Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What Dies When You Fire Arts Teachers

This letter was forwarded to me by a young man named Caleb Penn. It's a passionate defense of arts funding, and some of the deeper purposes of education, just as the Kitsap School District is proposing near-elimination of arts and music. -JB

My name is Caleb Penn, I grew up in Suquamish and graduated from North Kitsap High School in 2004.  I write this letter in an attempt to put in words how frustrated and frightened I am at the proposed cuts to arts education in my former school district.
I was what one would call an ‘At-Risk Youth,’ I fought a lot outside of school and began experimenting with controlled substances at a very early age, the youngest of 3 in a single mother household that was well below the poverty line.  When I think back on my childhood and my exposure to adversity, and what allowed me to survive and flourish, I always end up looking at the influence of art.

James Andrews who currently teaches at Kingston High School, encouraged me to audition for Guys and Dolls Jr at Kingston Jr High and I was subsequently cast as the male lead.  Mr. Andrews was instrumental in the process of me finding positivity amongst a pretty terrible existence at the time.  He taught me that to be a good artist one had to be an even better person and explore the aspects of ourselves that scare us the most.  He did not do this through lectures and essays, but through painting and drawing, acting and writing.  Math didn’t get me out of poverty, art did.  I graduated and went to Cornish College of the Arts to study theater and graduated from there in 2008.

It doesn’t bear thinking where I would be had I been deprived of art in my schooling.  I have broken numerous bones and have many chronic injuries due to fighting, I’ve had friends get murdered or commit suicide, watched most of my family become functionally homeless and have had to fight tooth and nail for everything that I currently have.  Counselors were condescending, the majority of teachers could care less about their students struggles, and in all honesty the only thing that kept me on a positive path was art.  I don’t mean to sew this letter with hyperbole, but art saved my life.  As well as the lives of my peers with whom I founded a theater company, it made some friends become sober with whom I make music.  It gave me the courage to say to myself that I am not the idiot I was trained to think I was because I wasn’t good at math and science; I am an artist.  Out of all titles attached to my name, son, brother, husband, friend, homeowner, it is the moniker of artist that I hold in the highest regard.

Education should be about creating fully functional human beings and not just repositories for knowledge.  I didn’t become an artist, art made me become a person.