High School Reunion

Spoiler alert: I wasn’t a cool teenager. I wasn’t invited to all the parties, I didn’t hang out with the in-crowd, I didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t date. You get the point. Basically all I did was have acne, make jokes, and try to get by without tempting the resurgence of cruel nicknames from junior high which we can talk about offline, if you insist. Not that this is all entirely relevant, but I still get nervous when I have to go speak with school kids. Whether they’re in second grade or high school, I go right back to the most self-conscious version of myself who thinks everyone’s going to laugh at me. Oh yes. I’m a treat.

When I found out that we’d be spending a good amount of time with kids going through War Child’s programs here, I tried as hard as I could to push those nerves aside and for once, it actually worked–probably because I was nervous about so many other things at the time that social awkwardness was the least of my worries. Besides, being the only white guy for miles? You get used to being stared at pretty damn quick. A guy at the market even held up a white sneaker he wanted me to buy saying, “White? White! White!” as if it was the best reason to buy a pair of shoes ever.

Arriving at the oldest high school in Ethiopia, however, was a bit of a different story. I felt good for getting used to the crazy driving situations, I stopped flinching every time someone came at me out of nowhere trying to get money, and my fears of not being able to eat without full-blown stomach trauma had been squashed. I was feeling pretty awesome actually. That is until I had reached the final steps before entering the rehearsal space for War Child’s theatre program. It brought me right back to my first day of school in the Netherlands–I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t speak the language, and I had no idea what was going on. Is there such a thing as a phobia of schools? If not, can we make one and name it after me?

Of course it only took a few seconds to realize once again that I need to relax. We were greeted with a HUGE smile by the playwright and director who was leading this group of kids through an educational play that will be performed for their peers next week. He was thrilled to have us there to check out the rehearsal and the kids? Well, they were even more nervous about this than I was and even they were able to crack a smile to break the tension. Other than the fact that they were all far more attractive than I am, I felt pretty good being there although I sometimes question the benefits of being a classic blend of French and Irish…I’m short, burn easily, and pack on weight like I’m always planning for the next potato famine.

But this isn’t about me. (That reminder was more for me than it was for you.)

The theatre program is another way to get youth in Addis Ababa to start thinking about their choices, to get educated on the resources and support available to them, and to inspire them to aim higher for their futures. Performed by kids, for kids, the program creates incredible discussion opportunities in a casual, non-preachy environment while also giving young people valuable theatrical and leadership experience. And guys? These kids are GOOD. The director explained the story to us beforehand so we could follow along, but even if he hadn’t, the talent and emotion left up on that stage would have been just as captivating.

Boy meets Girl. Boy and Girl decide to finish their education before starting their lives together. Girl’s father is a real jerk who decides to accept money from a rich, arrogant merchant in exchange for his daughter’s betrothal to his rich, arrogant son. Boy and Girl decide to run away together but Girl disappears first. One year later, Girl is living on the street with a child born with HIV/AIDS out of a sexual assault, she’s dying, and no one who passes by will tell her where she can turn for help. Girl dies on the street, passersby find a War Child representative to help figure out what to do with the baby.

It sounds really heavy…mostly because it is…but a running narrative creates opportunities for audience engagement, encouraging kids to get involved with the discussion. What happened to the girl when she disappeared? How did her life fall apart? What choices would have made things turn out differently? Where could she have gone for help? What will happen to the baby now? The whole event helps the audience really think about what can happen, and how it can be avoided. The final performance is next week and I can’t wait to see how it all goes. Stay tuned on this one.