Middle School Mondays: No Wonder That It's Mary That I Love (Reflections on Awkward Adolescents and Life Beyond)
Note: We just finished our big musical. This year it was Mary Poppins. This play is particularly special to me for reasons you are about to see. Here is a copy of the letter I sent out to my middle school students on opening night. It's specific to them, but I think it has some good things for anyone who works with adolescents to remember.
I've told you the first part of the story--about the awkward, dumpy adolescent who wasn't good at school, sports, or much else. He spent most of his time in trouble for forgetting assignments or not paying attention in class. He had a few friends, but was sort of strange and wasn't "popular" by any means. He loved to be in plays, but frankly wasn't terribly good at acting. And when he pounded the piano and sang loudly, his family politely went as far away as the house would allow.
Although he wanted to, he was too insecure to try out for the first play in his Freshman year in high school. It seemed too scary. So he ended up opening the curtains (where he learned just how important the backstage crew can be since the play can't start until the curtain ended. He also learned an unfortunate lesson involving his braces and a girl's earring, but that's another story...).
For some reason, this kid decided it might be fun to direct a play. And for reasons that remain unclear, he thought he could do it. So, at 15, he persuaded the principal of the local elementary school to let him direct a play using the student body and the platform at the end of the cafeteria they generously called a stage.
He chose the play--a movie he had loved as a little boy. It had a lot of parts in it and seemed like a good fit for kids. Then he spent hours watching a movie over and over while typing the dialogue with two fingers on an old manual typewriter (Note: this is illegal, but he didn't know that).
Then he had auditions. He was rather surprised when about 500 or 600 kids showed up. He was also overwhelmed and had no credible system or plan in place. A very kind 1st grade teacher saw the problem and stepped in and helped him organize things. He learned that you need to have good people around you if you want to do good work. He also started to think about how important logistics are.
His brothers tried out for the play and got very small parts. They were mad, but he learned to make his own casting decisions and not listen to people who were mad.He miscast a main role with a friend of his. He learned from this to go with what he really believed was best, not personal considerations .
Somehow he persuaded his former 5th grade teacher who didn't like him (with good reason) to agree to spend hours playing the songs for the play. In pre-Amazon days, he managed to track down the complete sheet music for the play.
They started rehearsals, using mimeographed copies of his carefully typed script (the 1st grade teacher helped with that too).
For once in his life, he was motivated. For once in his life he worked and tried and made real efforts, not excuses. He designed scenery and costumes and figured out ways to make things happen with a budget of $500. He still doodled in math class, but now it was making a design for the program and flyers.
People were everything from intrigued to amused. How was this dumpy little thing going to pull this off? Surely it would come to nothing. What could one 15 year old and 100 K-6 students do?
Happily, he didn't know just how impossible this task was. And, happily, kind adults around him stepped in and helped. They never took over; they let him learn and grow and let him be the leader. But they helped him with costumes and choreography and props and everything.
As always happens, the rehearsals went well, then things got crazy right before opening night. A few days before the opening, it looked like a huge disaster. He thought about canceling, but people had already bought his carefully-made, hand-written tickets. Four performances were sold out.
There were times he honestly prayed to be hit by a truck or something because the odds seemed so daunting. He was still painting scenery 20 minutes before the curtain on opening night.
Then it was showtime. And it was magical. It was imperfect, but there was a charm and sincerity that worked. And some of the performers were truly outstanding. It was magical--and it was a stunning success-- a full length play that the audience genuinely enjoyed.
Against all odds, it worked. The dumpy little guy had stories written about him in the newspaper and a local magazine featured his photo, highlighting a broad, brace-covered smile, and every one of his pimples.
The school district hired him to direct plays--giving him a high school stage to use and a much larger budget. While his friends worked at fast food places, he made $10 an hour (a lot of money in the 1980s) directing plays.
He still relied on people--he never was dumb enough to think it was about him. But he also realized he had finally found something he liked. Something he was good at. Something that made him feel like he could accomplish important things.
You realize, of course, that I was the dumpy adolescent, and you probably have guessed the play was Mary Poppins. You realize that almost 30 years later, I'm still directing plays. I studied it in college, and I do it for a living and find great joy and fulfillment in it.
Don't you dare ever let anyone talk you out of believing in your ability and your dreams! Pursue your gifts passionately. But also, don't you dare ever think it will be easy, and don't think you can do it alone. If this awkward young man could pull this off, then any one of you can do anything you want--and work for. You have unlimited potential and don't you ever believe otherwise, not for a minute!
I will tell you the rest of the story now, some of which you know. I loved the movie Mary Poppins as a boy. It became even more special to me when I directed it. But I've always wanted to do it again--now that I have more experience and more resources. I wanted to do it right.
But in 30 years, it has never been the right time. For many reasons--the rights weren't available, etc. etc. , but mostly because I didn't have the right kids. I needed the perfect blend of kids with the perfect amount of talent to pull this play off. I needed the right stage managers, the right costume people, the right prop and set people and tech crew. You realize what a demanding play this is.
Last year, I started thinking it might be time. I knew it was a risk. But I wanted us to stretch and grow and try.
But mostly, I wanted to do this play with you. This play is deeply special to me, and each one of you is every bit as special to me. And now you know the rest of the story.
I could not be prouder of you. It may be Mary who gets in the air, but you have all soared.
Go out there and blow the audience away! Show them what a bunch of middle school kids can do. Win this one for awkward adolescents everywhere!
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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