Through my teaching years there were several days when I felt anxiety-the first day of any class year when I got the only chance to make a first impression, a transfer from one building to another, the day of finals. With our Foundation, every time we enter a building there is anxious anticipation about how we will interact with the school’s students, whether we can engage them in our lesson and, by and large, see if we can keep the adult audience similarly attentive. There is also an exhilaration, at least in me, having the mind and spirit to do it all again, something akin to the retired firehouse dog responding to an alarm at the station.
Of all the times we have appeared at schools, one recent presentation appeared on our scheduled that actually filled me with more worry/concern; perhaps we may have expected too much of ourselves.
We are usually contacted by school representatives who search the web and find a link to us under the generic heading, “puppet shows”. This may have been how we started, but in Rose Brucia 3.0, our latest iteration, although some form of puppet show is included in our lessons, we have moved far past “puppet shows” being our defining characteristic.
In March, we were asked to make a presentation for Eastern Suffolk BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education Services) at their Bellport Academic Center. Could we provide two separate shows for an audience that would total 100 children with special needs? The Center “services students who have mild to moderate behavioral and/or intensive counseling concerns and/or mild to moderate learning disabilities.” The students range in age from 16 to 21, with cognitive abilities topping out about 6th grade. The group included students with Downs Syndrome, autism, and other developmental issues. With such disparate learning abilities, how to get our message across?
Matt and I, after communicating with Steven Berkowitz, in charge of transition from the classroom to life after school, agreed to go. I expressed to Matt my unease and/or my distrust in my abilities to connect with this group of students. My discomfit rises from the personal knowledge that such students truly need some protective skills of stranger safety awareness to get along in the “real world.” My grandson has a form of mental retardation known as Williams Syndrome. Everyone he meets is his new best friend. At a workshop during a national Williams’ convention several years ago, my wife and I learned to our horror how the mentally disabled are sought out by sexual predators because these children are far too eager and willing to please people…any people.
So, with mixed emotions and some trepidation, Matt and I went to Bellport. After being approached by a security guard on the grounds (we were already lost!), gaining admission to the building, meeting with Mr. Berkowitz, and being shown into staging area (the kitchen classroom), we met our first audience member.
“Hi, I’m Jesse,” the young man said. “Are you the puppeteer?” I countered that I might even use him to be a volunteer puppeteer. (We never introduce ourselves by name to any of the audience until the very end of the presentation; that’s part our lesson). And then the rest of the audience filed in.
It would be better to say the audience moved into our hearts. One hundred students, each so different, each so unique, each so willing to participate, each becoming a veritable actor on this very private stage. After our shared learning and laughter, after these people moved out of the classroom, stopping to shake our hands, to say thank you, in each class one young man spoke to me. After the first session, Jesse said, “Patrick, you are good at what you do. You should keep on doing it.” After the second session John said, “Patrick, you have earned my trust. I trust you!”
This quote from one of my favorite authors speaks to the impact THESE YOUNG MEN and YOUNG WOMEN HAD on ME that day.
“The majority of us lead quiet, unheralded lives as we pass through this world. There will most likely be no ticker-tape parades for us, no monuments created in our honor. But that does not lessen our possible impact, for there are scores of people waiting for someone just like us to come along; people who will appreciate our compassion, our unique talents. Someone who will live a happier life merely because we took the time to share what we had to give. Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring… ― Leo Buscaglia
The risk was worth it, for them and for us.