Monday April 4, 2016 marked the first Preview and Placement Day for the KidsAlive! Kaleidoscope: a program designed to pair experienced young music theater performers (our Mirrors) with children with special needs (our Gems.) The word "Kaleidoscope" literally means "observation of beautiful forms.” We hoped to create a music theater experience with beautiful patterns and shapes that we couldn’t see without the collaboration of the two. We also hoped to create a new sense of community, filled with understanding, acceptance and new friendships.
On Monday afternoon I found myself facing 12 young Mirror hopefuls ranging in age from 9 to 17. They were all early, of course, which was a good indicator of the dedication of these young people. Everyone seemed a little awkward and anxious, myself included, and I can still hear my words of wisdom to them: "We aren't really sure what is going to happen today! Don't hang back, don't be shy. Reach out and make friends any way you can."
Our first Gem to arrive was a young girl with Down Syndrome who I've met several times. She almost always has a smile and/or a hug for me, but today she was in a new environment and NOT happy when she came through the door. I got a brief "almost" hug followed by a grunt and a push. Next thing I knew one of our Mirrors was on the floor beside her cleaning up a spilled glass of milk that she had thrown across the room. My heart sank. This could be a very long hour and a half. Were we up to the task?
As it turns out, we were.
Our first young Gem was having trouble warming up to the group, so we circled up and began a game of The Hokey Pokey. All of our Mirrors instantly jumped in and began laughing and singing, while our new friend stood outside the circle, arms folded, with a scowl on her face and an eye to the door. Soon a new Gem joined us, a 15 year old girl with Down Syndrome, who had been a music theater fan for a while. It only took her a few seconds to assess the situation and she was singing and dancing right along with us. Before long we were joined by 3 more young Gems who quickly found their niche among the loud, crazy room full of people that we had become. I held my breath as our first friend transitioned from parallel movement, to joining the group in our games and songs. Her journey was not without setbacks of course. When we encouraged another step too quickly we were met with frowns and angry outbursts, but these became fewer and farther between. I knew we had succeeded when I felt one of her hands reach out for mine, and looked down to see a smile that radiated joy from ear to ear.
All of us learned a great deal in our hour and a half together. We played games, sang songs from our show, and danced untill we were all hot and tired. We learned that our Gems were fearless, persistent, could outdance most of us, and some were surprisingly far more skilled at tongue twisters than the best of our Mirrors. Their powers of observation were keen and most of them were incredibly quick to reach out and make new friends. None of us were strangers for very long. When it was time to leave, goodbyes were punctuated with shouts of "Group Hug!" and "Let's Hang Out!" and I was pretty sure I was never going to be able to wipe the smile off my face.
After all of our new friends had been seen safely to the door, we met briefly with the Mirrors to hear their thoughts on the day. I wish I could have bottled the feeling in the room. In an hour and a half of fun and sheer delight, those young people had all matured measurably. Their suggestions were insightful, their observations acute. They had stepped into a brand new situation filled with unknowns, and not only risen to the task, but soared right over the rainbow.
Perhaps most of all, I felt that each of us had been humbled that day. Our society wants to label everything ... every situation, every class of people, every disorder. It is as if the act of labeling or defining creates an order that allows us to deal with the situation. Once we can categorize the behavior, the issue, the person.. we think we can somehow file it away and be done.
We have been given a name to call these young people who came to experience music and laughter with us yesterday. We call them "children with special needs." It's a positive term, yet I spent much of last night wondering. To me, these children had the same needs as the rest of us. They needed to be loved, to be respected, to belong, to connect, to be needed. That is perhaps the defining factor of us all - we need to be needed.
And yet, these young people did have something very special that made them stand out from the rest of us. I felt that each of them were not children with "special needs," but children with special abilities. Each of those children had the ability to live in the moment, to display what was in their hearts freely, without fear of reprisal or condemnation. I cannot imagine any other group of young people coming into a room of strangers and so quickly connecting to everyone around them. Each of us were immeasurably enriched by their joy and love of life. We needed them, just as they needed what we had to give.
What a journey we have begun. I don't know what obstacles we will face, or how we will overcome them. But one thing I do know: that we will. Our Gems will light the way.