It was a cool Chicago evening in late April. I walked down the bleacher steps of the spacious new Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School auditorium (which doubles as one of the city’s public libraries) and found an open seat next to a smiling abuelita and her grandson. Soon, flickering lights signaled the show, “Hamilton,” was about to begin. After months of enjoying it on Spotify, this would be my first time seeing it performed live. Backstage, slightly sweaty students in colonial-style hats, coats and commoner clothing bumped into each other as they rushed to put themselves in order and ready the mics. In the faint light from the catwalks above the stage, they strained to even identify each other. All this only added to the nervousness and excitement of what they were about to perform. Before taking the stage, Alma Sigala, the 16-year-old Latina playing the role of Alexander Hamilton, says her teacher gathered everyone in. “Mr. Morrow gave us a very great pep-talk about how far we’ve come,” she says. “He is such an amazing teacher and person in general. His pep-talk really helped calm a lot of nerves.” Students took their starting places. The lights came up. And the stage came alive as dozens of high schoolers started singing the introduction of Hamilton’s story.
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten Spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished in squalor Grow up to be a hero and a scholar? The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father Got a lot farther by working a lot harder By being a lot smarter By being a self-starter By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charterIn some ways, many of them were singing their own stories. “He was an immigrant who made a legacy for himself and I want nothing more than to make an impact on my life, and in this world,” Alma says. “Being an immigrant from a Mexican family, I have a lot riding on my shoulders. I’ll be the first in my family to go to college and I want to just pass everyone’s expectations of what immigrants can do, including my own.” Terry Morrow, the choir teacher who organized the production, says it’s not just Alma. Most students at the school are either immigrants or children of immigrants. “The idea of being an immigrant and working hard resonates with all of our kids, especially in these, shall we say ‘tricky’ times,” he says. “The story of making something from nothing is what has seemed to speak to our kids a lot.” The themes of poverty and violence also hit close to home. When I left later that evening, my Uber driver told me this neighborhood is a “war zone after the sun goes down.” Alma later confirmed that for me. “Unfortunately, he is right,” she says. “The violence in this neighborhood is so bad, every kid here has pretty much gotten used to hearing the news of another shooting. Whenever we hear that someone else got shot or that another gang war happened, sometimes even if we hear that someone else died, we're never really shocked anymore.” As a parent myself, her statement leaves me unsettled. But she says things are slowly getting better. For Alma, the connection to Alexander Hamilton runs even deeper than being an immigrant, or facing violence and the effects of poverty around her. She also relates to the Founding Father on a personal level, and her teacher sees it too. “When you think about her background,” says Mr. Morrow, “she doesn't come from a classically trained musical world, but she has fire, wit and motivation which in many ways will get you farther than all the classical training in the world.” Just like Hamilton. She would kid, too, that much like Hamilton, “she cannot stop talking." Morrow says he first noticed that fire and wit last year when she was in his general music class. He also picked up on her performance skills when he heard her rapping Eminem in the hallways between classes. He recalled thinking, “Wow, great diction, solid rhythm.” But she lacked the confidence to share her talents, and even argued with Mr. Morrow about getting on stage. Little by little, he built her up: “I got her more involved in class, reading raps and standing tall in front of her peers.” For Alma, Mr. Morrow is an example of what makes her school so great. “I think what really sets this school apart from others is how the relationship between the teachers and the students is,” she says. “Our relationships with the teachers make us feel more confident when it comes to working in class or doing projects because we feel that we can confide in our teachers for any type of help, even out of school.” That confidence shows on stage. The girl playing Hercules Mulligan puts her own stamp on the character by striking a pose as she flamboyantly tosses a handful of rose petals during the wedding scene. The boy playing Aaron Burr is so on point, you’d think he trained with Leslie Odom Jr. (the actor in the Broadway version). And Alma commands the stage throughout the evening as she brings Alexander Hamilton back to life. Not to say the nerves had eased. “[if you had been backstage,] you probably would have heard half the company freaking out about which song was supposed to come next,” Alma says. “Honestly, every time I got backstage I would freak out about the song that we just sang. I was shocked and I remember, I kept telling myself, ‘Holy crap, I can’t believe I just performed that!’” Morrow says the experience in choir is translating to academic growth and developing character traits in his students. “The students in choir are literally showing evidence of their growth in how they are carrying themselves,” he says. “Many grades went up in their other core courses, and many students have since become more involved in school functions and more community-driven pursuits.” In the final songs, the emotions begin to swell. *Historical Spoiler Alert*: As I sit there, I can’t help feeling my eyes get warm with impending tears as Alma, playing Alexander Hamilton contemplates his impending death just before a bullet strikes him.
Legacy. What’s a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me You let me make a difference A place where even orphan immigrants Can leave their fingerprints and rise up I’m running out of time. I’m running, and my time’s up Wise up. Eyes up I catch a glimpse of the other side Laurens leads a soldiers’ chorus on the other side My son is on the other side He’s with my mother on the other side. Washington is watching from the other sideAs the song continues to express his killer’s regret and Hamilton’s longing for his wife, and as the next song—the final song—tells the audience of his wife’s forgiveness (you’ll just have to listen to the whole musical, or read his history if you haven’t already), and how she accomplished so much good after he died, I can’t hold back my tears. I’m quietly wiping them away, hoping my colleague from work doesn’t notice. Backstage Mr. Morrow is doing the same thing. But his tears come not only from the compelling story of Alexander Hamilton and the pride of seeing his students perform it on stage, but also from really knowing who his students are and what they came through to get here. “It's always been a dream to have the machine so well oiled that I am the last thing on their minds when it's show time,” says Morrow. “That's when I cry like a buffoon.” In the final moments, what looks like the entire cast fills the stage and sings the reverenced words in beautiful harmony: “Will they tell your story?...Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” And I’m at peace, sitting in an auditorium in a South Side Chicago “war zone.” I’m hopeful knowing that for these high school students, their story is just beginning.
Lane Wright is Director of Strategic Growth at Education Post. In addition to this role, he tells stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida’s governor, and he’s got a knack for breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand ...