This piece was written by Kathy Hsieh in response to an article by Jen Graves in the Stranger’s SLOG and is republished with the permission of the author.
I’m saddened and angered at such short-sighted thinking from the Office for Education. As a person of color who grew up in Seattle and received all of my education through the Seattle Public Schools, it was the arts that had the most significant impact on my life. Period. School was okay for me. I never really looked forward to it. I got good grades. But it was just something I was expected to do. I had always excelled in math and I loved to read on my own, but that had nothing to do with anything I was getting from school. It wasn’t until 7th grade when I had the opportunity to take an arts class that suddenly I looked forward to going to school each day. And that was huge – actually wanting to attend school each day. The arts classes actually made me excited about my science classes. In biology, when we looked through the microscope, we had to draw what we saw and my Science teacher marveled at the detail of my scientific drawings.
When I got to high school however, imagine my disappointment when I realized there was no visual arts offering in the entire curriculum. Fortunately my 9th grade honors language arts teacher announced auditions for an after-school play. Since I had no other arts opportunity available, I auditioned and got a part. And that’s when my entire world opened up. I loved theatre. And it was theatre that finally made me passionate about school. Suddenly history came alive for me as I sought out books and opportunities to read and research more about the historic time periods of the plays we were doing. Having always been painfully shy, I gained immense confidence in doing public presentations which helped me in class debates. Our school didn’t have a budget for theatre, so those of us acting in the shows had to learn how to creatively get costumes and props and sets. I remember we needed a tree for one show and two of us went around our neighborhood and offered to prune people’s trees after school for next to nothing. We were able to fashion a tree for the set from the branches we had pruned and had some money to buy props with. For costumes, we went to a local vintage shop and offered to give them free ad space in our program in exchange for loaning us costumes. All of these ideas we came up with on our own – it was some of the best business training I’ve ever had.
School, which had always been so-so, was now exciting. I was finally using my creativity and imagination. I now had a desire to read more, research more, study more because all of it really helped me be a better theatre artist. I ended up getting a 4.0 GPA, with all honors classes, being my high school valedictorian, a Hugh O’Brien Youth Leader, a Washington Scholar, a National Merit Scholar and won full scholarships to attend college. And I know for a fact that none of that would have been possible if I had not had the opportunity to participate in the after school theatre program at my high school.
So can you statistically measure whether the arts had a direct impact on my test scores? Probably. But what I value the most, is that even though my Seattle Public School education had such limited arts opportunities, the two I was exposed to inspired me to want to learn, helped me develop self-confidence, and engaged me with others in such a dynamic way that I was finally able to grow out of my shyness. But maybe the Office for Education doesn’t care about those things and only wants programs that teach students how to take tests and if students score well, what does it matter if anything that might inspire, develop and engage them to be holistic, happy and fulfilled human beings are cut completely from their education?