Each year, at the Tonys, one K-12 theater teacher is honored for their work. This year's recipient was Melody Herzfeld of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
On Feb. 14 — that fateful day in Parkland, Florida — Herzfeld helped save the lives of 65 students by sheltering in place and guiding them to safety. That alone more than meets the Excellence in Theatre Education Award criteria of being a teacher "who has demonstrated monumental impact on the lives of students and who embodies the highest standards of the profession."
In her acceptance speech, Herzfeld illustrated the importance of arts education, explaining how the lessons her students learned in her class prepared them, unknowingly, for the horrific events of that day.
The most important lesson her students learned was to be good to each other. The bonds of family and friends play powerful roles in how we cope.
"I remember on February 7th, in a circle with my students, encouraging them to be good to each other when times were trying, and to keep the family together, [to] accept everyone and make a difference," she said. "And I remember only a week later, on February 14th, a perfect day, where all these lessons in my life and in their short lives would be called upon to set into action."
Herzfeld went on to list some of the other unexpected skills kids learn in acting class that go beyond just, well, acting.
"As theater teachers, we teach kids by giving them space to be critiqued yet not judged, giving them spot in the light yet not full stage, creating the circle of trust in which to fail," Herzfeld said, before adding that kids are taught, also, "to begin again" after tragedy befalls them.
Arts programs are in constant danger of being cut from school curriculums. Maybe we don't understand just how important they are.
Schools across the country have struggled under the weight of budget crunches for decades. So often, it's art, theater, and music programs that get axed for the sake of short-term financial health. When those programs are cut, however, students lose out on the important lessons teachers like Herzfeld bring into the world.
"Imagine if arts were classes that were considered core — a core class in education. Imagine," she said. "Ours is only one small part, yet it’s the most important part of a child’s education. ... We have all known that the future of the world was about collaborative creativity."
"And here we are," Herzfeld continued. "The future. Changed for good."