Chapter 30:   Performances 

Starting Third Grade

 

 

First the now traditional first-day-of-school picture on our front step and then the last first-day of school picture with Pepper   :-( 

 

 

The usual crowd of cousins and neighborhood kids at the bus stop.

 

 

 

And Rose taking another giant stop, now into 3rd grade.  I am always amazed at how large the school bus is compared to Rose's tiny body. The stairs loom over her head and yet she climbs up into the bus every year without hesitation. And so the journey continues ...

 

All the World's Her Stage (whether she wants it to be or not)

November 2007 

Cheryl handed our eight-year old Rose a bouquet of flowers and I tried to center her happy young face in my camera as I was jostled by the after-show crowd.  One picture, one chance to catch her joy in the moment.  Opening night had gone well.  Another still unexpected triumph in a life that started with her triple set of chromosomes and our own low expectations.  Another disillusion knocked down.  Again.

 

The actress in her stage make-up

 receiving her opening night bouquet

 

From the beginning we knew this Pee Wee Theater experience was going to be a new success for all of us.  The first message one day one from the team of directors to the assembled cast of 5 to 12 year olds and their parents was, ‘No parents at practice. You can leave now. We’ll see you at pick up time.’  It didn’t matter whether you had Down syndrome or not, this crew was going to be in charge of this crowd of aspiring actors.  Their message was clear; they would do just fine without the parents help.

And Rose enjoyed reminding Cheryl as they approached the auditorium doors for each subsequent practice, “Mom, you stop here.  You’re not allowed in.  No parents allowed.”  For us it was a welcome relief from our normal hovering parent role we usually play to help bridge the gap between Rose being included in regular events and the new parent/coach/teacher’s confidence in a child a with perceived differences.  Not that Rose is that different but their expectations usually are.  So we are used to bridging that gap with our offers of support; one more adult, at Brownies, at Softball, at the violin recital, rather than demand anyone break down their own misperceptions faster than they are comfortable.   This time it was nice to be pushed away with all the other parents.  Clearly these directors knew that if a child had a desire to perform they would find a place on stage for them. 

Months of practices went well, once a week for 90 minutes, accelerating to twice a week as show time approached.  Rose continued to enjoy the theatre practices. Studying her lines and dance moves at home with her theatre-savvy, older sister, Cady, helped round out Roses preparations.

 

Opening night finally came.  We were a little nervous after an extremely slow three-hour dress rehearsal that afternoon had Rose’s attention wandering to over heating under the stage lights, more concerned about rolling up her sleeves and pant legs than staying in character.  Later at home Cheryl relayed her concern and I shared her fears, Rose’s bare bright arms and legs would shine different from the stage-front for all to see.  After some conversation we assured ourselves that Rose hadn’t been the only kid having a hard time staying focused.  Our plan of action?  Green in-character tights under her costume and trust the directors..  That’s all we had.  Sometimes you have to let go and let the situation play out. 

The performance was a success from the big chorus opening number straight through to the grand finale.  The cast filled the stage from side to side and front to back as they sang and danced.  Rose as an eight-year old in third grade was not among the youngest of the cast members but she was one of the smallest so she was in the front line for all the big chorus numbers.  As a parent at all kinds of performances I’m generally only interested in following my own child’s performance maintaining a peripheral awareness of the story line provided by the lead actors.  With Rose in the front row she was easy for me to follow.  Normally she prefers to be second or third in line so she can model her actions on visual cues from those in front of her.  Here she compensated with a side wards glance, keeping check on her progress, every step danced, every note sung her consistent half beat behind the chorus.  But this was Pee Wee theatre not Broadway, this was a chance for children to try the stage.  There were many missed cues and missed lines to go around how they improvised there recoveries added immensely to the spirit of the performance.  Theatre is not just the expected that’s written in the script, it’s anything and everything that happens on the stage that connects with the audience.  This audience was delighted with the expected and the unexpected as each child found a way to shine. 

For me Rose shone dancing at the front of the chorus, stage left.  For about thirty seconds of one dance number each actor broke into their own improvised routine.  Rose started with a series of complicated moves (Cady explained later, “It’s Soulja Boy, Dad.  It’s a new dance.” Eyes roll. “I taught her.”) and then broke into moves I understood clearly from comic book history; she was striking various dramatic Spiderman poses, shooting webs at the audience, at her fellow performers, at the stage lights, all in time with the music.  And then there was a change in the music and all the performers were back into their coordinated dance number.  Or as well-timed as any group of young kids can be. With the stage packed with forty plus kids there was a wide range of performances, from the obvious fumbles to the inspired improvisations, from the lead actors to the chorus, each child’s response to the flow of the performance reflected their own personality.

So the grand finale, came, a big chorus number filled the stage, one last song sung from their hearts to a standing ovation.  The lights came up; the actors went stage left, out and down a hallway off the lobby, the audience spilled out the back of the auditorium to the same lobby to meet in a happy jumbled crowd.  Just a moment before they were all larger than life, now they were again just small children thrilled with the joy of their success. Rose held her bouquet of flowers, and we then were all swept by a crowd of families, all acting out variations on the same celebration, into a party room just off the lobby. 

The room already seemed full but more were piling in, tables were covered with snacks and drinks, we stopped by the entrance to get our bearings.  More families flowed into the room, shuffling past us in the shifting rhythm of the divided attention of parents guiding young children into a crowded party, while the children looked between tall bodies finding friends to celebrate with.

One parent stopped by the door to talk to me.  I believe I had never met him before; not unusual for our first endeavor into a program that included fifty plus family’s with purposely limited parental involvement and my own poor social memory.

“Rose was fantastic!” he started out.  He leaned down to get Rose’s eye contact.  “Rose, you did a great job.  Way to go.”  Rose smiled and said, “Thank you.” And then she went back to scanning the room.

The dad stood back up and went on, “I mean she really did a great job.  Her dancing was a lot of fun to watch.  I mean I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her.  I just wanted to watch her the whole time.  Normally, I watch my own kids but tonight I just had to watch her.  She was so much fun!”.  I offered a “Thank you” with my normally socially-uncomfortable smile and then the incoming crowd pushed him in one direction and I followed Rose and Cheryl in another as the room continued to fill.  My initial thought on the dad’s review of Rose’s performance was, ‘gee, that kind of went on a long time but there sure was something familiar about that.’

As we cued up in line for snacks and drinks with other families a few adults still sought Rose out, using that distinctive pose of people almost six-feet tall trying to make eye contact with someone less than four-feet tall, offering quick praise, “Great job, Rose.”

By now Rose’s attention was firmly fixed on the cupcake of her choice or, more precisely, the icing of her choice that happened to be sitting atop a cupcake.  The rest of the cast party fell into the normal patterns of kids eating snacks and the director handing out awards to the other adults and teenagers that helped with the months of preparation.  I’m thinking do they need us for this, but of course they do; theatre people must enjoy receiving gifts in front of a crowd.  Eventually the director’s speeches were given, all the gifts distributed, all the snacks that could fill a young child’s bell were eaten and we made away past tables still covered with cake and brownies, through more ‘great-jobs; exchanged and headed home for a late bedtime.

Later that night when Cheryl and I were lying in bed we talked about how happy we were the dress rehearsal melt down had not carried over into the evening performance.  Rose had done well and really enjoyed herself; she played her part with enthusiasm and confidence.  I told Cher about the long exchanged with the other dad.  We had heard similar ‘praises’ before, this was just the most celebratory and effusive by far.  We both agreed that while Rose had done will enough to make us proud, well, we were her parents with what we knew to be normal parental bias.  Taking an objective step back we could also see the hundreds of times she was out of step or off cue, but she did perform, she enjoyed herself and she added to the overall performance as much as any other child in the chorus did. 

So where doe the extra praise come from?

Does it come from deep seating belief that no child with Down Syndrome can perform competently in a Pee Wee Theatre production?  Possibly.  Ignorance often becomes reality.  Rose is the first child with a visibly obvious disability to take center stage.  Credit goes to the director and her support staff for making it happen, and Cheryl for signing Rose up, and, of course to Rose for wanting to perform.  The audience made up mostly of the cast’s parents and adult relatives that are all neighbors, or share schools or jobs or churches or carpools.  They may have enjoyed enough small-town gossip to know there was a ‘Downs-kid’ in the cast.  Their ignorance based on living childhoods and adult lives segregated from people with disabilities may have been shocked by Rose’s display of competence.

Does it come from a desire to correct the past wrongs?  Often parents raising their own children reflect back on their own childhood.  Did they limit their friendships because of perceived differences?  Did they join a crowd to gang up on the one kid that everyone ‘knew was different’?  Do they feel guilty to have felt safe within that crowd?  Did they thrill at the crowd attention brought by tormenting and taunting that ‘one different child’?

Or were they that child?  Now, as an adult they’ve grown beyond most of the hurts to find happiness but they’re still yearning for an acceptance that we all need to share.  They know that if one of us can be excluded than any of us can be.  In their heart they long for that community-wide acceptance, for everyone.  Rose’s presence on stage may have touched that place in their heart.

So where does that extra praise come from?  From deep-seated ignorance of segregation?  From the guilt of past hateful acts looking for redemption?  From the hope that our neighbors are ready to step into the world that doesn’t let differences separate us?  The truth is likely some combination of all of those.

I do know that wherever Rose goes she evokes many questions in people’s minds.  Through no choice of hers she carries a piece of everyone’s histories that she meets.  These personal histories are full of ignorance, hateful acts and rejection.  We see that in the long stares that follow her in public, we hear it in the stories brought to us by strangers that approach us at the mall, at the grocery store, in side conversations at school meetings or on the game’s sidelines.  How we all handle these questions define the people we are going to grow into. 

A change is going to come.  You’re changing.  I’m changing.  The world is changing.  And for the better.  There are enough people out there with that yearning for community wide acceptance to carry us all forward.  But as this change plays out with person to person interactions we move forward sooner if these exchanges represent the best we can be.  Please be respectful.  Be curious but don’t stare.  Be joyful but don’t patronize.  Find out by living together and not by digging down and prying apart.  If you find your impulses are in conflict with respectful behavior take a deep look within yourself; start to tear down all your barriers that keep you segregated from those you think are different.

A change is going to come.  It had already started.  There are many children, like Rose, that were previously denied opportunities and are now ready to share center stage.

Actively promote this change to speed us forward to the day when exclusion and segregation are only in our past.  The performances that include us all are the riches we all will share. 

 

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