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ARTICLE: "Be A Lion" -- a message for middle schoolers... and all of us

This summer, I'm directing the music for a production of The Wiz (junior) at the Maryland Academy of Dance. The cast is primarily 5th-8th graders with a few younger ones sprinkled in.

The Wiz is a super fun show with awesome music. But, the more we rehearse the music, dialogue, and dance, the more the message of this show really hits me.

Through the whole story, Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion are each desperately looking for something. They believe that if they can just make it to see the great and powerful Wizard of Oz, the Wiz will give them what they're lacking.

However, in the end, the Wiz doesn't actually give them anything that they do not already have within themselves. Full stop. Read that again.

The Wiz does not give them anything that they do not already have within themselves.

Anyone who works with middle school students will tell you that this age is such a major period of transition and growth for young people. There's so many changes. So many new feelings. So many discoveries. So many uncertainties. And, with all that, there often comes many insecurities, too.

We've had to really dig deep into this experience during rehearsals. One of the songs that the students have found most meaningful - and that I know will bring the audience to tears - is "Be a Lion."

Lion had a hard life growing up. He expresses that he feels alone. And, he expresses that he feels like he's not good enough. With all that heaviness weighing on him, he's... scared. All the time. And fear holds him back from... being a lion.

In "Be a Lion," Dorothy and the other friends rally around Lion and encourage him to lay inhibition aside and to stand strong and tall. They sing, "You're a lion... Be a lion."

You're a lion. Be a lion.

Lion IS a lion. This character goes through such a wonderful arc in the show. He discovers within himself who he is. As he grows in courage, he becomes more... himself.

Lion concludes the song asserting, "I'm standing strong and tall... On courage I must call. I'll keep on trying, and trying, and trying. I'm a lion. In my own way, I'm a lion."

The phrase "standing strong and tall" connotes courage and confidence. And, I especially love that line about "trying and trying and trying" because maybe I will fail. But I'll keep on trying. Maybe I'll be scared. But I'll keep on trying. I'm definitely not perfect. But I'll keep on trying. "Trying and trying and trying." What a statement of persistence and commitment to continued growth.

The journey down the yellow brick road in Oz - for all four of the main characters - is really a journey to self-actualization.

What a powerful journey for middle school students, right? And for me, too. And for you.

Also poignant in this show is that the journey of the main characters to become themselves is facilitated by their love and support of each other. They believe in each other and who they each can be.

One of the reasons I love working at the Maryland Academy of Dance is how deeply all of the staff care about each individual student. Of course, we teach them performance skills and what it takes to become professional artists. But, more importantly, we care about who they are and who they become as people. Often, I hear teachers telling the young people, "I believe in you."

Teachers have this special power to look at you and see who you are... and also who you could be. We see the potential inside. So, when we tell you, "I believe in you," we are believing in you and who you are now, and we are believing in who you will be. With our whole hearts.

Believe in yourself, as I believe in you.

As I've told this cast of The Wiz on more than one occasion this summer, my greatest hope is that they will grow to believe in themselves more and more. I hope they carry with them through their whole lives the words that Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, sings to Dorothy near the end of the show: "Believe in yourself, right from the start. Believe in the magic that's inside your heart... Believe in yourself, as I believe in you."

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs chart licensed from by Androidmarsexpress, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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