Into the Woods

Whenever a discussion of art arises, I always recall Hamlet’s words to the actors before they perform a scene: “…The purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” As Hamlet notes, the purpose of acting, art, really, is to hold the mirror up to ourselves and our culture, for the purpose of reflecting (and ennobling) the soul. When done correctly and well, art edifies and educates, reveals and explains, uplifts and inspires. Art challenges and stretches us and our preconceived notions, it connects us to one another, it shows us at our worst and our best, and it helps us to imagine who we can be as a person and as a community. Hamlet also opines that art’s purpose is not only to show us at our best, but also to show us as we are at this time.

And is there another form of art or “playing” that shows us at our best and as we are than the American Musical Theatre? Calling on a tradition that dates back centuries, the 20th century form of the musical that sends our toes tapping and our fingers snapping conjures images that speak to our American experience from westward expansion (Oklahoma), to immigration and racial prejudice (West Side Story), to rebellion and a fight for equality and individualism (Hair), to alienation and struggle (Rent), and to hundreds of other salient themes. In short, the American Musical embodies all that we come to understand and articulate as American.

And so, a group of 4th and 5th grade students at Hampden Meadows, under the able direction of Dena Davis, tackled some of the best known musicals in our canon, with the hope of growing as actors, entertaining their family and friends, and learning about themselves and their part of the world. From all accounts, these noble tasks were accomplished. I will admit that I did not see the show, but my daughter did, and she returned from it raving about the production.  The show featured favorite songs from Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, Bye, Bye Birdie, Pippin, Grease, Barnum, Rent, Crazy for You, Hairspray, among others. The purpose was to expose the children to American classics, while giving them a chance to shine.

As delighted as my 12-year old daughter and her friends were to see it, I read a recent article in which a father of a participant lamented that a number of the show’s scores were “entirely inappropriate for such young children.” As a Board Member of Arts Alive! since its inception, and as a father of young children who have participated in a number of Arts Alive! productions, I was surprised to read that person’s impression.

The disappointed father, who watched three performances of the show, bewailed that the actresses were dressed up like “hyper-sexualized characters,” and wondered, “How can we expect the young girls of Barrington to grow up with a sense of self-esteem and self-respect when they’re reduced to playing caricatures of sexualized women in theatrical productions?” This question is a good one, and was eloquently answered by a participating parent who noted that seeing Dena Davis and Kim Durkin, two intelligent, accomplished, thoughtful, caring women, work with the cast of over 150 was enough to assist our Barrington girls in growing up with healthy self-esteem and self-respect.

And I respect the grieved parent’s desire to protect his daughter and to provide for her good role models. It is meet and right to want to protect our children from the thousand natural shocks to which flesh is heir, to keep them from growing up too quickly in our admittedly hyper-sexualized culture that denigrates women and reduces them to objects. But, our attempts to shield our children are often as successful as Sisyphus’ attempts to roll the boulder up the hill.

As parents, it is our job to make ourselves obsolete: to give our children the habits, behaviors, routines, skills, and judgement that will enable them to excel without us. We must seek to give our children strong roots that ground them and allow them to know what is right, while fitting them with wings that will enable and encourage them to fly, to seek new, exciting adventures and places. As a parent, and as an educator of 25 years, I know well the desire to protect, but I also know the value of allowing children the space and the opportunity to stumble, and even fall. There are lessons every where, and it is our work to allow our children to grow — not in a hot house, but in our real world. Sometimes, in giving them both roots and wings, we have to expose them to various experiences, so that they know how to respond.

One of favorite Musicals is Into the Woods, a work that my wife and l loved so much, our three children knew every word of the work by the age of 6. In the song “I know Things Now,” Little Red Riding Hood meets the Big Bad Wolf and reflects on what she has learned after he has “swallowed her whole” and she has been rescued and is safe: “And we’re brought into the light, / And we’re back at the start… / And I know things now, many valuable things, / That I hadn’t known before. / Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood. / They will not protect you the way that they should. / And take extra care with strangers, even flowers have their dangers, / And though scary is exciting, / Nice is different than good. / Now I know, don’t be scared.  Granny is right, just be prepared.”

And that is the best that we can do for our children: prepare them.  We cannot protect them as much as we would like, but we can prepare them. The recent events in Oklahoma and in Boston remind us that we cannot control the world or what will happen. Hamlet, in the penultimate scene of the drama, comes to understand that he cannot control his world; rather, all he can be is prepare for what may come. He says to Horatio, before the climatic final bloodbath, “the readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, know what is’t to leave betimes, let be.” Let us revel in our children’s youth, and let us seek to prepare them as best we can for our uncertain times, but let us not think that we can protect them from everything: “Granny is right, just be prepared.”

Michael Obel-Omia


Dr. King’s Lessons on Greatness and Humility


Michael Obel-Omia: King’s lessons on greatness and humility


January 21, 2013 9:11 am



Last month I attended a conference in Washington, D.C. After the conference, I walked over to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. The memorial’s location visually and symbolically connects the Lincoln Memorial, to its northwest, and the Jefferson Memorial, to its southeast. 

The massive memorial depicts Dr. King in a relief of a “Stone of Hope” emerging from two equally colossal “Mountains of Despair”. The inspiration for this memorial alludes to his signature speech, in 1963′s March in Washington, “I Have a Dream.” On one side of the Stone of Hope is the line, “Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope.”

The other quotation on the Stone of Hope, a paraphrase of his “The Drum Major Instinct” speech, has been controversial.The quotation reads, “I was a Drum Major for Justice, Peace, and Righteousness,” which paraphrases the longer and more humble: “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

Many critics of the quotation, including poet Maya Angelou, observed that the paraphrased version of the speech makes Dr. King sound arrogant, but actually the entire speech celebrates humility and service.

Delivered on Feb. 4, 1968, precisely two months before his death, the speech examines the “Drum Major Instinct” in all of us, the need, the desire, to feel out front, to be in the lead. As he notes, “We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.” We want to be out front, because we want to be noticed. Dr. King said that our first cry as a baby is a “bid for attention,” and that instinctive need for attention never leaves us.


And we see that so clearly today in our society, as we try to unravel the perplexing story about the fictional dying girlfriend of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o. We don’t have all the facts yet in this strange story, but we do know that an unhealthy “bid for attention” has something to do with it.

That desire to be out front consumed Lance Armstrong as he won an unprecedented seven consecutive Tour de France titles and assumed the mantle of greatest cyclist (perhaps, even, athlete) ever. Like many, I marveled at what he seemingly accomplished and drew immense inspiration from his achievements. Armstrong loomed before me as a modern-day Colossus, emerging from a battle with cancer and bestriding an inspiring world of triumph.

Now we all know that none of it was true, and we are left among the rubble of his confession, wondering about the price we’re willing to pay to achieve greatness, or at least apparent greatness.

As I stood before the King Memorial last month, I felt small, but he helped me to believe that my life can have meaning through humility and service.

As he said in his “Drum Major Instinct” speech, “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”

As I watch men strive to present to the public the appearance of greatness through fictional stories and other deceit, I am reminded that true greatness and genuine happiness arise from serving others.

President George H.W. Bush declared that the commemoration of Dr. King’s birthday would be more than celebration: it would also be a day of service. His declaration gives all of us permission to seek greatness through service to one another. Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. King, noted, “The greatest birthday gift my husband could receive is if people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds celebrated the holiday by performing individual acts of kindness through service to others.”

We have a tremendous opportunity (and responsibility) to be great,. That greatness will come, not through building houses made of dishonesty, but through service to one another, and through connecting with one another. We may be discouraged as we listen to the rancor in Washington, D.C., around issues that affect our lives. But we don’t have to feel small, insignificant and helpless. By using this day and every other as an opportunity to serve one another, we can, in Dr. King’s words, “make of this old world a new world.”

Michael Obel-Omia is head of the school at the Paul Cuffee School, a charter school in Providence.


Run to Home Base

Run to Home Base.

Shakespeare and Paul Cuffee School

A phenomenal video about English-Speaking Union’s Rhode Island State-wide Shakespeare Recitation Competition, held at Laurelmead in Providence, RI:,AAAAGXdrAiE~,GggrMDtPGfDQRV2JE-VpYYn-_FuT_PVe&bclid=275225728001&bctid=1439442913001


On MLK Day, stare with hope at the stars


In his transformative final speech, on April 3, 1968, to exhausted, dispirited Memphis sanitation workers, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded them that even though the days looked bleak and desolate, there was no better time to be alive. He imagined a conversation with God, in which he is given his choice of periods to live in: “Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th Century, I will be happy.’ ” In his prescient conclusion, he said he had looked from the mountaintop to see a Promised Land he knows they will reach, even if he might not get there. He was assassinated the next day.

Considering our present situation in Rhode Island — anxiety greeting pension reform, suspicion meeting education reform, distrust surrounding political ambition, anger mounting over government gridlock — one can easily empathize with the anxiety, suspicion, distrust and anger that welcomed the Reverend King to Memphis for that fateful speech. Just as Dr. King saw reason for hope, so do we, as we look to educate, inspire and uplift the youth of Rhode Island in our respective schools. As Dr. King opined, “But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” And from our perspective, the sky is brilliantly lit with guiding stars right now.

During this quiet (and dark) time of year, most of us, settling in for an austere time, determine to improve ourselves through stern resolution shaped by December’s indulgences and often forged by groaning scales or shrinking bank accounts. We have the luxury to celebrate a man and a movement that chose action over inaction, right over wrong, people over institutions. This day, which is the only national holiday that celebrates a man who was not a president (unless you include Christmas) — a day that inspires us to consider the future — provides us with the opportunity to serve others and to reflect meaningfully on who we are, what we want to do, and why. No other holiday asks us or allows us — demands of us — to be so reflective, so purposeful.

And as we reflect, we should consider how we can better prepare our children for the world that they will inherit. As far as we have come since 1968, their world will be filled with many of the same challenges that we have faced for centuries — and more — but we need to give our children the tools (and the courage) to address these challenges with more care, more kindness and more determination to reach the Promised Land. Our children need to be more, because the world is more complicated. They need to embrace differences, not merely tolerate them; they need to see injustice and bring justice in its stead; they need to understand despair and share hope; they need to experience darkness and shed light. They need to be and do more, because the urgency of the time demands it.

As educators at a public charter school and an independent school, we see our responsibility and we welcome it. Even though our schools seem different on the surface, they are similar in this important way: We want to teach our children that the highest form of wisdom is kindness and that the greatest gift that they can give to their community is their fully developed, intellectually curious, emotionally strong selves. Our job is not merely to disseminate information; rather, it is our charge to ignite the flame of curiosity.

We accomplish our task in wonderfully diverse communities because we realize that our strengths lie in our differences, lie in embracing what makes each one of us singular. Or, as the Diversity Statement at PCD states, “Diversity is the wealth of our community. When we embrace the many perspectives among us, we are enriched with an increased cultural awareness and sense of belonging.” We must constantly challenge our students to step out of themselves and seek to comprehend their world. In short, we must breathe life into Dr. King’s words, so that the sacrifices that he and the devotees of the civil rights movement made are not in vain.

Even as a complex human race, we are more alike than we are different — because of the courage that the Rev. Dr. —King showed, because of the light that he shed on the path to a better tomorrow.

As he stood before the sanitation workers on the eve of his death, he exhorted his audience to prepare for the Promised Land, because we will get there as a people. We, too, embrace that truth, and pledge to make real his dream, make honest his words, and stare at the stars above.

Michael C. Obel-Omia is head of the Paul Cuffee School, in Providence, and Vince Watchorn is head of the Providence Country Day School, in East Providence.

Originally published in the Providence Journal

Show Respect

Show Respect
By Michael C. Obel-Omia, Head of School at Paul Cuffee School, Providence, RI

Like many Americans, particularly African Americans, I followed with great interest Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ arrest by the Cambridge Police. The facts are simple enough: Dr. Gates, a preeminent scholar and Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, returned to his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Because his front door refused to budge, he summoned his driver to assist him in opening the door. The sight of two African American men on the steps of a lovely home in a tony neighborhood of an upscale community triggered suspicion, and a neighbor telephoned the police. A police officer arrived and demanded entrance to Dr. Gates’ home. Agitated and feeling harassed, Dr. Gates harangued the officer, questioning his motives and verbally insulting him. The officer arrested Dr. Gates for disorderly conduct, and in his police report described the scene with Dr. Gates as “chaotic.”

Yet, as simple as the facts are, they raise several puzzling questions. I have met Dr. Gates and nothing about him threatens. Even though I have heard him eruditely lecture on a number of topics, perhaps my most enduring image of him is his riding his tricycle along the bicycle paths of Martha’s Vineyard. The quintessential absent-minded professor, he plods along and sweetly greets all who pass him. That is the Dr. Gates I know and respect. How could this man contribute to a “chaotic” scene at his home?

The incident vexes me, but affirms what I try to teach my children: the police see an African American as a threat and will use any slight for detention. Even Dr. Gates, one of the least-threatening people I know, wound up arrested at his home. He had every right to be agitated, but he should have used everything in his power to defuse the situation. As an African American, he should have known better.

The police have stopped me several times, most often when I am driving. Oftentimes, I am rightfully stopped for speeding, and I always defer to and placate the police officer. The police officers usually respond to my calmness with respect, and the encounter ends peaceably. On occasion, however, there is no reason for my being pulled over, but I still use everything in my power to respond without anger. When I was younger, I challenged the officers, frustrated for the real reason behind my being detained: DWB – Driving While Black. Now that I am older, with three children depending on me, I maintain my cool, respond with too many, “Yes, Sir’s,” “No, Sir’s,” “I’m sorry, Sir’s,” and “Thank you, Sir’s” and hope that my politeness will allow me to continue on my way. Dr. Gates knows this rule, but it can be hard to respond deferentially, especially when the incident occurs in one’s home.

My real frustration with this situation, which resolved well with beers at the White House, is that very few have the political clout of Dr. Gates, so most of us have to recognize the potential for being tested every time we exit our house. Although it is the job of the police officer to defuse potentially dangerous situations, our teens, regardless of color, need to be prepared for these scenarios. Being detained by a police officer is an inherently anxiety-producing situation, like being called into the principal’s office. My job as a father is to prepare my children to respond with the patience of adulthood and suppress their adolescent impulses.

I recommend that parents speak candidly with their newly-minted teenage drivers, reminding them that they should respond with respect, patience, and calm in every encounter with a police officer. Remind your children that they have the most to lose in this situation – their license, freedom and time – so it’s best that they listen and respond politely. The consequences of not doing so are too unsettling to contemplate.