Recently I saw the Royal Shakespeare’s production of As You Like It at the Armory in New York, part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Extraordinary! The RSC built a replica of the stage from the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon, shipped it across the Atlantic and reassembled it in New York. The acting was superb; pacing, timing, ensemble work were all at the highest level.
Shakespeare uses this pastoral comedy to explore themes of freedom, pleasure, contentment, and the sophisticated but possibly false world of the court and the simpler, more authentic world of the Forest of Arden–in other words, city versus country. As in several of his other plays, Shakespeare also explores the theme of identity, mainly in the character of Rosalind, who spends much of the play disguised as a young man.
This got me thinking about our students today and how much our culture helps shape their identities. Unfortunately, our culture tends to be media-obsessed, exhorting young people to look, dress and behave like certain icons–essentially to be followers with little incentive for individual or personal expression. It leaves almost no room in a young person’s mind to Dare to be Different, Dare to be Yourself, as our GFA Middle School motto charges. It takes a lot of courage to stand up against the prevailing winds when all around are following the dominant idea or message. I hope that we can instill in our students the moral center to stand up for their beliefs and not be intimidated or cowed by media or peer pressure. In other words, let us encourage our students to forge their own unique identity in a rapidly changing and often mercurial world.
Another problem today is that different identities can be too quickly tried on instead of developing naturally. This happens especially online, where young people can open themselves up to dangerous situations and even predators. The Internet also gives young people many chances to reinvent themselves at will–innocent enough on the one hand, but potentially dangerous as well. One of my favorite cartoons from The New Yorker a few years ago was that of a dog sitting in front of a computer and keyboard, saying “When you’re on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog!”
We know the developmental changes that happen throughout pre-adolescence and adolescence itself, and this is a normal and healthy process. I believe our students need the stable and consistent foundation of good parenting along with a supportive school environment where students are known and valued for who they are, thus allowing their identities to develop over time. We need to provide a place where students can grow into themselves, with the courage to stand up for their beliefs, their friends and their true selves.