I drive through Badlands National Park just a few minutes after 10pm, the moon is full, it is early November and the only others in the park are white tail deer, prairie dogs, coyotes and elk – a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the tourist scene.
I am headed about 40 miles further into the interior to Kyle, SD, the heart of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This is my sixth visit to the reservations of Shannon and Todd Counties. The first time I went to one of them I was horrified by what I saw.
Here, living conditions are worse than third world countries and children live surrounded by hopelessness, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse and poverty. Todd and Shannon counties in South Dakota are some of the poorest in the nation.
For the next six weeks I will live in Kyle, SD. I’ll spend my days at Little Wound School and my nights in “rez” housing in a prefab unit slapped together at the State Prison. If I need to buy gas or basic groceries I will head up to the little convenience store; if I want anything more I will have to drive 90 miles to Rapid City.
It’s lonely here, it’s desolate here and most of all it is hopeless here but here is where I learned the arts can transcend anything. This is where a piece of theater written by the kids, from their hearts, about their struggles, can cut through the most jaded audience and bring tears and applause.
Here I learned that the chance to have someone listen to what you have to say and be willing to stand up for you so that you can say it, will make it worthwhile for you to come to school, and attendance numbers go up. I saw self esteem soar, because of the art they created, and the recognition they received for creating it.
Most of all, here is where I learned that if I wanted to be the kind of teaching artist that made a difference in the lives of students – no matter what their circumstances – I was going to have to give up “my agenda” of what the experience should be and embrace the process of where these learners, in this place, at this time wanted their experience to be.
So, I said goodbye to fluffy bunny meets the evil tree harvester and said hello to real kids creating art about real situations – some of them messy and ugly, some hopeful, some joyful, but all very honest. I said goodbye to my need to be in control and said hello to “I don’t know where we will end up today, I just know where we are starting, and I said goodbye to safe topics and avoiding conflict – to tough topics and mediating conflict. I learned how to earn the trust and confidence of my students instead of assuming they had to give it to me because I was the teacher.
p class=”MsoNormal”>In this desolate place I became the best teaching artist I could be, because they became the best artists they could be.