The painful experiences and angry voices of Howard County students who've been pigeonholed as stupid, weird or uneducated are vividly dramatized in "Take the First Step," a one-hour play now making its way through Howard County high schools.
The play speaks of stereotypes and labels.
Male students in a math class chide a female student that "girls can never do math." A white student who has a best friend who's black is called a "wigger" and warned that her skin will change color if she continues the friendship.
The play is the work of 40 high school students who set out last year to capture how it feels when others brand them.
"They felt very strongly that we as human beings have lost a sense of respect for each other," said Lynn Broderick, a Centennial High School teacher who co-wrote the play with Centennial student Benjamin Hawkes, who graduated last year.
"We are so quick to label other people and we don't take time to find out who they really are," she says. "We are content with looking at the outside and never take time to look at the inside."
The lead is a talented, physically disabled young man who rarely speaks because he fears people will not accept him.
He isolates himself, eats lunch in the art room and rarely speaks in class, though his teachers describe him as one of their brightest.
"He represents people who feel so overwhelmed about the labels that are forced upon them that they start to believe they are who people believe they are," Ms. Broderick says.
The disabled character's friend is a young, black female student who tries to bring him out of his shell and make him realize that his disability does not affect his personality.
But she knows that people have labeled her likely to become an unwed teen-age mother and too stupid to learn math.
The play travels to different high schools this month and next month as part of the school system's multicultural living skills program.
It has a cast of eight actors and actresses from Theatrical Arts Production, an arm of the nonprofit Columbia School of Theatrical Arts, and is the result of a partnership co-sponsored by Toby's Dinner Theatre.
Although the play carries the voices of the 40 students, it also stems from experiences Ms. Broderick had as a college student who was taught by a physically disabled English teacher.
Ms. Broderick recalls the first day of freshman English, waiting for her teacher to appear. When he did come, he rolled in on a wheelchair with a pen taped to one hand and chalk to the other.
"I sunk down to my seat and I said, 'You got to be kidding. This ismy teacher? This is who's going to teach me English?' " she said.
She left at the end of class, determined to get into another one. None was open, and fearing that she would fall behind in her schedule, she stayed in the English class.
A week later, she returned. The teacher had put her writing sample on the overhead as a discussion tool.
"I confess I was ashamed about what I felt that day," she said. And later, "he always worked hard to prove himself to me."
What Ms. Broderick found shocking in working on the play were the stories students brought back. One black student stood onstage wearing a Yale sweat shirt during an assembly, when someone shouted, "Why do you have the sweat shirt on? It's only a dream you're going to Yale."
Another student's best friend had been ridiculed and driven out of high school because he had revealed he was gay.
"I shuddered that they were that young and dealing with complicated issues of race, of sex, of gender," Ms. Broderick said. "Some of the stories that came back really made me sit down. The fact that high school students almost have to go into those situations unprepared is mind-boggling."
The play has no ending, because it asks students to take the first step to see what they can do to end society's stereotyping. Part of the experience of the play is for students to break up into small groups to discuss solutions.
Wilde Lake High School students who saw the play last week came up with several.
"Start treating people the way you want to be treated," said ninth-grader Jamie Marcus.
Her classmate, 14-year-old Brian Broadus, suggested starting a "national movement, something that brings everyone together," he said. "Everyone needs to feel closer to one another."
Theatrical Arts Production will give a free community performance at 7:30 p.m. today at Howard High School, 8700 Old Annapolis Road in Ellicott City.