Teen troupe inspires Schaumburg students to make good choices
Bullying. Hate speech. Drug overdoses. Suicide. Domestic violence.
Perhaps the only shocking thing about these subjects for students at Jane Addams Junior High in Schaumburg was how honestly and directly they were addressed Monday by school staff and a traveling troupe of teen performers from the West suburbs.
The performing troupe MWAH! -- which stands for Messages Which Are Hopeful -- expressed through song, dance, skits and frank discussion with the junior high students not much younger than themselves ideas on how to resist and overcome these problems.
Students and some parents in the schoolwide assembly were stunned when one audience member heckled a performer with a hateful slur, leading to his ejection from the gym. The incident was a part of the show intended to spark conversation.
Only two adults took part in the MWAH! presentation -- Jennifer Higgins of Geneseo, Illinois, whose young son, Joshua Wilson, took his life in 2013 after being bullied online, and Joel Clousing of Wheaton, whose son, Keenan, died from a heroin overdose last winter.
Clousing has been telling Keenan's story in hopes of persuading young people to resist the seduction of addictive behaviors. But he said there's probably no better way than to have the message expressed by young people -- and exactly the way MWAH! is doing it.
"I would call it tenderizer," Clousing said. "They stretch you so much that you're ready to hear a message. It's kids telling kids a story. I think it's so important that the (delivery) is coming from kids."
That's exactly what MWAH! director Ray Moffitt of Elmhurst was thinking when he started the troupe 31 years ago.
"The performing arts are a good way to communicate," Moffitt said. "You have to get their attention before you can send a message. It would make no sense for me to go out and talk to the kids."
Every show, every few weeks, is slightly updated with new examples of issues in the news which affect the lives of young people, Moffitt said. But for the most part, the basic messages are the same, and have done the most to change the lives of teens during the years he's been running the troupe.
"It's still about choices," he said. "We need to strive to make the right choices."
Though the troupe's message was more direct than usual for the school setting, a discussion among a group of Addams students afterward showed just how much they're already living in a world in which these issues are unavoidable.
Principal Chris Bingen acknowledged that adults are probably surprised by how ready junior high students are to hear the troupe's message.
"The key thing was that hopeful message," Bingen said. "Life is tough, but what can we do to take control of that?"
Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 school board member Mary Kay Prusnick attended the presentation and discussion as a parent. She hopes to facilitate a way to spread the lessons of the day among the district's other junior high schools. One of the suggestions raised afterward was the possibility of Addams students starting their own version of MWAH!
"I thought it was just such a powerful day," Prusnick said. "I think they really did connect with kids in the way that they did. As parents, we have to admit that our kids are exposed to so much. I think today was a good place to start. This is a school filled with amazing talent."