For two consecutive years, I have had the privilege of spending one week of my summer working with artistic teens looking for a creative experience unlike any other.
They come to be taught writing, dance, music, art, and theater through immersive lessons, collaborative pieces, and performances they create entirely on their own. They come to the Midwest Artist Academy at UW-Eau Claire to have a better understanding of art, and I leave having a better understanding of myself.
It is no secret that the hardest part of life is growing up. We watch the summers of melting ice cream cones and sleepaway camp fade into slow-moving shifts at first-time jobs and cling to the moments we have with our childhood friends before we throw our caps in the air one last time. The older we get, the faster time seems to move and before we know it, we have doubled in age. Our minds and hearts become relics of what were once oracles of optimism. Store-bought dreams of fame and fortune guided us seamlessly through what would someday feel like momentary milestones. And somewhere, along the way, the notion of failure and all that comes with it grows heavy on our shoulders. We watch the whimsy of our youth get smaller in the rearview mirror just as we once watched camp comrades wave us goodbye after a week well spent.
The older we get, the faster time seems to move and before we know it, we have doubled in age. Our minds and hearts become relics of what were once oracles of optimism.
SARAH JAYNE JOHNSON
As I sat on the hot concrete slab watching the academy-goers work through their creative differences, I caught myself (as I sometimes do) counting down the minutes. Waiting for the relief that comes with returning to a sense of stasis, and solace in the daily routine I have become accustomed to. Just as my prayer for auto-pilot began to overcome me, I was taken aback by the performance in front of me. Kids half my age worked through their performance with uninhibited ingenuity that made me feel overwhelmed with envy. They laughed at small mishaps and cared more about the integrity of their piece as a whole than they did about their individual contributions to it. They were present in the opportunity to be who they were in that moment, while I subconsciously drifted in and out of self-consciousness. As one camper belted along with the piano, I thought about how hard it has become to even sing in the shower. As another artist read her profound words, I thought how hard readings have become because I can barely stand the thought of others looking at me.
I wished so badly to shake all of them (in a comforting way) and tell them to not let the bricks of getting older build a wall around them. I wanted them to know that the path they’ll walk is riddled with disappointment and tragedy, but they should bring this version of themselves along for the ride to hold their hand. I wanted to tell them to know what matters and what never will. To know that their minds, hearts, words, and art matter. And I wanted the 15-year-old version of me to be there to hear it, too.
As the week came to a close, I watched as newfound friends embraced and thanked each other for all that came out of their time at camp. I wondered what some were returning to, if they would tell their friends back home about all they had experienced, or if they would revert back into a version of themselves they left at the door when they started the week. As I willed them all to keep creating, I knew their future, just like all futures, was fleeting. All I could do was hope their ice cream did not melt too quickly.
Now, as I stand in the comfort of the mundanity I so desperately wanted last week, I hear the teenage version of me in my head asking, “What should we do now? Let’s do something fun!”
I think for the first time in a long time, I’ll listen.