Evelyn Digirolamo teaching an Upstream Arts class

Evelyn Digirolamo leading a movement activity with an Upstream Arts participant (photo by Theo Goodell)


Well, we celebrated “The Year of the Teaching Artist” in style a couple weeks ago at The Art of We: Are Family. Check out the photos from the evening and the video tribute that we shared that night. But the year is not officially over until the end of June, so we’re going to keep sharing what our Teaching Artists bring to our work to make it that much richer. Evelyn (Evie) Digirolamo writes about her own experiences beautifully in this week’s post. – Matt Guidry, Artistic Director, Upstream Arts

My brother didn’t use words the same way as other people. He is on the autism spectrum, and for the first few years of his life he didn’t form recognizable sentences. But that’s not what I remember. He and I talked all the time. We were close in age, only 3 years apart, whereas my older siblings were separated from us by a 8.5 year gulf (remember when your age was measured in half years?) so we were constant companions. As we made cushion forts and choreographed dances to my dad’s showtune records, I don’t remember any struggle understanding each other—we had the language of shared experience. But I do remember lots of adults assuming he wasn’t making sense, and puzzled I would translate for them. “He says he wants…” Wasn’t it obvious?

Fast forward some years. I was around 14 and left to play hostess with a girl my age named Jazmine while our parents were having a meeting in another room. Jazmine had cerebral palsy. She used a wheelchair and communicated not with words or gestures, but with a subtlety that I had not yet learned to understand. At that time, I knew nothing about cerebral palsy and falsely assumed Jazmine was the one who didn’t understand. I figured speaking to her was a waste of time, so I called my boyfriend. While I was chatting with him on the phone I mentioned I was sitting with Jazmine, “Uh, shouldn’t you not talk about someone who’s just sitting there right next to you?” he asked. “Nah, it’s fine. I don’t think she understands what I’m saying,” the ignorance poured out of me…until…Jazmine grabbed me suddenly and pulled me towards her—hard–until I was looking straight into her eyes. “Oh…I’m sorry,” I mumbled. It was later I overheard my mom talking about how incredibly intelligent Jazmine was and constantly frustrated by other people overlooking her, and I felt my stomach churn remembering how I had done just that–the same way so many had overlooked my brother.

Fast forward again. I am kneeling in a classroom holding out two laminated pictures to a student: one with a lion, one with a mouse. I ask him which one he feels like inside. One of his aids says to me “he can’t talk” I glance over and give a cursory nod and smile to acknowledge I’ve heard them and turn my attention back—waiting. The student slowly shifts his head so he can see the two choices and I adjust to a better angle sensing his cue, and then he grows animated reaching decidedly for the lion and throwing his head back with a giant (and totally silent) “ROAR” and sly grin. The adults standing around him look startled and delighted, but I am too busy roaring back because the two of us have just exited the cramped classroom and are frolicking on the Savannah.


Evelyn Digirolamo teaching an Upstream Arts class

Evelyn Digirolamo offering visual choices on an iPad during an Upstream Arts class (photo by Theo Goodell)


I hear this a lot, including—as you saw—from myself. The “can’ts.” “She can’t walk” when I invite someone to dance. “He can’t see” when I invite someone to choose. “They can’t talk” when I ask someone to introduce themselves. The lovely thing about Upstream Arts is I’ve seen time and time again if you keep making the space for it and keep learning all the different ways people might reach out, eventually the day will come when they give back in some way and you find communication together. I have seen a man with no mobility beyond his facial muscles choreograph an entire dance with his eyes, I have met incredibly precise and imaginative directors without sight, and I have even heard people who I was told could not talk suddenly speak full sentences.

Sometimes it takes awhile before people answer back, and I wonder if that is because many people don’t really feel invited to answer when we ask them a question–because they sense we don’t expect them to—we assume they can’t. Or perhaps it is because it takes time to find our common language, like the language my brother and I shared growing up that had very little to do with words and so much more to do with shared experience. This is where the beauty of art offers a bridge. We find our common language in creating together. We find it by being open and being willing to play.

All the teachers at Upstream are artists, which means we are people who know there are many different ways to communicate. That’s what we do for a living after all: we speak to you with paint, fabric, poetry, sculpture, singing, dancing. We know there is something universal and primal that can be explored beyond just what words you say, and that there is such joy in reclaiming the whole human instrument as a means to speak. Hanging on the office wall at Upstream it says: “Where words fail, music speaks” –a quote by famed children’s author Hans Christian Anderson–and I think that is true of all the forms of art we use. When traditional means fail, art speaks.

Just last week, a woman was moved to tears in front of me, sharing how she had known someone in our class for years and had never gotten to know his personality until we started offering new ways for him to open up. Another woman emailed me recently sharing she now recognized so many more things as a means to communicate with her clients, even the slightest movement could mean they are reaching out to tell her something. It is humbling to hear from people, to hear that the playfulness we bring has opened up new depths of communication in relationships they have had for years. Who knew that pretending to be lions together could break down such big barriers? That was a pretty powerful silent roar.

I know my title is a teacher, but often that feels ill-fitting. I am constantly learning. I am learning new ways to speak. And communication takes more than one person, thus my students are my co-conspirators: we play and explore and discover together. My life is richer because so many people have let me into their private worlds: their thoughts and dreams that few seek out. The greatest distance we know in the universe is the distance between two minds, yet when we are willing to forge new paths, we can find a way across.