In my last post I mentioned I was ready to enjoy kids as kids instead of only seeing them as test subjects. Today my wish was granted.
Jenny, in a fit of brilliant inspiration last fall, managed to get our whole first grade tickets to Knuffle Bunny, A Cautionary Musical, at the Kennedy Center. We've been waiting for this day for what seems like forever, and today we finally boarded all 140 first graders onto buses and ventured into DC for the literary experience of a lifetime.
Yesterday my fabulous co-teacher and I played up the wonders of the Kennedy Center, just to make sure the kids fully understood that we weren't just going to any old play- we would be viewing a play in a "very fancy place" as we put it. We looked at pictures and ohhhhed and awwwwed at the red carpets and fancy lights.
Today, when our first graders marched into the school in their nicest dresses and dress shirts, we knew they'd taken our fancy-talk seriously. One, who dressed like a gangster for school pictures, informed me that it was her only dress, and she'd owned it since she was 4 but had never worn it. But today, she'd clearly decided, was dress-worthy.
On the bus ride I heard multiple kiddos tell me their DC stories- detail accounts of the sights they saw on their trips into DC to visit family members- the gang signs, the unsafe streets, the people on corners, the smell. "It's not safe" two boys told me, most likely concerned that we were so excited about taking the entire first grade into such a dangerous place. It took multiple teachers to calm them down and promise them that the part of the city we were going to did not have gangs, violence, or a disgusting smell.
They calmed down even more as the bus neared the Potomac. Throughout the bus we could hear gasps of excitement. "What a beautiful place!" the Story Teller exclaimed. I think riding the bus with kids around DC is one of the best experiences- there is so much to see. I tried to listen respectfully as multiple children explained to me, as though I didn't know, what the Washington Monument was and why it was named after this guy George, our first president, don't you know?
I was rather enjoying myself as we drove along and I pointed out landmarks until we passed the Watergate. Without missing a beat I pointed it out and started into a "this is an important place because..." and then I stopped. How do you explain to a first grader why the Watergate is important? "You'll learn about that building later" was all I could come up with. I did not mention how ridiculously over priced the Safeway inside the Watergate is, nor did I mention the creepy homeless man who hangs out near the corner. I tried to keep to the more generic landmarks the best I could.
But then... we arrived. And as awesome as riding a bus through DC with first graders is, it's nothing compared to sitting with them to watch Knuffle Bunny, A Cautionary Musical.
First of all, the musical itself was fabulous. It was so well done and they managed to pull out underlying themes in the book through the songs. Trixie even sings an entire ballad in her Aggle Flaggle words. How does it not get better than that? There are visits from the pigeon, a spin cycle fight, a dream sequence, and a giant pair of dancing underpants.
The best part was the celebration of the books inside the play. I mean, every kid in the theater knew that book by heart, and could completely appreciate the drama unfolding on stage. They also could pick up on visits from Mo's other book characters, or when he borrowed lines from his other stories ("Just once around the block?") and had a character say "Wait, wrong book!" The book-geek in me loved the literary references, even if they were for children's books. Getting to share those sort of literary inside jokes with first graders- is that not heaven? Were we not setting the stage, right there, that books are to be loved, song, danced, laughed, and joked about?
I enjoyed it even more because I was sitting between my two friends from last week's field trip, The Story Teller and Eyebrows. And, just like last week, I was peppered with both of their comments. The Story Teller clapped with utter joy and delight as the play began. "I love this day!" he said, over and over again. He took time after each joke to let me know there had been a joke. "That was a joke Mrs. Lipstick!" he'd say in a loud whisper. "That was funny!" Eyebrows liked to keep me informed of what was real and what wasn't. "That's not real underwear" he'd say, pointing to the boxer shorts large enough to be used as a bed spread. And of course, when Trixie and her Daddy leave beloved-Knuffle Bunny in the washing machine, both boys, along with every other child in the audience, desperately screamed at the stage, "Don't forget Knuffle Bunny!" as though they could somehow prevent the horror of what was about to take place.
Once the play began it occurred to me that although we'd discussed The Kennedy Center and we'd re-read Mo Willem's books, we hadn't actually talked about what a musical is like. The minute the first song ended and the audience clapped two children near me gasped. "It's over already?" they asked, horrified. I hurriedly tried to explain how audiences clap during musicals, but neither child looked convinced. Throughout the rest of the show, despite the fact both children had the book memorized, every time a song ended and someone clapped both children looked depressed, as though they thought the Kennedy Center was going to just end the story in the middle, with Knuffle Bunny lost forever in the washing machine.
They all became completely engulfed in the play itself. The minute the actors made a reference to their imaginary environment, like "look, a fire truck driving by" and pointed to the back of the theater, the entire audience turned around to look, as though the actors were pointing at a fire truck headed straight into the family theater at the Kennedy Center.
We'd also forgotten to mention the heavy folding seats that few first graders are heavy enough to keep in a seated position by merely sitting. I watched children struggle to keep their weight forward, but inevitably, in a moment of distraction, they'd shift their weight and the seat would snap up into a folded position, enveloping them inside. Some fought a good fight the whole play, while others gave up, and made themselves comfortable sandwiched in the seat.
When it ended every child sat back and smiled. "That was great!" the Story Teller exclaimed. "Mrs. Lipstick, did you enjoy that? I sure did!"
As we were leaving one girl took my hand, "That was the second best movie ever" she said, "It was almost as good as Alvin and the Chipmunks, the Squeakel."
Although I was quick to explain the difference between a movie and a play, I think that's a pretty high compliment coming from a first grader.