Hormonal changes, social pressures and a crushing sense of uncertainty plague almost all teenagers. But students with disabilities experience all of those things while also navigating a world that wasn't created with them in mind.
Comedian, public speaker and advocate Pamela Rae Schuller was one such teen. When she first arrived at Burlington's Rock Point School from a Midwest public high school in the early 2000s, she was not in a good place.
"My first year at Rock Point, I lived in detention. Literally, I think I broke records," Schuller told Kids VT during a recent phone call. " I think the transition was tough because I was angry at the world."
But her time at the nontraditional boarding school was transformative. Now the New York City-based comic shares with audiences around the world how living with Tourette syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder and her short stature — she's four feet, six-and-a-half inches tall — launched her on a path to educational and professional success. And she relates how her personal experiences in high school helped her find self-acceptance through comedy and creativity.
Schuller returns to Rock Point School for a public performance on Saturday, October 16. Find tickets here. Read the rest of her interview with Kids VT below.
KIDS VT: How does it feel to come back to your old high school to speak?
PAMELA RAE SCHULLER: I can't wait. I'm so excited. I combine comedy and storytelling to talk about loving what makes you you, and Rock Point School is where that kind of came together for me.
When I arrived, I really I hated being different. I hated it. And that was the place that helped me realize that you can hold struggle and love yourself at the same time. And that being different can be amazing. They were the ones that put me in standup. So I'm counting the days down to get back there.
KV: What was the transition like from a public high school to a specialized learning environment?
PRS: Rock Point is for kids that are out of the box. We just didn't really fit into the mainstream for one reason or another. But we were all kind of smart and creative — or at least passionate and creative. So that transition was really tough.
By the time I got to Rock Point, I had felt for years like my differences defined me, and defined me in a negative way. My whole life, I felt like I was something other people had to work through.
So I was an angry teen. And it took time to kind of pull me out of that. And that was the journey of finding comedy, improv, creativity and writing. It took some time for me to build connections and relationships and feel like I could trust.
KV: Was there a specific turning point for you?
PRS: I won't tell the whole story because it's a big part of the show. But there was a moment where I admitted to my school that I had nothing about myself that I loved. I did it in the only way I knew how, and the school took notice and put me on a journey to find something I love about myself.
KV: How much of your act is personal storytelling and how much is observational humor about yourself in the world?
PRS: It depends on the show. I have versions of it that I do at giant corporate conferences. I have dirtier versions for college that are way more standup-heavy. I have late-night versions, and then I also have one for middle school. So it really depends.
I have something for all ages, essentially starting from kindergarten. That's a five-minute keynote with a lot of movement improv, but I've got something kind of for every age. In the end, it's about 50 percent comedy, 50 percent storytelling.
KV: How do you decide what to adjust about your show for your various audiences?
PRS: I have a lot of education in mental health and disability inclusion. I have a master's in child advocacy. I have a degree in executive coaching, So that helps me because I can think of what is developmentally safe and good and helpful for me to say.
Some of it is me putting my developmental hat on and making sure that I'm doing things in a way that are right for that community. If I'm about to do a big corporate gig, I meet with them beforehand a few times to find out what their goals are. I'm always working to add, to create, to find new things to talk about.
KV: What are some things about diversity and inclusion that you hope people will take away from your show?
PRS: I definitely have messages that are more geared towards being an ally. I did a show last night in Texas for a big number of teens. Some of them probably had disabilities and mental health challenges, but a lot of them probably didn't. So a lot of it is geared towards what it looks like to be an ally: How do you really create a community that values differences? And how do we do it in a way where we're not talking about it like we're doing a good deed?
I think so often we get stuck in, like, we're doing this because it's the right thing to do. It's a good deed, as opposed to doing this because we're better for it, when we truly engage people with disabilities and differences and know definitively that they add to our community.
And then I also do a lot of talking to those people in the audience who are struggling with something. What does it look like to really hold struggle and love yourself at the same time?
KV: Are there specific things that parents or caregivers can take away? Maybe things that they can do to create more inclusive environments, or raise more empathetic kids?
PRS: I give specifics in my show, but: Have those conversations.
So often, I think disability is shushed. And when young people ask questions, we stop it, as opposed to celebrating differences.
A friend of mine was grocery shopping with her son, and they saw another mom with her son, and that kid was using a wheelchair. And the boy I know said, "I don't understand what happened. Why?" And the mother did not know what to do.
My advice is: Don't shush it — celebrate! So, instead, say, "How cool that you're moving around this store with your legs and that little boy is doing the exact same thing with his mom and he's moving around with wheels. How cool that some people read with their eyes and some people read by touching the words. How cool that some people talk with sounds and some people communicate by pointing to an iPad that says it for them."
And so instead of making disability an other or a negative thing or something that is like an affliction, talking about it as part of the human experience. How amazing that there are differences in this world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.