Semester of Service: Cycles of Violence

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Abigail Henderson ’14 is taking a leave of absence this semester do what she calls “A Semester of Service” in Philadelphia. She is keeping a blog as she goes and will share selected posts with The Daily Gazette on a weekly basis. You are invited to find out more and read the full blog at semesterofservice.wordpress.com, and you can email Abigail at ahender1@swarthmore.edu.


I’ve been leading a drama club at a nearby elementary school for three weeks now, and it’s nothing like I imagined. A typical routine goes like this:

  1. I lay out a lesson plan and prepare supplies.
  2. I arrive at the school ready to only take those who have brought back their permission slips.
  3. The adorable kids ask, “Pleeeease can I be in drama today? I didn’t get no permission slip!” and I give in.
  4. We start with warm-ups, and after that I make everything up because the lesson plan is clearly not going to work.
  5. People drift in and out, sometimes playing with things they aren’t supposed to and/or getting in fights. I try to keep us focused.
  6. We end. I’m exhausted.
  7. The kids come up to me and hug goodbye, asking, “Why can’t drama be every day?”
  8. I walk home smiling.

We usually spend the first half doing warm-up games and the last half acting out scenes, moving quickly from one activity to another as soon as hints of boredom begin to show. They’re learning the 8-count shakedown the way I learned it in high school (“ARM-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, LEG-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, ARM-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, LEG-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, HEAD-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, SHOULDERS-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, HIPS-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, WHOLE-BODY-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, etc.) and they are getting pretty good. After that we play a game called “Zip, Zap, Zop” which involves making eye contact with someone and clapping towards them while saying “Zip,” “Zap,” or “Zop” (in sequence). The idea is to do it in rhythm without hesitating. When I introduced this idea to them, they quickly turned it into “laying down a beat.” This game is so much cooler now. 🙂

That video was taken towards the end, when they were getting tired, but at the beginning there was beat boxing and outside percussion using props and more! They’re pretty talented. 🙂

As we get into the acting portion of the lesson, it usually involves a lot of improvising scenes, and it is so telling to watch where their imaginations take them. The first week, the scenes that were improvised included a drug deal, a carjacking, a bank robbery, and a bully beating someone up. The second week we had four 3rd-graders acting out being pregnant and going to the hospital and delivering a baby, as well as a kid getting homework help from a mom (age 19, acted by a 9-year-old) who did nothing but yell at her and fight with her “teacher.” This week, they were in a holiday mood, so there was a scene about Christmas (where someone stole someone’s present and got beat up), one about Thanksgiving (where everybody fought over the food and threw the props all over the place), and one about a birthday (where a boy blew out the birthday girl’s candles so she got mad and started a fight).

Violence is central to these kids’ lives, and it shows. I haven’t decided whether or not to censor their scene choices. On the one hand, I don’t want to trivialize or normalize violence any more than it is already happening in their lives. On the other hand, it’s happening in their lives, and to censor their art would be to deny that fact. I love theatre because it gives me permission to act in ways that I cannot act in real life. On stage, it’s okay for me to yell at someone, break down in tears, or even feel so much hate for someone that I can’t look them in the eyes — because I know that when we get offstage we will still be friends. The stage gives us permission to do all sorts of things without suffering the consequences, and in that sense it can be a really healthy outlet. I’m just not sure…

So I’ve taken to letting them do what they want for the most part, and if anything looks like it might start to get dangerous or bad I step in (it’s pretty easy to distract them). Here’s what that looks like:

I recorded two improvised scenes this week, and I was going to share the cute one by the third-graders that didn’t involve much fighting, but I decided to share this one instead. You can hear me step in when things look like they might be getting out of hand. If you watch carefully, you’ll notice how they don’t react at all to me telling them (pretty casually) to tone down the fighting — but they do react to my attempts to redirect their energy into finishing the scene. You can see how fighting comes so naturally to them (and how naturally the “parent” actors pull them off each other). Even though there are times when it looks like someone might seriously be fighting, I guarantee there were smiles on all faces at all times. But is that a good thing? Or does it mean they don’t understand the seriousness of violence? When two kids get in a fight at school, an adult (or older kid) pulls them apart and physically restrains them — I see this a lot. But that only works for so long, and they are growing bigger (and more defiant) every day.

How do we interrupt cycles of violence? Can it even be done in a once-a-week drama club? Does that mean we shouldn’t try?

1 Comment

  1. It’s great to know that you will be doing service for the community!!!
    A lot of people don’t realize that within our country, there are many social issues that need to be addressed. The problems strike close to home (Chester, Philly, Norristown, Camden, etc.) and people can make an effort (like Abigail is doing) to help out.

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