In addition to finishing third in her class while also serving as president of Spring High School’s Lion Players Theatre Company, Class of 2023 graduate Aliyah Nora qualified for and attended both the 2023 International Thespian Festival competition in Indiana and the 2023 National Speech & Debate Tournament, which took place in Phoenix earlier this month.
Before her senior year had ended, the well-traveled Nora – who was also a state-qualifying competitor in both Academic and Theatrical UIL – earned the National Speech & Debate Association’s Academic All-American award, an exclusive honor given to just 2% of speech and debate students nationally.
“Art has significantly changed the course of my life,” Nora said. “Without it, I don’t know who I would be. Art has given me an outlet that nothing else in my life ever has. It’s given me an outlet to not only be myself, but to portray some of the inner feelings that can be hard to just speak about, to just express.”
Surprisingly, when Nora first got involved in theater at Twin Creeks Middle School as a student of Twin Creeks teacher Benjamin Younger, she painted sets and decorations and worked backstage, but didn’t see herself as a natural performer.
“He would do little films and short scenes that he would post onto YouTube,” Nora said, “and I thought, ‘That’s so cool, I want to be an actor, I want to be in film!’ But I was so shy. I was cripplingly shy.”
Eventually, Younger convinced Nora to take to the stage as Evillene – the Wicked Witch of the West – in the classic musical “The Wiz.” Empowered by the green character makeup covering her face, together with the costume and the prosthetic nose she had to wear for the performance, Nora found that she came alive onstage, and fell instantly in love with it.
“It was my first time ever being in front of a crowd that big, and I think it was my first time performing ever,” Nora said. “I sang her song, and nobody knew who I was. My mom was sitting there in the front row, and she heard another parent say, ‘Whose baby can sing like that?’ And that was me, I was the baby!”
Over time, her experiences in theater and speech and debate gave her the added confidence to take on more roles onstage, ultimately building up to lead roles like Donna in this year’s Spring High School musical production of “Mamma Mia!” But some of Nora’s favorite experiences as a member of the drama troupe have been during the school’s annual children’s play, when the high schoolers share their love of theater with elementary students from across the district.
This year, Nora was featured as the famously ill-tempered Queen of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland,” and said that she saw a part of herself in many of the young students attending the show and possibly getting their first taste of live theater.
“While we were waiting for all of the children to arrive, we called a couple of kids onstage and we interacted with them and played a couple of games,” Nora recalled, “and there was this shy little girl – she was so sweet in her little denim jacket – and I just can’t describe the amount of love and excitement I felt getting to work with those kids. I think it’s really important that we start introducing arts to kids at a young age.”
After finishing up a few remaining credits and earning her associate degree from Lone Star College this summer, Nora will be headed to Texas Tech University to begin studying and training toward a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a Musical Theatre concentration.
“I really appreciate all the opportunities that Spring ISD has afforded me,” said Nora, explaining how she wrestled in deciding which of the district’s high schools was the best fit for her.
Originally accepted at Spring Early College Academy, Nora spent her freshman year as a student in the Early College program, housed on the Lone Star College-North Harris campus. But when COVID-19 closed campus facilities in March of 2020 and sent students home to months of isolation and distance learning, Nora found herself thinking hard about the things she missed the most, and found that the arts and theater were at the top of her list.
“The pandemic allowed me a lot of time to really think about what I wanted and what I enjoyed and what my passion was,” Nora said. She transferred to Spring High School for her sophomore year, joined the theater department, and never looked back.
“Art is what I love,” she said. “It’s where I want to be.”
Spring High School Director of Theatre Marilyn Ocker, who first met Nora when the new graduate was still a middle schooler at Twin Creeks, said one of her greatest joys as an educator was getting to watch her students grow up, discover their potential, and achieve their goals.
“I just hope that all of the kids that are seniors and are graduating, whatever they choose to do, they do it with their whole heart and find a bit of passion in whatever choices they make in the future,” Ocker said. “Because at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about, you know – being fulfilled by the life that you’ve chosen to create.”