Melody Herzfeld, a drama teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, received an award this week for excellence in theater education from the biggest name in Broadway honors—the Tony Awards.
The recognition comes just months after a gunman killed 17 people in a shooting at Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Fla. On that day, Herzfeld hid 65 of her students in her office for two hours.
“It’s truly humbling,” Herzfeld said in an interview about the recognition, which she’ll accept during the nationally televised ceremony June 10 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
The Excellence in Theatre Education Award, sponsored jointly by the Tony Awards and Carnegie Mellon University, goes yearly to a theater teacher who “has demonstrated monumental impact on the lives of students and who embodies the highest standards of the profession,” according to a statement released by the Tony Awards.
Herzfeld, who has taught at Stoneman Douglas for 15 years, has produced more than 50 shows and led her students to win many Cappies, national recognition for high school theater and performing arts.
She said it’s hard to put into words how significant the award is to her after all she and her students have experienced.
“After everything happened at our school, our kids really dismantled,” said Herzfeld.
‘A Screeching Halt’
In the weeks leading up to the shooting, her students were in rehearsals for a big upcoming production. They were preparing to apply for that year’s Cappies, she said.
For many of her students, said Herzfeld, “coming to this room every single day after school is everything.” After the shooting, she said, “everything just came to a screeching halt.”
In the days and weeks that followed, she worried constantly about her students—especially the more introverted ones, who she thought wouldn’t have an outlet to process their emotions. Near the end of February, she sent a message to all of her drama classes asking them to meet up.
They sat together on the floor of a room at a Marriott hotel near the school, a central location that Parkland students had been using to come together. There they brainstormed ideas about a performance piece they could put together that would express what they were feeling.
Two girls played a snippet of song they had recorded on their phones, singing while accompanied by an acoustic guitar. That piece of music would eventually become Shine, the song Parkland students performed at the CNN town hall in late February.
Herzfeld “just got chills” when she first heard the finished version. Somehow, she said, the song captured the moment’s indescribable grief, but also offered hope.
Finding Refuge in the Arts
Since the Parkland shooting, several students from Stoneman Douglas have become leading voices in the push for gun-control measures.
When some of her students started speaking out and pushing for policy change in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Herzfeld saw their drama training at work.
Performing is about telling your truth and devoting all of your focus to the task at hand, said Herzfeld, tenets that prepared her students to confidently advocate for their goals in a public setting. “This is kind of like their calling,” she said.
But even as her students led the public debate around gun control, they were still vulnerable.
When the Parkland students came back to school, they gravitated toward the places where they felt most comfortable and most at home. For some, said Herzfeld, that was her classroom. Students count on their arts and humanities classes to be places where they can be open and vulnerable, and where they can “lay their minds away,” she said.
Students processed their experiences in different ways. Kids who were normally shy became more withdrawn, she said, while those who were more outgoing suddenly couldn’t control their energy. Herzfeld had to be patient with her students, she said, and let them use her room as a refuge.
Photo: Tony Awards
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.