Ben Long, Notre Dame High School senior, winner of the West Virginia State Poetry Out Loud Finals.
Ben Long, Notre Dame High School senior, winner of the West Virginia State Poetry Out Loud Finals, addressed the Rotary Club of Buckhannon-Upshur earlier this month.

Local ‘Poetry Out Loud’ champion explains how the arts can provide a place of belonging throughout school years

BUCKHANNON – A longtime participant in the arts expressed how important they are for young people and students during their developmental years during a recent Rotary Club meeting.

Ben Long, the West Virginia Poetry Out Loud champion and longtime community theater participant, attended the June 14 Rotary Club of Buckhannon-Upshur Meeting to describe his experiences with the arts in school and in his community. Long discussed his experiences at St. Mary’s Catholic Grade School and then Notre Dame High School, both of which are located in Harrison County.

“I’ll start with Notre Dame and St. Mary’s because that is my most recent experience,” Long said. “I started my elementary school in Buckhannon at Union and then I transferred to St. Mary’s in fifth grade, and that was just around the time St. Mary’s was beginning to develop their arts program, and right away I got to participate in a play, which I think was sort of foreshadowing because the arts and theater in general was a massive foundation of my high school career in Notre Dame.”

Long credited his experience at Notre Dame to Jason Young and the staff that fostered his love of the arts. Young is also the founding producer and artistic director at Vintage Theatre Company.

“They really provided me with skills that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else and not just the skills and the tools that I need to act but also an appreciation of what it takes,” Long said. “I think that’s really important, and I think that is something that we’re starting to realize across the country.”

He said the arts encourages younger people to express themselves and explore who they are.

“Especially this year, being a senior, I’ve really gotten to see a lot of the younger kids grow and I think it’s exacerbated by COVID and the necessity of us all building closer relationships with people in a time where we all feel so separated,” Long said, “but I really have seen a lot of the younger kids in the theater blossom and bloom into exceptionally talented young artists.”

Long said theater, music, dance, visual arts and other mediums provide a home during high school years – a time when teenagers tend to feel isolated, different or separate from others.

“In high school, a lot of people have a tendency to separate themselves or at least feel separated from the group, but the pack has provided a place where, at least the kids who participate, can come and express themselves and explore that side of themselves without fear and I’m eternally grateful for that,” Long said.

He said exploring works such as Shakespeare provides several teachable opportunities.

“The goal of the program on the surface is, yes, to introduce young people to Shakespeare, and to give them that historic experience with arguably the most famous playwright of all time, but on a deeper level it’s teaching young actors how to be honest and giving young actors the tools they need to go out into the world and be good people and also be good artists,” Long said.

Long plans on attending West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he will major in theater.

“I look around and I see the kids in my school, the kids in my Shakespeare troupe, who are really great young artists and it gives me hope that as I grow into adulthood and as they grow into adulthood, that we will be creating a world where the arts have the kind of importance and respect and visibility in our world that they should,” Long said.