Sanctuary Lost

By Ron Bieganski

I wanted to write my first piece for Literate Ape weeks ago but my panic attacks would sneak up on me and get their big claw hands into the middle of my chest squeezing the desire out of me.

Some people want safe spaces, and for 30 years, I have been fighting for my students not to have safe spaces. A safe space is an illusion that limits discussion and inhibits growth. What I have wanted in my workshops with youth is sanctuary. Sanctuary is a place where you can be yourself, express yourself, make mistakes, grow from mistakes, say ignorant things and have a discussion that may change your thinking. That is the space I tried to create with control of the front door so that parents, friends or other teachers just couldn’t walk in on us testing ideas out. A true sanctuary is where one can express that out-there idea, a possibly funny, racy idea, and two minutes later be in the middle of a discussion that makes one want to say something different.

I don’t want my students to be middle-of-the-road. I want my students to gloriously crash and burn. To be able to do that, students need a place where they can experiment. To do that, I need to be able to be a teacher who can push them out of their middle-of-the road comfort zone. To have a sanctuary like that is extremely scary nowadays because a student may conflate the idea of being challenged with being emotionally abused.

For 30 years I was afraid of one thing: my students not growing into artists. I was not afraid of challenging my students. I was not afraid of boring my students with a repetitive exercise that would get an idea deep into their muscles so they would be able to react and stop thinking too much. Six years ago I lost my sanctuary.

After 30 years teaching and directing at a youth theater in Chicago, I lost my sanctuary and questioned a large part of my beliefs. I lost that blind mule running in the dark, or that riding a bike downhill with no hands at night fearlessness that transformed my students from hesitant artists into warriors. I lost it and I want it back. I feel my life depends on me getting it back.

I want to take my hands off the handlebars again. I want to move into a place that is not safe, but will allow me to grow. The claw in my chest just squeezed a little tighter. A large bird stands on my chest with his eyes closed.


Ron Bieganski started teaching acting, yoga, contact improvisation and creative writing in the Cabrini-Green housing project in 1986. He is now is co-director of the youth formed theater called the NeuroKitchen Arts in Chicago. Bieganski hopes to continue writing at Literate Ape about the essentials of youth creative education as he builds a group of 20 teenagers into a theater ensemble of wicked artists.