Southwest High School has been getting a lot of attention lately for being a petri dish burbling and gurgling with the same conversations and tensions about race, class and gender that are going on all over the melting pot. By my lights, Southwest is also one of the most interesting and well-rounded schools in the state.
I guest-taught at a couple of art and English classes there recently, and at the end of the morning, despite my concerns about the adult world, I walked out of those doors with great hope for the future, knowing that these smart, fearless, creative, scared kids are dreaming their dreams of a better time.
Southwest was one of the first schools in the state to organize for the school walkouts, and they’ll undoubtedly be on the frontlines for March For Our Lives on March 24. “We’re the mass shooting generation. I was born months after Columbine. I’m 17 years old and we’ve had 17 years of mass shootings,” Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s Cameron Kasky told “60 Minutes” March 18, and that sad fact has inspired teenage leaders who vow they’ll run for political office, fight the NRA and make substantive change at the top.
All the while, I’ve kept the high school artists and students who might not be joiners in mind. Not everyone wants to run for office or fight to change the system in conventional ways, and there are all kinds of leaders beyond the athletes, politicians and future barons of industry: There are the bookworms, freaks, geeks, outsiders, wallflowers, quiet philosophers and poets whose contributions shouldn’t be overshadowed.
“Southwest is probably the most artsy school of all the Minneapolis public schools, if you ask me. Just due to the boosters we have and the ability to get people involved — it’s been an incredible opportunity to be able to do what we’re able to do,” said Ronan Pirner, a senior at Southwest.
At the moment, Pirner is performing as one of the leads in the school’s spring musical “Rent” — the inspiring story of a bunch of twentysomethings during the New York City rent strike of the ’80s at the height of the AIDS epidemic. “Rent” is a good reminder of the boho community that can spring up around arts, theater and music scenes, and it serves as an affirmation that, in a world of corrupt politicians and creepy adults, there is a fierce nobility in pursuing an artistic life.
“I think the play’s subject matter, about people turning to the arts, and the themes of friendship, love and death and all this stuff … it ties spectacularly well into the politisphere right now,” said Pirner, who plays the part of Roger, an AIDS-ravaged rocker who wants to write one last great song before he dies. “It’s kind of uncanny, in fact. And for me at least, to logically wrap my head around what is going on and what has come to be these days … it feels like art is one of the only ways that I can kind of legitimize that in my mind.
“Love and making community absolutely helps push through these times. I’ve been connecting much more with my friends and my community much more than it feels like I did before. Like, trying to get through this period without people who I can connect with and talk to about the struggles that I feel and that others are feeling as well — without that outlet, it would be nearly impossible to grasp what’s going on.”
The first number in “Rent” asks, “How do you measure a year in the life?” It’s a question high school students all over America will be asking themselves about this dark year come graduation time. How to answer? For his part, Pirner and his friend Bella Blackshaw are preparing for auditions for “If/Then,” to be staged by their six-year-old independent student-run theater company that goes by the name TASU Theater Co., which stands for — what else? — Try And Stop Us.
Pirner encourages all students to “look us up on Facebook and come audition March 26th and 27th from five to seven.”
“I’ve been accepted to a few schools at this point,” Pirner said about his post-high school plans. “I’m going into college pre-med, and I want to help as many people as I can in a physical way, but I also intend on pursuing my passion of performing in some form.
“We as people in this democracy, we have to do whatever we can to push back on what we don’t like. Any opportunity in that is going to be valid and useful in the fight for change, whether that be protesting, doing a show, writing music, doing a mural, making art, just doing literally whatever. We all have to take part in that in order to create that change.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].