High School

My high school is having its prom tonight. It’s deeply weird to think that a year ago it was I who was a graduating senior, who was so stressed about the whole enterprise of finding a date and a dress (I went with a friend and bought one for $30 at a discount store) and with the deeply weird and alienating experience of shaving my legs for the first and as yet only time. I know some folks who graduated my year or the year before who are going to prom with friends and significant others who are seniors, and I’m glad they’re enjoying themselves—but I wouldn’t do it again if you paid me. I certainly don’t regret going, when I was a senior, to what was my only high-school dance. But I appreciate now the distance that college provides, and the contentment and self-assurance. Once I was so desperately concerned with the concept of going, with how pathetic and outcast I would feel if I didn’t. Now I think I do tend less to worry about those kinds of things.

Last night, I went back to my high school to see its advanced drama class perform The Laramie Project, which is a play about the murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. High schools do it pretty frequently, and I think it’s because the play is very careful to represent all the perspectives of the citizens of Laramie, whether tolerant or intolerant. Parents can’t complain that their children are being force-fed the gay agenda, because there are characters in the play that complain about that too. And yet I was still incredibly surprised when I learned that The Laramie Project was being produced at my high school, a place I associate with homophobia, ignorance, and immaturity, where the health teacher once said that she would like to teach about LGBT issues in her classes, but that she was too worried about the complaints she would get. And so I broke my usual rule about stepping away from my high-school life and bought a ticket to come back, because I wanted to make sure they knew that folks supported this production.

As it happened, my friend in the cast told me that he hadn’t heard of any backlash or objections to the show; the house was the fullest I’d seen it in a few years. A fair number of alumni had come back, and there were plenty of parents in the audience too. I had to wonder what they all were thinking: I looked around the audience and saw friends’ parents who I knew for a fact had voted in favor of Prop. 8; I saw a kid who had once told me that God didn’t approve of my lifestyle choices. One of the characters in the play is a college student who talks about how his parents objected to him performing in a scene from Angels in America because they believed homosexuality was a sin. I wondered whether there was anyone in the cast whose parents had expressed similar opinions.

I am always dubious as to whether young casts have the maturity or life experience to pull off a show as weighty as The Laramie Project, but the script—as I discovered while watching; I wasn’t familiar with the show before—is brilliant, and it’s pretty hard to ruin it. The cast was obviously trying very hard, and a few performances in particular were incredible—at points, I was genuinely moved. I don’t mean to sound surprised, but it’s always great to see something you were cynical about turn out well. I didn’t think that the high school for a neighborhood that’s overwhelmingly right-wing, and that surrounded me with Yes on 8 signs last year, would have been able to do this; I didn’t think they would have attracted a crowd. They did.

Obviously I’m sitting here stewing about this, and I know a few other folks have—I saw some Facebook notes go up with people’s reactions to the show, and I’m very glad it provoked reactions. Theater should. Now, of course, most of the cast—if not all—is even as I type at a hotel in downtown San Diego, wearing fancy clothes and dancing and celebrating the end of high school. I wish them well—and I hope they treat this show as more than just their last time on the high-school stage. I hope it made a difference to them, and to their families and classmates in the audience. I think it’s probably too much to hope that an advanced drama class production could change anyone’s minds, but hey, I’m still surprised there wasn’t a substantial backlash. Maybe there’s a chance; baby steps are still progress. I may have left high school and all its trappings very firmly and decisively behind, but not so much that I can’t say I’m so very, very proud of these kids for taking on a serious and relevant subject, and doing it maturely and sincerely. Well done.

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