When I first began at ETC, I was actually a member of another one of our wonderful education programs – the Acting Intern Program. During that season, I participated in rehearsals and performances at night and taught at our two Artlinks Adopt-a-Schools during the day. Like the children that comprise them, each class I teach is remarkable in its own way and each offers its own challenges. That first year yielded the particularly beautiful story, from a very special class. I wrote about the experience for the Artlinks Newsletter in the spring of 2008 and I am re-posting it here. This doesn't tell the whole story – but it is a start.
“Oh! We wanted three groups, not two. The third is a multi-handicapped class. See you tomorrow!” I stared at the phone in my hand and tried to figure out what to do.
As a newcomer to Cincinnati, Artlinks’ Adopt-A-School Program was an unfamiliar, yet exciting, opportunity to work with local kids and use my theatrical experience to help them learn and express themselves. Integrated learning like this was something that I heavily focused on during my Student Teaching in North Carolina, so I felt confident with the process before me. I was not so confident in the idea of a multi-handicapped class. What did that mean? Was I going to have to stage a show with wheelchairs? Were the students blind? Deaf? Autistic? I had no idea that what lay before me would be one of the greatest gifts an educator could ever receive: beautiful open minds whose creativity and enthusiasm knew no bounds.
The first day of class, I walked in to find eight little boys ranging in age from five to nine sitting around a horseshoe table. Although I never discovered what the “handicaps” of each were, I recognized symptoms of Autism in at least one boy, the youngest, Donovan. He was crying and screaming, unable to focus on me long enough to grasp what I was explaining to the class about writing our own play. That first day we played a game called ‘Superheroes’ where we each pretended we had superpowers and worked together to solve a problem that threatened the world. I was delighted with the enthusiasm and imagination they all immediately applied to the game, and I knew right away that creating the story would be no problem at all. I was, however, concerned about performing it. What would this group do in front of a crowd? I decided to center the play on animals, and the boys named their favorite animals for me: bears, horses, dogs, bunnies, cheetahs, tigers, lions, and . . . Top Cat.
“But Top Cat is a cartoon character, Demetrius!” I objected.
“I know,” he replied, grinning broadly, “but I like him, he’s cool!” This was said with such panache that I knew no ordinary cat would do, he had to be Top Cat.
And he was.
They were all phenomenal, diving into their roles, delivering their lines with perfect comedic timing, and even adding their own personalities to the animal characters we developed together. Their teachers, Mrs. Cline, Ms. Adair, and Ms. Johnson were equally amazing, running lines with the kids every day, encouraging them to draw pictures of their characters, and writing letters home to involve the parents. This “multi-handicapped class” was the best little acting troupe with which I’d ever worked, and I loved every moment of it.
I worried about little Donovan, who knew his one line when prompted, but whose interest I still couldn’t seem to capture. Then one day I came in with their animal ears for them to try on. Donovan was having a particularly bad day. Curled up on Mrs. Cline’s knee, all he could do was cry and scream. Finally, I pulled his bunny ears out of my bag. They were long, white, and fluffy, just right for the tiny boy with the big eyes.
“Donovan, look! I have your bunny ears!”
He froze, stared at them for a moment, and cried, “YAY!” before returning to his crying and screaming. That was when I realized that he KNEW. He knew what was going on, he knew who I was, and he knew that he was a part of the show.
During their performance, their confident, funny and sweet personalities shone. Their play was called “Find Our Families: Escape from the Zoo,” and a family is indeed what I had found: little boys who supported each other and called each other brother. Artlinks Adopt-A-School is an incredible program that allows kids like Donovan, Demetrius, Gary, DayMar, Billy, Sanchez, Damarcus, and Kenneth to show the world the difference between ‘handicapped’ and incapable and just what kind of magic is within each and every child.