“Once Before I Go: Creating Goodbye Rituals for the High School Drama Classroom”

Coppell High School Photo by Amanda Hair

Coppell High School Photo by Amanda Hair

  • Arcadia Conrad

You and your high school drama students have struck the Spring Musical. College acceptances are in for those headed that way.  Between AP’s and senior ditch day, those superstar seniors who never wanted to leave after rehearsal are around less and less. And when they are, they are half-asleep, giddy, or off in some place of their own devising, lame ducking their way through the last days of senior year, heads elsewhere, hearts struggling to comprehend that soon it’ll be time to enter the much anticipated “real world.”

Secretly, they all fear they’ll somehow disappear from the face of the earth once they throw that cap up in the air.

This prospect is both welcoming and terrifying to students who are of course excited about the prospect of freedom and don’t yet know how much some of them might start missing structure.

But the other thing they might find they need later on is closure, and if you do your job right before they leave, they’ll need less.

Sure, you’re a perfect theatre teacher who always gave them every opportunity they wanted and they had a flawless high school performing arts career where you never saw them cry and they never saw you yell and they never went to you for help and you never made them feel angry or invisible or betrayed by some casting choice or crew assignment or costume or in-class redirect.

But probably not, and along the way, they learned a lot about themselves, and projected a lot on you. They couldn’t help it,  because they’re kids going through a phase, but being someone’s surrogate parent and psychological coming of age mirror can get a little fraught sometimes.  The easier you can make this for them, the better.

But everything comes to an end and so does high school drama.

A particularly insightful student noticed what it is like to be a high school drama teacher during goodbye season.  “How do you do this every year?” he asked during one of the frequent talks where he agonized over his ultimately wise decision to pursue acting as a career. “How do you watch students leave you and know you’re going to have to do it all over again next time?”

Well, kid. Two things. One, it’s gonna hurt you more than it hurts me, but not for as long, and two, it helps to have a few  nice goodbye rituals.

I’m talking about yearbook signing, prom, or graduation, because although those are nice and arguably universally American rituals for coming of age, they don’t specifically address the connected nature of what we do.

So here are several practices for the final weeks of school to let everyone know it’s the beginning of the end, it’s ending, and it’s over.

1.     SENIOR NOTES- The last “notes” I give on the final dress rehearsal for the final show are a group of brief, individual comments to individual seniors. As an added bonus, I give them a printed copy. There are usually tears, which allows the process of saying goodbye to begin.

2.     ICE CREAM SANDWICHES- The day after our student-run festival of One Acts closes, students gather in classroom circles to “give an ice cream sandwich” to another student who really deserves one for a great performance, awesome tech work, or one of the heroic saves that are so important to the process, like last minute fill ins for absent cast members. We go from one person to the next until everyone has gotten one, and the interdepartment  interclique dialogue it inspires is really sweet.

3.     STRINGS- A variation on ice cream sandwiches with the tangible being a piece of yarn, this activity was taught to me by a wonderful music teacher, the essential Ms. K,  at a performing arts high school I taught at a long time ago.  You get a ball of yarn and a pair of scissors and a box of Kleenex if you’re smart and sit in a circle with the kids and tie one end of it to your wrist (important) . Then give your string to the student who needs it the most. Only you can make the call as to who that is. It could be a hard working ensemble member, a kid who gets shunned, or a lead who ran from the flock and has since returned. Whatever you do, use your string to mend a fence.  Students can also do that, they can do shoutouts, they can thank people. At this point the kid gives theirs to someone else, and when everyone’s done talking and sharing, the class is connected by a wild criss-cross matrix web. I usually choose rainbow colored strings for this reason.  Pass the scissors around the room and voila, everyone has a little length of string they can keep to remember the experience by. 

4.     WALK ACROSS THE STAGE- If you have access to your school’s performing arts facility where everyone has performed, let the seniors take their final walk across the stage. This is another tradition I picked up from the brilliant performing arts high school I worked at a long time ago. I don’t know who began it.  You can be on the other end for that hug, high five, or handshake, and any other teachers you worked with in the program can also be. You can do it as part of an awards ceremony or it can be the awards ceremony. The point is to give students muscle memory that they are moving on, and a chance to thank you.

5.     PAINT THE STAGE- As we return our mainstage floor to black, we let students paint their names into the floor with little paintbrushes. This is then rolled over in a zen like fashion, and their name is signed forever in the very boards they used to tread. I have also heard of signing flats or walls, kissing the stage, and other grand gestures.

These rituals have the effect of helping students process this important transition with love, laughter, and dignity, rather than having to muddle bewildered through the typical series of ditched classes, misplaced temper tantrums, and endless friend drama. Sure, some of that will still exist, but these opportunities for group processing make those easier to bear.

If students can make a physical, tangible action together that allows them to understand that this chapter has ended so that a new one can begin, it will ease the process of moving on.

Holding space for this means the world to young theatremakers, and can help make a sometimes difficult transition into one that sets them up to fly free with confidence, knowing how valuable they are and that they truly made their mark in a place that was special to them.