Consider the masks of tragedy and comedy familiarly attached to depictions of classical drama – those masks portray universal concepts intended to unite an audience in their understanding of shared human experience. The ancient Greek dramatic tradition saw actors wear masks on stage as well, masks that were in no way defensive, but rather signaled transformation: actors under masks were considered to have become their characters, a literal metamorphosis, where the mask’s features would transmit to the audience the emotional state and salient features of the character. Masks can project identity more than they cloud it.
Juliet on her balcony says to Romeo (as DCD eighth graders have learned):
Thou know’st the mask of night is on my face,
Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek
For that which thou hast heard me speak tonight.
The night, her mask, hides the blush; but crucially not the feelings, the truth of her “prodigious birth of love.” She uses words and doesn’t hide. She speaks to Romeo through the mask, in the darkness, and one act later she will return to the theme when she pleads for night’s return in order once again to be frank in her love.
Your children – middle schoolers – are not tragedians, thankfully, despite how they may transform your home into theatre from time to time. They are contemporary adolescents, furiously sculpting and painting masks on Snapchat, Instagram, Facetime, in the classroom, on the phone. This is good. It is also inevitable, developmentally speaking. The adolescent brain responds to coded instructions, summoning into motion the gears, levers, and belts of the me-machine. You’ve probably noticed.
The eighth-grade program at DCD is built specifically, intentionally, to meet this process head-on, not to steer kids away from mask-making but instead to help them engage in it with conscious purpose. In Advisory this fall, eighth-grade students were asked to reflect on the nature of their identities and were tasked with defining “façade”, to identify the facades they themselves use – measuring their presentation of self against self-determined authenticity. “Realness” is important in eighth grade (as elsewhere). They see the facades and masks that we, the adults, wear. I’m “Mr. Thacher,” a constructed role that will shift when they graduate. You might be snapping at your 13-year-old for a chore unfinished or a breach of decorum and answer a phone call with a sparkling, jovial “hello, how ARE you?!” – your child watched you switch the masks, and alive as they are to hypocrisy our eighth graders need reassurance that these masks are substantive tools of presentation, not the foundations of cowardice.
In our Humanities class during the three-week “mini-term” between Thanksgiving and winter break, we asked students to don masks, verbally and emotionally, as they wrote and spoke in the first person from the perspectives of historical figures, both student and adult. Some of these individual figures embodied values that our students share, some verged on the reprehensible, or at least disappointing. This is a huge risk for adolescents and for teachers, to adopt the voice and wear the mask of another, real, person. In the last week before winter break, our students made themselves raw and vulnerable, wearing masks they hadn’t made, plunging into this complicated exercise with so much trust and good faith. With these risks comes the possibility of sensing immense, heretofore unknown power, and we had the privilege this year to observe that power settling on the shoulders and in the hands of these adolescents as afternoon December darkness began to close around the Valentine Center, our bright little island wrapped in the mask of approaching night. It was a potent way to wind up the fall and step into a new year, where masks may be refurbished, repurposed, or discarded.