aside, to hopefully bring awareness and shape how we think about the future. That all started back in Spring Valley High School.

When you’re a black person, you exist at the bottom of society. Every bad thing, you have more potential of experiencing it. If you add additional identities onto that, a woman and black, queer and black, then there is a bottom to the bottom. I grew up in the bottom of the bottom. I knew so many people who were experiencing the same reality. It’s that level of struggle that shapes my perspective now.

She is now in a place where she feels truly free to live, to express, to inhabit her power. She is also hyper-aware of how her past traumas color her full embrace of her current self. There’s a silent threat that at some point, it might all go away and the ugliness of life that she once experienced will once again become her reality.

When you start feeling like it can be taken away from you, you start to act from a place of lack. As great as my life has been going, I don’t think I’ve had a chance to fully appreciate it because in my head I’m like ‘I need to keep working.’

Living with layers of Trauma makes for an insidiously difficult existence. Dealing with it requires vulnerability that most people don’t have the courage to embrace. Melissa’s drive was informed primarily by her Trauma, in an attempt to dodge the next landmine that she might step on. Now, part of her healing is about getting in touch with her whole self, tolerating vulnerability, and practicing discernment as to when and how she shares that delicate piece of herself.

How the arts helped Melissa manage herself at the most fragile time

Being in the rehearsal studio gave Melissa the framework to create without limitation.

For the first time, I had a space to just be. Even though I had limitations within myself of how vulnerable I wanted to be with my dance movements or how open to be in front of a crowd, just being able to see what black kids were able to do with music and movement; I think that changed so much for me.

In a lot of ways, for a lot of people, Thespians and your studio really became a home for a lot of us who felt undesirable in some way to the world.

Those words have so much impact for me. I am grateful for her reflection on how special her time was in the studio, and how that’s exactly I want kids to feel when they step into the space. At the same time, the fact that some of my students are so frayed and damaged by their personal Traumas that they need the safety of the studio to escape from their realities, albeit temporarily, is a painful truth to absorb. The fact that I see them in a completely different way from others in their outside circle is jarring, disturbing and frustrating. If I can make any positive impact in their lives to help empower them to rise out of their tribulations, I am committed to doing so.

Whatever’s happening in the world, I’m paying attention to it but I don’t want it to limit what I’m able to dream about or what I’m able to achieve. I have the power to create my own standard, my own world, my own expectation. I learned a lot of that by having the permission to dream, create, and do.

Melissa, through my eyes

Thespian savior

In our conversation, I recalled an important turning point in Melissa’s path. It was the spring of 2016 and Thespians was doing AIDA. Brianna Knight (episode 8) played the title role, and was fabulous, as always. Opening night, she came to the theater and was not feeling well at all. She had been quite ill that day, wasn’t keeping food down and was drinking Gatorade to stay hydrated. She was determined to go on, despite the fact that she was having significant trouble. Knowing that we could have a major problem should she go down, I needed to make a plan B. I told someone to go find Melissa.

The act 1 finale of AIDA. Brianna is front and center in the purple, Melissa is just to the right.

Melissa was playing Nehebka, and was fabulous in her own right. I pulled her aside and told her what was happening – she was now my plan B. In the event that Brianna could not go on, Melissa would go on, script in hand, ushered around by the company to help her get through. She listened carefully, eyes wide open and half-glazed over the idea that she might actually be put in this situation. But it was her or nothing, so she agreed and started praying that Brianna would make it through the show.

Brianna, the pro she is, made it through the first act, hit the “money note” at the end of act one, and as soon as the curtain closed, she collapsed. The show took a pause while we put Plan B into effect. I ushered Melissa backstage, who was probably having an out-of-body experience, and told her that everyone would help her to navigate act two. I assured her that she was capable to getting through the next hour and, stood backstage as she performed, ready to sing a lyric or guide her if she needed it.

Let’s just say, for every feeling she had of being unprepared for the moment, she shone brighter than ever. Not only did she save the show, but she also experienced a very important moment of a new reality; she could take center stage and be a star. Melissa makes things happen, even when it seems impossible to do so.

Melissa made this documentary, a chronicle of our Thespian story, the challenges and triumphs, and our AIDA experience. It’s definitely worth a watch.
A joy to behold

In her senior year, Melissa rose to the lead role herself in Nice Work if You Can Get It. She had clearly proven herself capable of being front and center, she had the comic timing and the vocal chops to tackle Billie Bendix and the score of Gershwin standards.

As I was going though some old footage, I came across this rehearsal gem. It shows the joy that emanated from Melissa in the rehearsal studio, despite everything she had to claw through in her personal life. I hope it makes you smile as wide as she is in the clip.

This is the Melissa I had the pleasure of working with.
Her smile lit up a room and made everyone’s experience a little better.
Her co-star was the delightful Joshua Lewis.
The kind soul

I wanted to share one more little clip with you. For Melissa, this might come as a surprise (I hope she remembers this). At the time of her senior show, my mom had been well into her battle with cancer. For the first time, she was unable to attend my show. Melissa knew my mom, and had been encouraged by her, particularly after the AIDA opening. I’ll let the clip speak for itself.

This is the Melissa I knew when.

Lessons learned

Melissa graciously credits her high school arts experiences with what she knows now as a performer; she learned early on how to tap into the power of storytelling to make something magical and beautiful. She has made it her life’s work to do things she can’t explain, to put her whole self into the act of creation. Those moments of “divine intervention,” the ones where she can’t understand how she’s doing it (like the AIDA story), always happen on the stage.

Melissa learned the value of having a vision and making something out of nothing, something that schools with low resources learn to do in spades:

Everything I know about performance comes from being in theater. I think about how big I do things; everything is a production with me, and it’s because I’ve seen what’s possible to make when you have nothing. And we literally had nothing. We would put entire shows together. Especially with kids like us; we were from the hood – we were not the type of kids you would put on a stage and expect that level of excellence from.

For me, it’s understanding that that was our capacity with no investment. We made magic on those stages; we created entire worlds that pushed people to keep going despite everything that was going on in our lives. And do you know how hard it is to organize kids?

Funny, I do know.

If you give people a vision to build towards, they will do it. If you communicate to them how this vision is also going to enhance them and who they are, they’re going to believe in it just as much as you do.

Living in the spotlight

In contrast with her high school self, Melissa has now embraced the qualities that were always recognized by others:

I’ve gotten more outspoken, a lot bolder. I think I’ve gotten more focused, and I think I’ve gotten more brilliant!

She understands her ability to synthesize ideas and make them her own. It’s not about pushing anyone else’s agenda or following someone else’s inspiration; the vision is all hers now.

Even in high school, when Melissa put her mind to a project, it was big, bold and fulfilled a need in her activist spirit. What she didn’t always expect was the heightened visibility and attention she drew in her pursuit of those tasks. In her mind, she set the expectations for her actions and decisions. As she followed through, others recognized this as her norm. There was a cycle of maintaining excellence and raising the bar, which was also fueled by the expectations of her culture, pushing her further to achieve bigger and better things and maintaining a stellar reputation.

Sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for. On one hand, she always wanted to be in the spotlight. On the other, a teenager doesn’t know what to expect when that spotlight turns on. Living in the proverbial spotlight through Thespians and her social justice advocacy, Melissa often experienced anxiety and a heightened state of paranoia.

When you’re organizing or in that type of work, it feels like you’re being watched all the time.

In a sense, that was true. Both theater and advocacy requires you to get people’s attention by being bold. In order to accomplish the advocacy and fundraising efforts she was spearheading, she put an inordinate amount of energy into getting people’s attention. When she “turned it on,” you couldn’t help but to gaze upon her soapbox. She was so good at it; her charisma, charm, and intentional speeches were utterly captivating and resolute, and people listened. But for a teenager, it is hard to sustain the tolerance for living in that fishbowl.

I didn’t realize that would happen; I just wanted to raise money for girls in Africa. It turned out I was really good at it and I really liked it. I didn’t do it to get attention and accolades; I did it because I wanted to.

She’s had a similar reckoning with the evolution of her alter-ego, MELLY. Framing the portrait of a budding pop star, MELLY’s inception was more of a lark than a planned birth.

I was partly just joking! I didn’t think people would take me as seriously as they did. I thought I was going to have to work for it a little bit longer. Everything has happened so quickly; that’s a blessing, and at the same time, I just wanted to make a music video! It grew into this really big thing. Learning how to grapple with that visibility has been a challenge.

Some sage advice

As much joy as she seemed to bring to the outside world, there was a seriousness about her that sometimes distracted her from enjoying the fruits of her labors. I asked Melissa to offer some words of wisdom to her teenage self:

Take a step back and just look around. Really see yourself. Realize that, like it or not, you are exceptional, you are brilliant, and stand in that.

As she met the real challenge of looking back to that girl, a rare happenstance for someone always looking to the future, she recognized that she wasted a lot of time not respecting who she was and what her capabilities were, downplaying herself, and dimming her light to help others to shine. Her drive kept her moving forward, even when her tank was empty. It’s understandable, when you feel your only two choices are exceptionalism and nothingness.

Melissa also had some wise thoughts to offer today’s adolescents:

Be a kid. Really enjoy the now. Choose the things that are going to create the memories that you want to remember.

The irony of that statement is not lost on her. Adulthood represented a potential escape from her traumatic teenage reality and create the life she so desperately wanted. But, she also recognizes that there were child-like, dreamy things that she missed out on in her drive for escape through excellence. When kids allow themselves the space to find enjoyment in their space, friends, activities and so on, they learn more about who they are, the beautiful and the ugly.

Melissa also encourages young people to sit with their emotions, be honest with who they are, which allows them to heal from their traumas in real time.

Self-care

The path to healing from Trauma is a long, meandering one. These are a few self-care strategies she uses to keep herself moving forward in a healthy way.

  • I journal by recording myself talking. As someone who suffers from anxiety and paranoia, having something to listen to helps her to re-center herself. She records when she feels most grounded, with the knowledge that she will need those self-talks at a later time when she feels dysregulated. They also serve the purpose of tracking her growth over time.
  • Learning about her own body. Melissa has been exploring new ways of movement to help her to get more comfortable in her own skin. Having spent so much time learning about external things, she did not have much knowledge of how to be kind to her own body. Now, she takes heels classes, and gives herself the things that she recognizes she needs, like regular hugs.
  • Figuring things out. What a great idea: giving yourself the space to know you don’t know things and having the patience and grace to figure it out. I’m just enjoying the adventure.

For the first time in my life,
I’m actually falling in love with myself.

Melissa Denizard

It’s about time, Melissa.

Join the rest of us who fell in love with you long ago.

Watch our full conversation here!

Follow Melissa’s trajectory:

One thought on “Changed for the Better: Episode 33

  1. Loved every bit of this story of Melissa. I loved her so much, not just as an actress nor as an excellent, award winning member of Forensics. She was an incredable young woman and is more so today. Her talent, her desire to make a difference in this world is non-stop.Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone

    Like

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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.