A few days ago a drama teacher at Richard and Russell’s school gave Kish some pictures of the kids when they were in various productions, years ago. There were some snapshots of Russell dressed up like a Native American for one school play, and this picture of Richard in a somewhat Harry Potterish old man costume and makeup for another.
The pictures brought back memories, of course — and they were all good ones. Any parent who has watched their child perform in a school play remembers the tension and nerves as the show time neared, because you were praying fervently that there wasn’t some mishap or stumble after the weeks of learning lines and practicing and staging. But then the curtain would go up, the kids would perform like champs, the parents would feel a sense of great relief, and in the end it was clear that the kids who were in the show had a ball.
And years later, when you think about your kids’ school years, it turns out that the theater performances created many of the strongest memories. When Richard was in kindergarten he played a squirrel in a short play called The Tree Angel and had the first line. The teacher said she picked Richard because she was absolutely sure that he would not be nervous and would say the line without a problem, and she was right. I felt like I learned something important about our little boy that day. Several years later, Richard played Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, even sang a song on stage (“Cheer up, Charlie . . . “), and did a great job. Russell, too, had his turns before the footlights, memorably playing a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz and the aforementioned Native American character, who I think was named Bullseye and (intentionally) got a lot of laughs in another show.
The point isn’t that our kids were great actors or stars, and their participation didn’t turn them toward Broadway or Hollywood for their adult careers. But those school plays did give them a chance to shine on stage and to know firsthand what it was like to perform in front of an audience — and, in the process, to get a better sense of themselves and their capabilities. School is supposed to do that. The fact that the performances are warmly recalled by parents, years later, is just the icing on the cake.
When I look at these old photographs, I think about the school systems that, for budgetary reasons, have cut their theatre programs, or their orchestra or choir programs, or their art programs. When the budget axe falls, those programs get chopped first, on the rationale that they are non-academic and therefore non-essential: after all, the standardized tests that seem to drive school policy these days don’t check whether you can act or sing or play an instrument. But that reasoning is wrong-headed, and also sad. It doesn’t recognize how those programs greatly enrich the school years and help to produce more well-rounded students who have tried something new and now are bonded by the shared experience of performing before an audience — and it also deprives the parents of that deep, lasting thrill of learning something new about their child.