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Heidi Stevens: He was almost bullied out of ballet— now he's a Juilliard grad. What one student's journey can teach about this moment in time.

Tribune News Service logo Tribune News Service 5/26/2023 Heidi Stevens, Tribune News Service
Chicago Academy for the Arts ballet student Zachary Jeppsen works with classmates at one of the facility's dance studios on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. © Lou Foglia/Chicago Tribune/TNS Chicago Academy for the Arts ballet student Zachary Jeppsen works with classmates at one of the facility's dance studios on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017.

Zachary Jeppsen started dancing when he was 4. His dad would make playlists, and Zachary would perform for whatever group of siblings or friends or grown-ups filled his family’s living room.

Even at age 4, his talent was palpable enough that one of his mom’s friends urged her to enroll Zachary at The Dance Factory, a small studio in Delavan, Wisconsin, near the farm where he and his family lived. She followed her friend’s advice, and by seventh grade Zachary was performing with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School’s pre-professional program. He’d found his calling.

His classmates at school, however, weren’t having it.

“Being a boy wearing tights isn’t really looked at as cool in a lot of places,” Zachary said.

He was mercilessly bullied. He thought about homeschooling. He thought about giving up ballet. Anything to make the cruelty stop.

Instead, his mom looked into enrolling Zachary at The Chicago Academy for the Arts, where another Dance Factory alum attended a decade earlier. It would mean a six-hour commute each day: leaving home by 5:30 a.m. to catch the 6:22 a.m. train from Harvard, Illinois, to Chicago’s Ogilvie Transportation Center to catch a bus to the school, then doing the reverse at the end of each day. Then, when he got home around 9 p.m., diving into his farm chores.

He jumped at the chance.

“My initial feeling when I came here was, ‘Oh my gosh. I fit in,’” Zachary said.

That was in 2017. I was at the Chicago Academy for the Arts interviewing Zachary because I was so touched by his dedication not only to his craft, but to honoring the parts of himself that felt the truest — even if they were the parts that got him bullied. No small feat for any age of human, let alone a teenage one.

This month, Zachary graduated from The Juilliard School. He received the Martha Hill Prize for Outstanding Achievement and Leadership in Dance on his way out, and he has a summer job dancing with the Buglisi Dance Theatre.

“You find your people,” he told me by phone from his New York apartment, shortly after graduation. “I feel so loved and I feel that I got to become the person I am because I was able to find my people: my friends, my teachers.”

I love this ending (which is actually a beginning, of course) because Zachary honoring his whole, authentic, beautiful self back then means he's living a whole, authentic, beautiful life now — one that also brings art and beauty to others.

But I also love it for this particular moment — when each day brings a new story of a grown-up, or a group of grown-ups, trying to wall off beauty, wall off curiosity, wall off empathy, wall off belonging, with their misguided, misplaced bans.

A graphic novel about the Holocaust. A Michelangelo statue. A Disney movie about Ruby Bridges. A Dolly Parton/Miley Cyrus duet.

And maybe the most egregious of all: Amanda Gorman’s gorgeous inaugural poem, "The Hill We Climb," which was just yanked from a South Florida elementary school after a parent complaint.

“I wrote 'The Hill We Climb' so that all young people could see themselves in a historical moment,” Gorman wrote in a statement about the ban. “Robbing children of the chance to find their voices in literature is a violation of their right to free thought and free speech.”

It’s also an abdication of our responsibility to help young people figure out who they are, who they want to be, what makes them feel alive, what helps them feel known, loved, recognized, understood.

What if Zachary had given up ballet?

“Here’s a thing I believe about art-making,” said Jason Patera, head of school at The Chicago Academy for the Arts. “Anyone, regardless of ability or experience, can have a personal transformative experience with art. Anybody who’s taken a few piano lessons or bought some art supplies probably knows that. That process of writing a song or writing a story or making a painting changes something about you inside. That’s a reason we should all engage in creative things.”

I called Patera this week to talk about Zachary. Patera’s school has sent multiple students to Juilliard, but I only knew Zachary.

“What very few people have,” he continued, “is the opportunity and ability to also transform an audience with their work. Zach is one of those people. We saw it when he walked in the door.”

But opportunity and ability don’t happen without cultivation, without space, without exposure to ideas and insights and humanity.

“We see sometimes in young people this existential crisis of being an artist,” Patera said. “They see the world around them and these awful things happening — war, division, violence — and it can be easy for a young person to see that and start thinking, ‘What I do is maybe not important. The art I make is maybe not important.’ But I contend that’s when their art is most important.”

Here’s why.

Patera said he’s often called upon to defend the role of the arts, and often those calls turn art into a transaction of sorts. Art improves math scores, reading aptitude, graduation rates.

“But art is important because of that personal transformation,” Patera said. “That transformation can be a feeling. That transformation can be a message. It can be a message of hope, of telling stories we might not hear otherwise, of getting to some truth that words alone aren’t going to be able to get to.

“There’s no shortage of things we need truth about,” he continued. “No shortage of things we need hope about, need to be uplifted about, or, at the very least, need to feel like we’re not alone about. Art has the power to bring us back to a place of hope, to a place of unity, to a place of inspiration — and, when we need it, to a place of action.”

What if that’s the lens we looked through when we’re deciding what our kids should read, see, hear, learn? What if we looked for sparks? Catalysts for transformation, hope, unity, inspiration?

What if we helped them find their people? Like Zachary did?

I think that’s how we change the world.

©2023 Tribune News Service. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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