Samuel J. Tanner 5 minute read

Serving the Youth

Working with kids is hard.

Recently, I led a summer improv camp for 7th-12th graders with my colleague Andrea. This camp was put on by Happy Valley Improv (HVI). I've written a lot about this improv company lately. I can't help it. I write about what's going on. Journaling, that's all. Nothing profound. And HVI has been what's going on for me.

Anyway, working with kids is hard. Like, really hard. I know this. I taught high school for nearly fifteen years. Talk about exhausting. Each gray hair on my head has a story. The time Unique covered me in baby powder. The time Denell, a six-foot something ninth grader, picked me up and swung me over his shoulder in front of the class. The time Wendy answered my classroom phone and, when asked if Mr. Tanner were available, told the principal "No, he's dead" before hanging up. These sorts of things age a man. I got better at managing the energetic rhythms of high school kids. But channeling the intelligence and creativity of a group is an enormous undertaking, especially with, to emulate the language of old people everywhere, "the youth."

About the youth. I encountered them again in our summer camp. The camp was a modest endeavor. We met the youth in the State Theatre at 9:30 AM and worked with them until noon. We did this for five days. We held an informal recital for their parents on Friday. The youth also got to perform with HVI before our show last Thursday. What a youthful thrill.

The week of the camp was a blur. I set my alarm, woke up early, and made it to Saint's Cafe by 7:00 AM each morning. I worked for two hours. AERA, the big educational research conference, is coming up. I have manuscripts to revise. Books to write. My memoir about working with the youth is almost finished. I'm eager to share this book about the youth with the people. Ultimately, I have things to do. So I did these things until 9:00 at Saint's Cafe, then I walked over to the State Theatre.

Andrea and I made small talk with the staff, greeted the children, and then went to work. I did most of the teaching. I'm a high school drama teacher, so it seemed natural for me to take the lead. We had 13 exuberant youths with varying theatre experience. I relished the challenge of teaching them improvisation. I flexed a muscle that I haven't used since leaving Minnesota.

Each day was a blur. There was so much to teach and so little time to do it. Improv is a complex artform.

"I can't believe how fast these sessions go," Joe told Andrea and I.

Joe's a brilliant neuroscientist. He's interested in improv, so he sat in and observed our sessions. I love this about being at Penn State. Brilliant neuroscientists sometimes cross your path.

"The kids have learned so much," Joe said after the fourth class.

"They really have," I told him, gasping for breath.

We taught the youth long-form improvisation. Long-form is harder than short-form. Less games. Less structure. More complexity, more freedom. I gravitate towards long-form more than short-form. I always have. I'm not hating on Whose Line..., I'm just saying that long-form is infinitely complex. I relish the challenge of participating in and teaching the art of creating something from absolutely nothing. That's all. I've got love for short-form and people who do short-form. It can be wildly entertaining. I'm just more interested in long-form and what it can do. Mine the psyche. Unearth the things happening inside of us. The kids picked it up. Even the ones with learning disabilities. We only had a week together but, by the end, they were able to sustain scenes, adhere to loose structures, and discover characters and stories. Groovy. I was proud of them.

It is funny to notice how exhausted teaching youth made me. I only spent three hours working with the kids, and our group was small. In the past, I saw hundreds of students each day for an entire school year. I'd pour my energy into them. Again, note the gray hair. It's difficult working with teenagers, that's for sure. Especially if you figure out how to harness their energy, meaningfully engage them, and challenge them to learn how to do something difficult. Like long-form imporvisation is difficult. Oi vey.

I enjoyed the week of our summer camp. It was fun to come home exhausted with the satisfying sense that I was accomplishing something important, working hard. It was nice to be with the youth again. To connect with people. Being a college professor is delightful, but there's something special about the exuberant connection that comes from working productively with teenagers, with the youth.

Even if it grays the hair.