Sunday, September 28, 2008

Tweens in Kindergarten

(reflection after directing middle school actors in ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED IN KINDERGARTEN, adapted from the works of Robert Fulghum by playwright Ernest Zulia and composer / lyricist David Caldwell.)

At the height of its popularity in the early 90s, ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED IN KINDERGARTEN spawned, along with this theatrical adaptation, many imitations and parodies. My dogs' vet still displays a poster about what we learn from dogs; a New Yorker cartoon has a rumpled businessman reading the book, while beside him a more intense Japanese man in a business suit reads ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED WORKING MY BUTT OFF IN ADVANCED GRADUATE COURSES.

I myself rolled my eyes when others talked about the book. Did we boomers need one more voice telling it's okay not to grow up?

But the opening moments of the musical adaptation won me over, and won our audience over, too. The lyric tells us to "share / play fair ... clean up your own mess... hold hands and stick together when you cross the street," and that's all pretty cute. But then my young actors, all ages ten through fourteen, sang

Be aware of wonder
Think of the seed in the paper cup
Who knows why the root grows down and the leaves grow up?
But we're all like that,
And just as the seed, the bee, the mouse, and the goldfish all will die some day --

Well, so will we.

When my cast spontaneously put their arms around each other in the pause before that last line, I melted. Then there's the question in the scene that follows: "What ever happened to 'Yes, I can?'" It's what kindergarteners say when they're asked if they can sing or dance or draw.

Directing this ninety-minute musical with around twelve hours' rehearsal (squeezing it in three weeks before Homecoming and other schedule conflicts), I realized again how this is really my main purpose as a teacher. More than any set of specific facts or skills, it's my job to save middle schoolers from losing that sense of ability: Yes, we can write if we work at it . . . yes, we can find the information if we look intelligently enough . . . yes, we can appreciate great art for ourselves . . . yes, we can become the parts we play and sing out without having to be the best singers around.

Other scenes touched on the power of a teacher who gives a committed student freedom to go off in an unplanned direction. . . on the power of Beethoven's music, doubled by the knowledge that "Mr. B" was miserable and angry. . . on the trivial nature of much that we let preoccupy us.

One particularly effective sequence shows a young father and his toddler son growing up together. On stage were three boys, ages twelve and thirteen. As they took turns narrating and portraying the story of a young father in 1963 with a three year old son, the same father thirteen years later, and then the same pair thirteen years after that, grown men in the audience wept.

Having young students playing the roles of adults looking back on childhood gave the script a new layer of irony, as the audience knows from experience what the actors are learning only vicariously.

Thanks to teachers who helped to make this production possible in a very short time, Ayren Selzer and Regena Simpson.

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