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Where Weird Is Wonderful

Where Weird Is WonderfulSunil Swaroop (G'08), director of Creative Arts/Jackson Troupe, discusses how the two groups help children discover who they are through the arts.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [08.22.08] In most every grade or class, there are those few kids who dare to be different - even if it means ridicule or rejection by their peers. Sunil Swaroop (G'08) and the staff of the Creative Arts/Jackson Troupe summer arts program have made a point of encouraging these daring - and often talented - children to be themselves, quirkiness and all.

The longest running creative arts program in New England, the troupe was created 54 years ago by professors in Tufts' drama department to bring an appreciation of the arts to children in the surrounding communities. The program now serves nearly 200 children each summer.

Swaroop, started out as a drama teacher in his first year with the troupe while he was a student at Tufts working toward a Ph.D. in drama. Within three years he became the director and says he considers the group his "little bit of magic."

"One of the things we stress is that this is a safe space where you can try anything you want and it allows the children to open up," Swaroop says. "Most of the kids here get picked on in school and called 'weirdos' because they are the artsy kids, so this becomes a venue for them to be appreciated for those types of things."

While historically the names "Creative Arts" and "Jackson Troupe" were created to distinguish a difference in age groups-Creative Arts being for students in second and third grade and the latter being for fourth, fifth and sixth-Swaroop says that distinction doesn't ring true in the classrooms.

"When the kids get to camp, they mix up in so many different ways we don't really separate them, so it becomes more just a distinction in name," he says.

On an average day, Swaroop says each camper attends four art classes-visual arts, music, drama and dance-with each class working in its own way and on its own schedule. With the summer broken up into two three-week sessions, the different classes join together in theme after a week and a half, working to create end-of-session performances.

"They are fantastic, though they are not designed to be," Swaroop says. "They are designed simply to give the children a sense of accomplishment."

Over they years, Swaroop says many parents are surprised by the difference they see in their children by the end of the summer.

"It's fascinating because we have had children who in their own schools are viewed as spastic," he says. "The teacher models the behavior of belittling the child, and the students then model that same behavior, and this awesome, quirky weird kid is then ostracized. This is the same kid who then comes here, and because we celebrate that quirkiness, it becomes something really fantastic. Sometimes we end up teaching parents certain behavioral methods to help them be able to deal with their quirky child at home."

Swaroop adds, "Every day is about giving the children victories and letting them achieve things and know that they are awesome, but for us we have the more long-term victories of getting to say, 'Wow, that was the shy quiet kid, and look at them now.'"

Profile and slideshow by Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications.
Photos by Alonso Nichols, University Photography.

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