Finding Common Ground | Allison Upshaw

My work with at risk youth began because I needed a job. I went in spite of being afraid and, over the course of the next three years, I met some of the most creative souls I’ve ever known. I even still have copies of the music they created. No, none of it is great by music industry standards, but I watched those boys struggle to recognize notes on a keyboard, to actually write out their thoughts on paper so they could record them as rap songs later, and to control their urges to strike out at others so that they would be allowed to come to my class and I hoped I could live up to their expectations.

I too was struggling in those classes. I had NO idea what I was really doing. Wasn’t it Sesame Street that had the little game “One of these things is not like the other”? I kept playing my version of it and thinking which of these things didn’t belong: juvenile jail, opera, teaching artist or all of the above? I struggled with frustration, fear, and doubts. I struggled to understand the slang that was an entirely different language from the English I spoke. I had to learn fast because they would try to insert gang related things in their raps. They would ask me about the music business and how to get a record deal. I had to tell them that I didn’t know but that I would try to find out. I shared with them my own journey in trying to find out the answers for them. I had to call friends and spend time in the library. I read articles and books on the hip hop industry so that I could give them a list of resources. One day we even took time to figure out exactly how rappers make their money and it’s not from the record sales.

Collaboration skills were nonexistent. I had to remind them over and over that they didn’t have be friends with everyone in their work groups. They simply had to find common ground in order to create this music. I spoke bluntly about my expectations for their behavior and boundaries. Actually, I told them that I knew they had to take their meds but they didn’t know if I’d taken mine that day so they should play nice. That sounds awful doesn’t it? Perhaps it was but these young men were in for serious crimes: assault, assault with a deadly weapon, rape of a 4 year old child, grand theft auto – stolen police car, etc. I couldn’t afford to show anything but truth to them. These teens were not the same people that I worked with in “normal” classrooms around the country. There were armed guards at ALL times in each class yet I never had any physical incidents within my classroom. As a matter of fact, the boys themselves made sure that there were no physical issues in the classroom. They would remind others of the rules that I’d stated on the first day and at least one time I know that there was a fight immediately after they left my classroom.

My heart bled for them and they taught me so much about loving the seemingly unloveable. I worried though that what I was able to give them wasn’t enough, would never be enough. One day, weeks into a particular residency, I saw a young gang leader, notorious in the city of Louisville, stand side by side with a young man from the mountains who couldn’t read, write or barely speak intelligibly, and help him record a “song” by writing down what he wanted to say and whispering the words to him line by line for him to repeat as I recorded his efforts. That day I saw the arts cross cultural and racial barriers, spit in the face of peer pressure and give voice to those from whom silence had been demanded and I knew that whatever I was doing was actually reaching them. I remember these young men and I smile.

It is my experience with these young men that kinesthetically shaped how I learn from my students and how I teach them. I learned that truth is the only defense I have in the face of a student’s fears. I learned that if I share who I am, they will not only share who they are but they will believe me when I tell them they have much to offer and that there are better ways to interact with the world. I learned that I could share my love of opera and they may not like it, but they could respect my love of it because I took time to share it with them. I haven’t worked with this extreme group of at risk youth in a long time but I try to use the most important lesson that they taught me every single day. What is that lesson you ask? It is simply this. The very act of sincerely, not superficially, attempting to find common ground with my students, lays a foundation of trust upon which I can build a successful residency no matter the age or demographics.


Allison Upshaw is also known as “MzOpera”, and for the last 13 years she’s worked as a Performing Arts Integration Consultant/ Teaching Artist in AL, AR, GA, TN and SC. Her background includes two degrees in Voice Performance from Oberlin Conservatory and Louisiana State University, a union card from the Actor’s Equity Association, years of studying African influenced dance, and a stint as a college instructor of voice and acting. Allison provides residencies, workshops and professional development in arts integration. In 2012, she had the privilege of being selected to present at the 1st International Teaching Artist Conference in Oslo, Norway.

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