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Why drama class gave me a reason to stay and thrive in school.

Here’s the science that explains why so many students finally feel at home when they find their art.

Why drama class gave me a reason to stay and thrive in school.
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NBC's Rise

When I started doing theater in high school, I wasn't exactly looking for an outlet for my then-undiagnosed mental disorder.

I was 20 years old before someone realized I had ADHD. When I was in high school, the condition was seen as something only the problem kids had, and I was in the top of my class, so that couldn’t be me — right?

But I also acted out in those honors classes — especially when I wasn’t feeling engaged by the material. I didn’t know how to organize my homework, or my emotions, and I definitely didn’t understand how to fit in with the hypermasculine sports crowd-types.


Looking back, it’s no wonder I was drawn to the arts.

“Art has the potential to hold very powerful, even ugly feelings, in a way that can make them manageable, even beautiful, and relatable,” explains Nadia Jenefsky, co-founder and clinical director of New York Creative Arts Therapists, a private creative arts therapy group practice in New York. “It improves mental health by restoring people's dignity, their free will. You can be working on difficult problems but still experiencing some pleasure while doing it, and working with the healthy part of you that has agency and can make decisions.”

An art therapist who works with veterans. Photo by Mark Barnes/Department of Defense.

For me, this makes sense: Theater engaged every part of my hyperactive brain and helped me learn to work alongside others toward a common goal.

It was empowering and provided emotional rewards unlike anything else I'd experienced. While other teenage boys were bottling up emotions or stewing in their angst, I had found an interdisciplinary outlet to channel my erratic temperament and hypomanic instincts. In short, theater gave me that dopamine fix that my body was naturally missing — which I didn’t realize I was missing at the time.

“Young people … haven't always developed the language and cognitive skills needed to express complicated emotions,” says Jenefsky. “Art allows space for complexity and ambivalence, which is often the hard stuff of life that is difficult to deal with.”

My sister and I at the Tony Awards After Party in 2013, after my company received the Regional Theatre Tony. Photo by Peter Lau/Huntington Theatre Company/Flickr.

The drama club did more than help me regulate my mania — it also helped push me through to graduation and beyond.

Theater education in high school is known to improve both verbal and math SAT scores — so on a basic level, it helped me get into Emerson College, a top school for performing and media arts, which was where I made the connections that landed me a job with an award-winning theater company.

Studies have shown that theater education improves attendance and can reduce dropout rates by giving students a reason to go to school; something bigger than themselves to work toward, where other people are relying on them.

One of my good friends who wasn’t involved in theater had already dropped out of high school by junior year. He found his sense of purpose playing drums in a punk band. Shortly after he left school, he even got to travel around the country playing on Warped Tour. When they needed a new bass player, I was given the chance to drop out myself to join them in pursuit of ultimate rock-stardom. But I turned it down — mainly because I had responsibilities to the theater club.

Statistics show that students with arts access are three times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree, and, well, in my experience, I can understand why.

Possibly me if I'd dropped out of high school. Trust me, it's not as glamorous as you think. Photo by Peter Dzubay/Wikimedia Commons.

Even after I found the right treatment for my disorder, theater still offered an outlet for the other emotional events I could never have predicted.

From suicide to substance abuse to cancer and beyond, I saw a lot of tragic young deaths in my 20s. Many of the friends I lost also benefitted from the healing power of performing arts in high school, but adulthood turned out to be a whole different struggle for them. And as much as I’d learned to regulate my own feelings, their deaths left me dealing with a different specter — in part, because our paths, and personal problems, had been so similar.

I keep the cards from each of their funerals above my music workstation. Photo by Thom Dunn.

But it all came full circle in 2016 when I joined the cast of a play called “We’re Gonna Die” — a kind of stand-up comedy routine about death and suffering that also featured an indie rock band. Not only did I get the chance to tour around several states as a bassist — like the opportunity I passed on to stay in school — but I also got to connect, grapple with, and ultimately celebrate life and death with a different audience every night.

Once again, the skills I'd gained in high school theater helped save my life.

That's me on the left, with the cast of "We're Gonna Die." Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva/Company One.

Theater has the power to bring people together like no other art form. And at the right time in a person’s life, that can make all the difference.

Theater and the arts are about more than just expressing one’s self; they're about collaboration and finding yourself by being a part of something bigger. The actors, designers, writers, and audience all share an experience that is both communal and intensely personal.

“We can help people make sense of what they are experiencing, and that can be very empowering to someone who is in a situation where they may feel confused, helpless or alone,” says Jenefsky. “It can help young people with very personal issues like identity, self-esteem, and just finding their place in the world.”

It might not seem like much in high school, but that’s the kind of power people carry with them throughout their lives.

This story was written by Thom Dunn.  

Based on a true story, NBC’s new drama "Rise" has inspired us to look for other real stories about the impact of theater on high schoolers' lives. "Rise" premieres on March 13 after "This Is Us." Click here to see the trailer for this new show.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

This article originally appeared on 12.02.19


Just imagine being an 11-year-old boy who's been shuffled through the foster care system. No forever home. No forever family. No idea where you'll be living or who will take care of you in the near future.

Then, a loving couple takes you under their care and chooses to love you forever.

What could one be more thankful for?

That's why when a fifth grader at Deerfield Elementary School in Cedar Hills, Utah was asked by his substitute teacher what he's thankful for this Thanksgiving, he said finally being adopted by his two dads.

via OD Action / Twitter

To the child's shock, the teacher replied, "that's nothing to be thankful for," and then went on a rant in front of 30 students saying that "two men living together is a sin" and "homosexuality is wrong."

While the boy sat there embarrassed, three girls in the class stood up for him by walking out of the room to tell the principal. Shortly after, the substitute was then escorted out of the building.

While on her way out she scolded the boy, saying it was his fault she was removed.

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One of the boy's parents-to-be is Louis van Amstel, is a former dancer on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars." "It's absolutely ridiculous and horrible what she did," he told The Salt Lake Tribune. "We were livid. It's 2019 and this is a public school."

The boy told his parents-to-be he didn't speak up in the classroom because their final adoption hearing is December 19 and he didn't want to do anything that would interfere.

He had already been through two failed adoptions and didn't want it to happen again.

via Loren Javier / Flickr

A spokesperson for the Alpine School District didn't go into detail about the situation but praised the students who spoke out.

"Fellow students saw a need, and they were able to offer support," David Stephenson said. "It's awesome what happened as far as those girls coming forward."

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He also said that "appropriate action has been taken" with the substitute teacher.

"We are concerned about any reports of inappropriate behavior and take these matters very seriously," Kelly Services, the school the contracts out substitute teachers for the district, said in a statement. "We conduct business based on the highest standards of integrity, quality, and professional excellence. We're looking into this situation."

After the incident made the news, the soon-to-be adoptive parents' home was covered in paper hearts that said, "We love you" and "We support you."

Religion is supposed to make us better people.

But what have here is clearly a situation where a woman's judgement about what is good and right was clouded by bigoted dogma. She was more bothered by the idea of two men loving each other than the act of pure love they committed when choosing to adopt a child.