Is Boulder the happiest city in America? Eighth-graders explore their town through Our Town

When Pesha Rudnick's Casey Middle School class learned that CBS had named Boulder the happiest city in America, the students were very surprised. So with the guidance of playwright-in-residence Rudnick and language arts teacher Val Wheeler, the eighth-graders used Thornton Wilder's play Our Town, as well as the CBS statistic, to create a multi-media play delving into their experience of living in Boulder and why it could be labeled the happiest city in America when the students deal with very real, stressful issues in their day-to-day lives.

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Our Town: Debunking the Boulder Myth starts out much as Wilder's classic does: with morning scenes the students wrote, depicting what a typical day is like for Boulderites. But then the students' play veered off from the original. "It became about looking at why America named our town the happiest city in America when the nineteen students that I was working with have some really big struggles right now, partly with immigration, time constraints and school," explains Rudnick.

The playwright says she was surprised to learn that the children's experience included monetary concerns. "They talked a lot about what an affluent community this is and how poor many of them feel here, and so we talked a lot about, first of all, what it is to actually be poor in this country -- and they were so surprised to hear that they live within the top 20 percent," Rudnick says. "They were shocked by how wealthy they actually are, and how Boulder as a community actually makes them feel, because Boulder is so much wealthier than most of America that the perception is really off for them of what's poverty and what's wealth."

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During their analysis of Boulder, the students stepped out into the community and interviewed residents about their own experiences of happiness for a multimedia video portion of the play. The process took a real turning point when they met a lawyer hiking down the main trail at Chautauqua, who talked to the students about Edward O. Wilson's biophilia hypothesis. "He described to all of us on camera this theory that people tend to be more relaxed, have better coping mechanisms when they're stressed, and in general are happier when they're close to nature, which he thinks has a big effect in particular on Boulderites because of the way Boulder was originally designed to have open space and nature very central in the design of the city," says Rudnick. "So the kids went back and did research on biophilia and decided that the reason why they think Boulderites are happier, including themselves, is because even though we do have a lot real-life stressors like money, or in four of our girls's cases, immigration, having a relationship to nature makes stress a lot easier to cope with."

After ten weeks of working on the production followed by a dress rehearsal in Boulder, the eighth graders took the play on the road to New York City for the YouthCaN World Conference, an entirely youth-run event that brings groups together from all over the world to present their work on environmental issues. Rudnick says the experience was wonderful: The kids performed their play, stayed in a youth hostel, visited the Statue of Liberty, and saw Cinderella on Broadway.

The trip was also their first time outside of Colorado for some of the students, and Rudnick says it was interesting to see them gain new insight into the unique experience of living in Boulder. "They talk a lot about the 'Boulder bubble,' and it was easy to write about it and talk about it and it was fascinating to see it kind of shattered when they got out and they got to New York," she says. "While they got to see the hip, urban energy of New York, they also go to see where they live, which is a place that's really safe."

The students performed a school show upon their return, and Rudnick says they may revive the play again in the summer. "As a mom it was neat, because I moved to Boulder from California and New York and I've never really understood what it's like to be a teenager here," she says, "and I gained a great, deep understanding of what kids experience. I'm raising two toddlers right now, and it was really encouraging. I feel like this community raises pretty healthy kids, which is a huge generalization, but it was great to see what's happening in the public schools in this town because there's a lot of support, I think, for our kids."

For more information on Rudnick's work, visit the LOCAL Theater Company's website.

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