‘The Empty Chair’ Hopes To Bring Awareness
Magnolia High School has dealt with a lot this academic year. Drug abuse has caused a fear among students and parents and some even think the administration could be doing more to fix the problem. While many of the drug problems start elsewhere, it’s true that, like every school, drugs find their way into the classroom. Magnolia High School is doing a lot to rid the halls of drugs and to further help the students deal with their problems and drug abuse. Among many of the tactics implemented to educate the students was a topical theatrical production and an informative lecture to the student body presented March 4 and 5.
Members of Magnolia High School Thespian Troupe #531 performed the one-act play, The Empty Chair, by Tim Kelly on March 4 and 5 for public and school performances. The dramatic piece served many purposes as Director Eileen Miller sought out the play following the many drug-related incidents since this past summer. “Our community has experienced a great deal of drug-induced pain in the past several months,” Miller said. “Right here, in our little town, we are seeing substance abuse destroy the promising futures of young men and women.”
The community has reached out in many ways through public and private meetings, educational seminars, and informative newspaper articles and interest stories. People have tried their best to be more aware and most importantly make young people aware of the sincere dangers drugs provide as well as show them that there are other ways of dealing with problems. In her own means of education and awareness, Miller used theater as a way to reach audiences as well as help student actors cope with the growing drug epidemic. “With everything going on, I had to do something. I had to do this,” said Miller. “We have problems here and this is my way of getting through to the students.”
The powerful script dealt with the issues facing a group of teenagers following the death of one of their friends as a result of an overdose. While attending a meeting at a rehabilitation facility for adolescent substance abusers, each character faced his or her own demons, while trying to understand the loss of a friend.
Although there is only a small body of research concerning the degree to which theatrical performances affect behavior, the few studies indicate that adolescents are moved by performances that are realistic in their portrayals. The Empty Chair was indeed realistic to the student body of MHS. Particularly, the young actors involved had attested that their characters were familiar to them and each student had a personal story to tell and a reason for wishing to participate in the production. “It was devastating to hear my students say they’ve dealt with drugs in some way or another,” Miller said. “My students really wanted to say something. For one thing, they wanted to send the message that it’s okay not to do drugs.”
“Too many families are faced with an empty chair at the dinner table every evening,” Miller lamented. Drug use has also led to empty chairs in classrooms, as students are removed from the school and placed into alternate education settings. “I was hoping for awareness. I also hoped that those who need help were inspired to get help from the play. There have been a few studies that show the more real the play, the more likely it will affect someone,” Miller underlined.
At the school performances held March 5, Wetzel and Tyler County Adult Probation Officer John Lantz spoke to the student body at MHS. He was sympathetic that the problems student face these days are immense, however he stressed that choosing to use drugs to cope is the wrong thing to do. “Most can’t bear that pressure so they turn to drugs or alcohol,” said Lantz. “But you have no idea the compounded effect you have on future children. It’s an ongoing cycle.”
He presented data based on 2005 studies conducted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). This data showed that there are 33,000 teen deaths each year due to drugs, and roughly 30 percent of teens have tried drugs in the last year. While this data is a bit old, there’s no doubt such numbers would be the same if not worse by now. “Doing drugs is like drinking Liquid Plumber,” Lantz summated. “Your life, whether you know it, starts now. You’re making decisions that affect you, your family, your community, and your school.”
Lantz also quoted data that prove the death rates from drug overdoses are rising every year. The U.S. Government determined that a jumbo jet filled with 100 people crashing every day for a week would equal the number of kids who die in a year from drug-related incidents.
Lantz recommended students talk to friends, family, and school counselors about any problems they might be having. He even recommended they watch shows like A&E’s Intervention and MTV’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew to help better understand the effects of drug abuse.
He closed his presentation with a true, personal story about a friend he grew up with who always seemed to be getting into trouble because of drugs and alcohol. He saw this friend a few times after they’d grown apart and each time his friend had just gotten out of jail. Most recently, he had seen his friend in an orange suit at Lantz’s workplace, the Wetzel County Courthouse. His friend had said he was finally going to get things right. He’d had a son and was going to change his life for the better. Sadly, at the age of 39, Lantz’s friend had died from drug abuse just last winter.
“These stories are too common these days,” said Lantz. “The drugs are killing you each time you use them. They eat away at you and you don’t even realize it.”
Principal Kathi Schmalz also spoke to the student body. “We are here for a reason and bringing drugs in here only takes away from what we’re trying to do here,” she said. “We’re taking steps now to avoid the empty chair at the dinner table or in the classroom.” She also talked about how the community is looking at Magnolia negatively and saying things. She reiterated that Magnolia is no different than any other school in the nation. “Every school has drugs. It’s the choice of this administration to do all we can to get the drugs out of this school.”
Another topic addressed that afternoon was taking the responsibility to report any drug use students see at school. “It’s about keeping the hallways clean,” Schmalz said. “It’s about the safety of everyone.” The principal and school guidance counselor Shannon Smith urged students to talk to them about anything they know or see, and even come to them to talk about problems in general. “Learning to cope with problems without using drugs is a concept lost on so many,” said Smith. “There are better, safer ways to cope and we can help.”
They also stressed that a concerned student is not a narc or a snitch. “We would never reveal your identity,” Schmalz said. “You could be getting the help a kid needs.” The final message Principal Schmalz left with the student body was one of responsibility. “We are responsible for you, but we want you to be responsible for you.”
The Empty Chair is the theatre troupe’s competition piece for the state theater festival to be held in Charleston April 8-10. More importantly than competing, the students hope their play will touch and inspire their state-wide peers.