“When I was on stage I felt at peace because, for a moment, I could be someone else.”
Before I walk on stage, behind the curtain I softly recite the lines in my head.
In hopes of somehow removing the butterflies that have just entered my stomach, I count, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,” while doing a small shake.
As the two video screens beside me say the last words, I begin to walk on, center stage. The lights come up, and the mood changes.
High school seniors, freshmen, teachers and Project SUCCESS staff sit in the audience. I can see everyone’s facial expression. Each face tells its own story, waiting for me to speak.
I am terrified, and for a second, I forget the words. I have about two milliseconds to get myself together.
I take a deep breath and begin:
“This is the year, where I began a lot of my last. Sometimes the joy of starting something new is that you can keep doing it over again.”
Project SUCCESS, a local program that helps young people take steps toward their future goals, serves Minneapolis and St. Paul youth. By attending a high school in St. Louis Park, I opted out of being a part of Project SUCCESS my freshman year. I no longer had the luxury of enjoying some of the program’s perks: free tickets to shows at the Guthrie Theater or a facilitator coming into my English class to teach goal-oriented lectures and activities. The many things the program provided to its students I could no longer benefit from, due to my new location.
Many people around me had no idea what Project SUCCESS was, which was strange, but over time I got used to it. However, I never truly realized the great impact the program had on my life, until I came back three years later. The cliche saying, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” is an understatement. However, we often don’t know how much we’ve grown until we’ve compared ourselves to who we used to be. For example, when I compare myself to my old self, I often think of my middle-school years.
I was no ordinary middle-schooler. I lived in an almost suburban area of south Minneapolis near Lake Harriet. Perfect on the outside, but inside the walls of my home, I was a confused girl. I felt alone despite the people around me, and I worried about the court cases that determined which parent I would live with, or the constant anxiety of not feeling safe, which caused various panic attacks.
In eighth grade, I left Battle Creek Middle School in St. Paul and started school at Anwatin Middle School in north Minneapolis. On top of my depression, I felt like an outsider to the culture around me. It wasn’t until the spring when I finally felt I belonged.
I always knew I loved theater and wanted to act. I simply did not know if I had what it took, until Project SUCCESS gave me that chance in the spring with the musical, “A Year with Frog and Toad.” This show became my “thing” when I was cast the role of “Frog.” I was ecstatic.
I learned all the songs and knew all the lines and choreography to parts that weren’t even my own, according to the musical director, Jeffrey Lucik. I remember this vaguely, but I certainly recall feeling excited about theater and the show, and most importantly, I felt that I belonged. When I walked through the doors of the auditorium, I no longer felt like an outsider. I was now part of a space where I could be my whole self and not worry about all of the issues waiting at home.
When I was on stage I felt at peace because, for a moment, I could be someone else. However, this new, profound confidence wasn’t a given—it took a while, with the help of a few mentors.
One day, I was rehearsing my lines with one of the facilitators, Alex. I was having trouble getting in tune with my character. So, he asked me to go on the other side of the room from him and yell, “I love being a frog!”
This was weird for me. As a young child, I was raised to be the adult and take care of others. I wasn’t fully given the chance to be a kid. I thought this task was funny because it reminded me of a scene from “Akeelah and the Bee,” but I didn’t want to look silly.
After a little hesitation, I did it, and it helped. This wasn’t just a line from a song in the show, but an opportunity to give me more confidence in my role. This is just one example out of many ways I believe the program shows students they matter. Not only who they are, but how they feel.
“In each year of high school, there was always next year or the next show, and that moment seemed like forever away. Or the drama three years ago at the time seemed like the biggest news. Until suddenly, now, it means nothing.”
Before leaving Project SUCCESS in eighth grade, the program asked me to join its touring show, “Here’s Where I Stand,” with seven other transitioning middle-schoolers. After “A Year with Frog and Toad,” and this show came high school, and I felt I was ready to take on high school theater.
In August 2014, I came back to Project SUCCESS for another show called, “And So I Did.” This time, I was the eldest of 10—two middle schoolers and the rest high school freshmen. However, their creative use of language and their understanding of the world around them would have you think otherwise.
We began to dive deep into our inner thoughts, pasts, hopes and fears of the years to come. For them, it was looking ahead to this four-year roller coaster of high school, and for me, it was looking back. I enjoyed this moment to reflect, sharing my experiences with these eager minds. I laughed as I remember once being in their shoes. It has been amazing watching them grow.
“There’s a point in the senior year where you turn to your friend and say: This is our last something. And there’s this bittersweet moment or this bittersweet exchange of smiles and you’re like: ‘Remember when I used to hate you?’ And they’re like ‘Me too!’ And the two of you just laugh because you realized how stupid it was.”
Every word written for the performance that summer was true for the actors. The group also chose the songs to best fit the story we wanted to convey. Besides myself, a few other seniors gave their perspectives looking back during video clips intertwined in the show. You could see the similarities and differences in both groups and how they’d grown.
“The point I’m trying to make is that nothing lasts forever. Everything changes. You change, feelings change, people change, people leave! Life happens and sometimes due to something really small.”
“And So I Did” was unique from each of the previous Project SUCCESS summer shows, typically performed in front of Minnesota educators. Instead, we met the eyes of almost every high school freshman in the St. Paul Public Schools district. I believe this was a surreal moment for everyone involved, because this was the audience that mattered, for which the show could have a bigger impact. These were our peers who connected more to our messages.
“Looking back I’m most proud of not holding too tight to just one thing and being open to change; taking risks, forgiving, laughing, crying. Really living. Those moments when I look back with friends, all we do is laugh and smile, even at the bad memories. Because we got through them. We have made it through those four years, together.”
Intertwined in italics in this personal essay is the ambiguous graduation speech I read at the end of the show. The speech is also used as a conversation starter for the small-group sessions after the show where the ninth-graders wrote their own speeches and got to wear a cap and gown, preparing for graduation. I am so grateful that I could be a part of someone envisioning graduating because I know how hard that can be.
Project SUCCESS is not only about goal-setting, but also about achieving those goals and opportunities. That process starts with a visual aid. I believe the program is getting teens to visualize that any situation they set their mind to, big or small, is possible.
I know Project SUCCESS has been my visual aid since the seventh grade and continues to help me on my journey.
“Not gliding, of course, there were a few bumps in the road, we took a giant detour. But we got back up, we kept moving, and I’m a different person because of it. The things that happen in life make you, you. So in these next few years when you look back, will you smile and will it all be worth it?”