Originally Published: March 1, 2002
The walkie talkie is heavy in my hand and weighs on my mind. Press-talk? Talk-press? Evelyn? Can you hear me, Evelyn? Where are you? Evelyn?
Oh what the hell… I end up never finding the Vice Principal on its frequency, but instead race up and down the stairs to monitor the evenings progress. It’s too loud here anyway. I rely on visual confirmation and the occasional yelling into my ear canal.
I pass by the five 1st grade classes who are being shepherded into the hallway to await their turn. The high, tiny voices of the Montessori preschoolers now on stage are competing with the constant din of parents and children in the audience.
“Excuse me – where is little Billy supposed to be? Is his class meeting somewhere?” A frazzled woman has grabbed my forearm. “We really don’t know where he’s supposed to be.” Little Billy looks forlorn and on the verge of tears. I ask him who his teacher is. He mumbles something I cannot hear. His shorn head swivels this way and that, looking for anyone who might resemble a classmate. I motion them confidently in the direction of the multi-purpose room, though in truth, I have no idea where they should be. I glance at my watch – the cafeteria clock has been covered by children’s artwork – and see that we have been going now for 48 minutes.
“We have a situation.” My arm gets tugged over to the wall. A teacher has gone AWOL. Kids are scattered. We decide to jump ahead in the program to the Kindergarteners, who are waiting in our Greenroom – normally the Art Room. They will be performing a Bolivian dance, festooned in heartbreakingly charming costumes.
1st grade still waits in the hallway, chatting excitedly, wearing paper bag vests and holding large papier maché masks to their faces. They have already been lined up for 20 minutes. The teachers patrol the line like anxious border collies.
A few hours earlier we had been putting the finishing touches on the Visual Arts Gallery upstairs in the library. Last minute entries had us installing art work at 5:00. But Children’s art, in its simplicity and honesty invariably eclipses all the administrative and logistical snafus surrounding Events such as this. Tonight it was the performances that were the unknown.
Just an hour ago, we’d left the Music Room - which was now the Recital Hall - where young performers would soon be valiantly trying to get their fingers around Bach, the Star Spangled Banner, and Here Comes the Sun. We’d transformed the 1st grade Blue Pod into the “Bistro”, setting up chairs facing the makeshift stage, leaving it poised and ready for kids who would wrestle with their stage fright to perform skits, dances and readings.
The line of 1st graders has now become restless. There are some signs of hands definitely not being kept to themselves. The teachers shush and reassure and glance toward the stage hopefully. The Kindergarteners are on.
A parent sprints by: “I’ve lost little Billy! He just vanished!” She disappears off into the crowd before I can offer to help.
I rocket down the stairs to tell the parents that if they want to see their 1st graders perform, they’d better get upstairs. I take over in the Recital Hall and introduce a pretty, giggling 5th grader who performs Vivaldi on the violin. A friend, also giggling, is holding up the two trembling sheets of music, as a stand cannot be located. I miss my own 1st graders performance.
I stride through the school, calling out that all 2nd graders should report to the Art Room. I cannot locate a single one. It later turns out that the teachers have everything under control, with all the kids waiting in the hallway. Through one of many glitches in the program – our proof reading was inexpert – the 2nd graders were not mentioned. I feel sick and guilty each time a look at these teachers, who seem to be avoiding my glance…
It’s just after 8:00. The Rhythmic Choir Dance and Choral Ensemble are not where I left them. They are up next and their gold lamé and turquoise robes are nowhere to be seen. I tell a rather panicky-looking 2nd grade teacher that perhaps we can put her class up next. She looks hopeful. Then I spot the tell-tale flash of gold across the room and have to inform the 2nd grade that they will have to wait perhaps 10 - no probably 15 minutes. “Oh God, no!” the now pale teacher stammers as the mob of exhausted kids behind her roil and bubble like an angry sea. In the back of the room I can just make out her co-teacher being engulfed, glasses askew, admonishing and pleading and trying to smile through it all.
“Do you know when the 3rd graders will be performing?” asks a flushed parent, grabbing my arm a little more tightly than is strictly necessary. I have to tell him that 3rd grade was scheduled near the end of the evening. I had observed them practicing while I hung the visual arts in the library over the last few days – holding up hand-drawn portraits of American heroes, talking about them in Spanish and English, and finishing with a rousing chorus of God Bless America.
My watch now says 8:20. The Bistro and Music rooms are almost done with their performances. The Main Stage is going slower than we’d expected.
Little Billy ricochets through the hallways with a bunch of stray kids who have been dropped off at the school by parents unable or unwilling to attend the festivities.
“The kids are tired!” hisses a parent, glaring at me owlishly from her slouched position near the wall. She taps sharply on her watch. I turn away so my impatience doesn’t show, and resist the urge to say, “Well, duh!” It is late.
The husband of one of the organizing parents is shifting from one foot to the other in the standing room only space. He is roasting in his overcoat that protected him from the 25º weather outside. The sheer number of bodies packed into the small space of the cafeteria has raised the temperature to mid-summer conditions. A parent he does not know, by way of making conversation, asks loudly over the noise if he has a kid that goes to the school. The husband stares at the man and laughs good-naturedly. He would stand in this airless sauna after a long day at work and no dinner for anyone other than his own child?
Finally, after some ruffled feathers about who gets to be on stage next, the last group plays an instrumental piece that sounds quite beautiful – aided certainly by the fact that many families have left and oxygen is again flowing.
Just after 9:00 it is all over. Parents are filtering out into the cold night, sucking in the air gratefully. Kids are punchy and still find the energy to play tag on the way to their cars. Those of us left inside - parents, Principal, teachers, a few kids - put away chairs.
Some parents congratulate us on the Event. I stare back at them in blank amazement. But then I think, it’s true – no matter how many details were imperfect, no matter how many noses got put out of joint, no matter how hot or stuffy the place, it is, in the end, the kids that justify the means. It’s the kids who have the ability to cut through all the static and just love every moment of their opportunity to bask in the glow of their parent’s admiration. And it’s also true that in a few weeks, that is all any of us will remember.