Virtual Assembly with Dr. Mykee Fowlin
By Eva Mandelbaum
When teachers clicked on the link for an in-school virtual assembly knowing little more than the fact that a guest speaker would be presenting, most of us were skeptical, not knowing the half of the treat that would be in store. Dr. Mykee Fowlin almost instantly demystified this uncertainty by diving straight into his quirky performance, wearing multiple masks.
Dr. Mykee Fowlin, actor, psychologist, storyteller, poet (and a multitude of other things that are far from boring), gave an unexpected, offbeat, stunningly beautiful presentation to White Plains High School students on April 19, 2021. This guest speaker dove deep, giving White Plains High School students and staff the message of hope we’ve all been needing for this past year.
Beginning his presentation wearing multiple masks shielding his face dramatized the opening moments of his introduction, even adding a fear factor. Alluding to the masks we wear because of the COVID-19 Pandemic, he stated the unspoken reality for most of us, “We hate wearing masks [now], but before the pandemic, every morning getting out of bed, we’d put on an invisible mask.” This figurative invisible mask resonated with students on a personal level. “Who are you behind that mask?” he questioned further. “You don’t know me until you know me,” he continued, reciting the title of his presentation. Quoting the great Langston Hughes, Fowlin constantly circled back to the deep notion that he’s “still here.” Living through a global pandemic, this doleful notion carries weight for all of us. Without leaving enough time for students to process this enough to shed a tear, he continued. For all of the despondent comments, there were plenty of hopeful statements made, some even with humor peeking through, including Fowlin proclaiming himself a magic-hunter. “I try to help people see things that no one’s really paying attention to,” he declared.
One particularly hopeful thought he shared was a philosophy he lives by, that he calls the “Japanese Tea Cup Philosophy.” This philosophy originated when Fowlin found himself questioning why the teacups are “so weird” at a sushi restaurant. He had grown up with teacups that have handles but Japanese tea cups do not have handles. When he asked his waiter, “What’s wrong with your teacups,” he shared to the group that he now realizes it was almost as though he was asking, “What’s wrong with you?” The waiter's response was kind and educational; he simply smiled and laughed, then lowered his voice and explained, “If it’s too hot to hold, it’s too hot to drink.” From this experience, Mykee explained that he learned an important lesson: people’s temperature is far more important than their handles. “We believe out handles (race, country of origin, political/religious views, clothes, and music) are who we are but they are not.” The temperature of who you are is based on your stories, your experiences, and who you are as a person.
This experience is not a little mistake Fowlin made once, but it is deeper than that. From this experience, Fowlin learned the importance of understanding and celebrating individual voice and spirit rather than categorizing people into groups. In addition to sharing personal experiences, Fowlin used the experiences of made-up characters to help give a window into the lives of others. He became fully consumed with each character and was no longer Dr. Mykee Fowlin. When he got into character, he fully became it, whether it be a child who got bullied growing up, a gay football player with a special needs brother, or a misfit teen. Using his incredible acting ability, he managed to fully embody these characters’ stories, making for an unexpected, stunningly beautiful performance, leaving students in awe. From each character we learn an incredibly important lesson. From the child, we learn that kindness is a secret weapon. According to Fowlin, “If you are able to outmatch someone’s cruelty by being kinder, funnier, or weirder, you can get them to stop.” From the football player, we learn to look past our own biases and stereotypes we might have, and to not “just settle for what you’re supposed to be, step up your game and be and do what you need to be and do.” From misfit teen Benjamin, we learn that differences are not only ok, but they are important. In the words of ‘Benjamin,’ “You laugh because I’m different I laugh because you’re all the same.”
What did White Plains High School students and teachers think of this assembly? “It was interesting. I liked the different approach and how he used his acting skills to tell his story. I also really liked how he was telling his story through the stories of others,” shared one White Plains High School freshman. One student admitted that she was skeptical at first because of a feeling of disconnection because it was virtual, but acknowledged her appreciation for “how he interprets things differently.” One teacher shared that she felt this presentation was incredibly important for students to see. In a follow-up Q and A, Fowlin told a personal story about a time he saved a girl's life by leaving kind letters in books, one of which she happened to receive when she was battling an eating disorder. About six years after leaving this note, a girl at a school Mykee presented to told him that she had received one of his notes. Finding out that his project of traveling to Barnes and Noble stores around the country to leave encouraging notes had been a success was a surreal experience for Fowlin. He shares this experience with students to prove the power and impact we can have. “We are so powerful. It will not be a degree and it will not be your job that makes you be powerful. You are already powerful.”