“Oh, miss, I’m in love. I fell in love yesterday,” said Mariana.
“Yesterday was the best day of my life,” added Besa.
The two girls were sauntering to their science class. Mariana is an 11th grader who arrived from Dominican Republic three years ago, while Besa arrived from Albania last September. In speaking about their experience the day before, they transformed from normal teenagers trying to look bored, to human beings inspired about life.
We had the opportunity to bring ninety-nine eleventh-graders to see the musical Hamilton for $10 each, or a “Hamilton.” The Hamilton Education Project is an extraordinary initiative to take New York City public-school eleventh-graders to see the musical.* Normal tickets to “Hamilton” cost anywhere from $179 to $849.
Convincing the students they should see Hamilton was another story.
Why? Most of our students had no concept of what a Broadway musical is, what Hamilton is, nor why anyone would pay up to $849 for a ticket. There’s no reason why most of the students would even know who Hamilton or the founding fathers are, given that our school is composed of mainly newcomer immigrants who are English Language Learners. Some of the students arrived in this country as recently as October of 2016.
No matter how many times we stressed the value of the ticket, told the students “11 Tony awards,” showed them clips and played songs and read glowing reviews about the musical, many of them only heard “Ten-dollar school trip to Manhattan where we have to arrive to school early and get home late.”
Which is why it was so lovely to watch their faces as they walked out of the theater. They looked enlightened. I rode the subway home with several students. One shook my hand before he exited the subway and said, “Thank you, so much.” Another said, “It [the musical] began and just the stage and the costumes, even before the music– and I started to cry. I just cried. I didn’t know it was going to be like that.”
Before the musical, the students simply didn’t know what they didn’t know. Hamilton is the story of deeply creative, ambitious people inventing and arguing possibilities for themselves. It’s also about an immigrant like our students who was helping to create a new world.
During the musical, I was compelled to do a fair bit of “shush”ing. In their raw excitement, our students had a few moments low chattering, and were the loudest cheerers in the audience at the end of big scenes. However, even as I did my dutiful “shush”ing, I loved how much they loved the musical. They stopped trying to be cool teenagers, and in their appreciation of Hamilton, I saw the full-blown enthusiasm they have to offer the world. Much like Hamilton himself.
*The Hamilton Education Project is sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, and run by the Gilder Lehrman Institute working in partnership with the New York City Department of Education and the producers of Hamilton. In the New York State curriculum, American History is usually studied in the 11th grade, so the Hamilton Education Project targets students in this grade to enrich their understanding of this period of American history. In the project, in addition to sponsoring students to see the musical, students complete learning projects designed to engage them into the musical and give them background knowledge to understand it better.
All the names of students have been changed.
Photo credit: Eli Christman, Creative Commons, close-up of Hamilton on the $10 bill