Thursday, October 23, 2008

Do Your Ears Hang Low?

There is an annual event at my school called the Arts Festival. It is not, as one may suspect, a visual smorgasbord of paintings and sculptures, but a living, breathing mass of the variously talented and genuinely motivated. Three concurrent stages of every kind of music, drama, comedy, dance, magic tricks - even science demonstrations. It involves a roving audience of more than 700 students, teachers, parents, and grandparents and a lot of noise.

The school tried a more sophisticated version once that showcased those who took violin lessons, who actually practiced their piano regularly, and demonstrated strong potential in their chosen field. It was a pageant of true talent, a salute to the few, and a nice exhibition. It was nothing like the Arts Festival.

The Arts Festival is a teeming throng of willing participants, a deferential shrine to the attitude of “I can”. In fact, the attitude is more than “I can”; it’s “I don’t really know if I can, but I really want to, I’m as sure as heck going to give it a shot and I don’t care what anyone thinks.” I love the Arts Festival.

I used to despise it. All I could focus on was the woefully under-rehearsed and an audience given free rein to wander between performance spaces. The result was chaos. Any student, from the youngest kindergartner to the most experienced eighth grader, could perform pretty much anything they wanted as long as it passed their teacher’s approval. They were assigned a stage and a time. The audience was advised not to get up and leave mid-performance, but often did. The upshot was an impatient crowd watching a collection of either painful or enjoyable performances, possibly both.

Then, a few years ago now, I came to understand something many people in my school community had known for a while. This wasn’t chaos. This was opportunity. A chance for anyone to strut their stuff, to wave their banner and claim their place among the artists.

My daughter had just turned six and was invited by a friend to read a poem together. This is the same daughter who had been known to go through life clinging to my trouser leg, who wouldn’t answer the questions of acquaintances we met on the street, and who certainly wouldn’t volunteer to raise a hand in class. She and her friend, a lass cut from bolder cloth, were assigned a spot on the smallest of the stages. At the appointed time, they stood up, two shy smirks across their faces, and began. Barely audible at first, they proceeded through the poem, gaining confidence as they went. What the audience soon cottoned on to was the fact that this poem had no end. Written as a circle, the final line fed back into the first. As the girls swept through the third or fourth revolution, they soon burst into great grins and laughter as they realized they had the audience as putty in their hands. Two cute kids in ponytails with no end in sight. This was a memorable beginning to my daughter’s career on the stage which she has been building for several years since. A defining moment indeed.

Now I understood. The Arts Festival, this disorderly and shambolic fiesta that I used to dread, had just given my little girl a place to unfurl her wings and feel success in public. It met her with support and appreciation. If we still had the old, more sophisticated, selective version, she would have sat among the onlookers wondering how those performers ever got so good, but perhaps never knowing how to reach those heights.

Since that moment, both my girls have seized the opportunity to appear at the Arts Festival. They sing, they dance, they tell jokes, you name it. I continue to be amazed each year as brave souls steal the spotlight for a minute or two and show us what they are made of: young ones appearing on stage for the very first time; seasoned teenagers performing outrageous dances in even more outrageous costumes at the exact time of life when they are supposed to be conforming to their peers. It is a marvelous spectacle of bravery and folly, virtuosos and novices, everyone who so desires showing that they can.

My most favorite Arts Festival moment occurred just this year and didn’t feature one of my own children. On the smallest stage, in a room that can hold forty people in a squeeze, a tiny child and her friend were preparing to perform. Dressed in a pretty pink dress, the younger one, the five year old daughter of a friend, looked adorable. Cherubic face, blond hair trussed immaculately, you could tell why, when a colleague wanted to appear at the school’s annual Halloween parade as Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, it was this little one whom he asked to be Cindy Lou Who. This girl was a perfect match.

However on this memorable occasion, Cindy Lou was not sure. She and her friend had signed up for their time slot. They had practiced. They knew the words and the moves, but the pressure of the big time was clearly overwhelming. Looking embarrassed, Cindy Lou turned to her friend, the older, wiser, six year old. From three rows back in the audience, I couldn’t hear the words they exchanged, but from the shaking of the head and the falling expression on the face, it wasn’t hard to ascertain that some serious second thoughts were in process. This little girl was not going to perform, not in front of this crowd, not anywhere that wasn’t in the privacy of her own bedroom. The crowd, her parents, other adults, some classmates and a smattering of older students waited patiently. The conversation on the stage wasn’t going well. Cindy Lou was adamant.

No way.

Her teacher, the loving, encouraging sort you would expect in a kindergarten teacher, scooted up to lend a persuasive hand. She encouraged, she cajoled, she might even have bribed for all I know, but to no avail. The little girl remained turned away from the audience, too shy to perform, too embarrassed to walk away. I could see her mother in the front row, at first torn between adding to the embarrassment by going up to rescue her precious bundle and staying back to see if her daughter would find the intestinal fortitude to continue. And then, in a moment of dazzling brilliance, mom found the perfect solution.

She whispered to her friend, sitting next to her, if she knew the words. For she, mom, wasn’t sure and Lord knows we didn’t need two red faces in one family. Thankfully mom’s friend did know the words – all of them. So did the little girl’s friend up on stage, the six-year old who also had not been sure of a way out. The two women in the front row began, gently and slowly, “Do your ears hang low?” The six year old and the kindergarten teacher joined in, “Do they wobble to and fro?” Cindy Lou turned around to see what was going on. A few more kids and adults in the front entered the fray, “Can you tie them in a knot?” A corner of a smile appeared on the little girl’s face. “Can you tie them in a bow?” The rest of the audience began to pick up the refrain. At this point a tiny five year old mouth may have started moving. “Can you throw them o'er your shoulder like a continental soldier?” Even the middle schoolers, kids in their early teens who normally wouldn’t be caught dead singing a song such as this, were moved to join in. And our little hero was definitely singing, “Do your ears hang low?”

Second verse. We now had a room full of people in full voice, “Do your ears hang high? Do they reach up to the sky?” Old and young alike were looking around catching the warm glow of recognition that this was something special. “Do they droop when they are wet? Do they stiffen when they're dry?” A few eyes moistened. Back on stage, the two girls were holding hands and facing the room. Mom and her friend wept in joy. “Can you semaphore your neighbor with a minimum of labor?” Many of us did not know all the words but we sang along merrily, repeating ourselves, making some of it up. It didn’t matter in the slightest. “Do your ears hang high?”

The song was over in a minute or two, but the fuzzy feeling will last a lifetime. The two girls hugged and the five year old ran into her mother’s arms. Mom’s friend snapped a picture but it will never capture the whole moment. The moment when a room full of people, aged two to eighty-two, but predominantly teens and tweens, came together in a spontaneous chorus of support and tenderness.

And I know that this would never have come to pass if it weren’t for the chaos and opportunity.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Well Steve, prior to reading this post, I felt the same way about the Arts Festival. Much like I surrender to the control-chaos-control-chaos that is Stanley British Primary School, I get it. Maybe this school year, I will actually attend the Arts Festival.