Children of the Cornfield: Hilarity & Inspiration at a Middle School Musical
Saturday, February 27, 2016
I moved back to Iowa recently, for a different life. I had spent four years in the LA Basin (with 18.5 million people), and another eleven-plus in the Washington, DC area (9.5 million)… so that’s over 15 years in the country’s 2nd and 4th largest metropolitan areas. OOF. I add an extra “uff-da!” to that when I think about how I set out to be a park ranger, to live in the trees. Who would have thought the world of wildland firefighting would lead to the damn city?
Well. One of the funnest things about being back “home” is the pure joy of having a simpler life. The “city” I live in now has just over 65,000 people. I consider it close-enough to living in the actual rural country, but with decent internet. To be fair, I am living in what was a cornfield when I was in college. Bordered on the north by: cornfields.
Another joy in being home is seeing friends and family that I’ve only gotten to see once or twice a year for the last many years. Now I get to be in their life; and vice versa. That’s an adjustment all on its own but it’s a pretty good one. Picture the life in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” only with an awfully lot more blonde people. It’s all love.
Tonight’s joy agenda featured playing a part in the audience at a middle school musical. Said event would be held at a shiny new school in another ex-cornfield, surrounded by - you guessed it - cornfield.
Here’s yet another thing I love. I wasn’t totally 100% sure how to get to the tiny town the musical was in, but I knew it was north. Iowa is pretty much a grid, being flat and all, so I figured that if I went north, I would see the town. The thing about cornfields and winter and flatland is that you can see forever (at night, too), so even a tiny town is hard to miss.
I left my place, turned north, drove ‘til I saw a town (no “the town is this way” road signs), turned right, and drove through the town until the road ended at the school-in-a-cornfield. And when I say "town," picture the size of the town in the cartoon movie “Cars...” only on much flatter land, and surrounded by dirt. Excuse me: soil.
I did not have to check the traffic on the Google Maps before I left, or as I was driving. I did not have to put addresses into my phone to get directions and navigation to the target destination. I did not need to plot an alternate route, in case there was an accident. There were no accidents. There were no traffic back-ups happening for reasons that were not immediately clear, as they often are not in any congested metropolitan area. I did not have to double-check road names on the map because they changed between interconnected cities, or just for the hell of it.
I did not have to worry about time of day, or that there might be a sudden rush to that area and no available parking because it was a big school event.
I did have to wait for nearly a minute at a (the?) stop sign in the tiny town, for a driver that wanted to be very, very sure there was no traffic. I resisted honking, but I did quite seriously consider it - despite the absurdity out there in all the quiet. The only reason people honk in a small town in these parts is to say “hi,” or to let the person you are picking up know that you have arrived. My city ways are slowly fading.
All of this is pretty freaking cool. But it’s just preamble.
The real story here is the musical. Now, I’m not a musical person. And that is being nice. I really, truly feel like I have given musicals a chance, but I have solidly concluded: I don’t like them. I’d rather be subjected to dental work. And I avoided seeing a dentist for seven years, because of all the associated unpleasantness. Not the best plan, as it turned out, but that gives you a sense for my feeling about musicals.
When it involves your friends’ kid, you make exceptions. Plus, it was “Schoolhouse Rock (Live, Jr.).” I was assured that it would be good, because everyone loves Schoolhouse Rock. Right?
My expectation bar was pretty much at zero, but I love my friends, and the kid. I went in with an open mind. Boy, was I surprised.
The first part of the surprise comes from my reaction to, well, awesome kids. I don’t think that these are exceptionally awesome kids, any more than any other kids are exceptionally awesome.
That’s just the thing. They really all are. And as far as that goes, the adults are, too. That whole auditorium full of friends and family raised those awesome kids to be all shiny like that. It takes a community. They did a good job.
What I love is that these kids were committing. They were full of hope, and light, and life. They were doing what they had been asked, and advised, and taught to do. They practiced. They worked together, even though there were crushes, and struggles, and risks. They sang, they danced, and they adjusted - for sound cues, for microphone feedback, and for whatever else. It wasn’t 100% polished, but it was exactly perfect for what it needed to be.
That’s just part of it. Then it goes to the next level. Because: it’s Schoolhouse Rock. Because it’s not happening in a city rife with politics and media hounds looking for something to talk about. Because people have a sense of humor. Because kids - and teachers - are super smart, and are also not afraid to do theatre.
I tend to be a bit of a citizenship nut. I enter into evidence 11 years in public safety in Washington, DC, 18 total years of federal service, and a state 4-H citizenship award way back when I was a kid myself. I’ve even got a picture taken of me on a 4-H citizenship trip back in the day on the very same block in Washington, DC where I would ending up working like a half-a-lifetime later. I have poured my heart and soul into this country, and finally come back to the Midwest - with some hope intact. Hope that I could do more good here than I could in Washington.
Out of all that, I’m going to say that maybe I got just a little bit jaded. I didn’t realize how much, until I was talking to a 20-something-year-old the night of the Iowa Caucuses. She was not remotely interested in details about why Washington has been a mess; she wanted to hear about where we could go next with government. I realized again how tired I was of Washington, and how much I needed to find some new energy when it came to that.
Imagine my surprise when I heard a 7th-grader cracking jokes during the “Preamble” song in tonight's music. This is a song on how a bill becomes a law. He proclaimed that they’d tell the story anyway, even though the likelihood of Congress ever passing another bill - ever - was slim-to-none. “Come on… we all know Washington's been deadlocked for years!”
The same kid was later seen sporting what we’ll call an unattractive reddish-haired wig with a bad comb-over. He walked past the “legislative committee” working on the bill and said, “Don’t worry: when I’m the Prez, I’ll pass all the bills I want, and just make Mexico pay for it!”
Not long after, during a bit called “Do the Circulation,” our budding comedian made sure to holler in conclusion that of course they would all make the commitment to be healthy. They had better, because “Obamacare” said they darn well should. He had the perfect comic timing - hand gestures and all - to give us all the space to laugh. The audience was loving it. A community freshly caucused-out, getting a bit of a laugh from a most unexpected source.
The icing on the cake happened before intermission. That same kid with the awful reddish wig got up to make announcements. “Take a break! You can have cookies in the cafeteria, and the restrooms are there next to it. Make sure you use the bathroom; you’ll see: it’s gonna be YUGE!” Insert hilarious Trump-like hand gestures. The crowd roared.
I was half-expecting Fozzie Bear to pop in with a “Wocka wocka wockaaaa!!,” but I would have missed it anyway because I was laughing so hard I had tears.
A Beautiful Life
The rest of the musical was just as good. The kids with solos were stellar, there was choreography that nearly everyone remembered, and at one point a boy in real-life crutches led a “train” of kids carrying railcar cut-outs around the whole auditorium while they all sang, merrily swinging the cut-outs.
There was a “Melting Pot” song about how the US was made up of immigrants from all over the world, which was extra entertaining because the actual “melting pot” of kids on stage wasn’t what we’d call a picture of diversity. Not a lot of color, but they also looked like they got the joke and it was pretty funny. They were definitely a melting pot of the immigrants who did re-settle this area: those folks just happened to be mostly blonde.
Speaking of settlement, the “Melting Pot” song also glossed over the whole pushing-native-Americans-off-of-their-land story, and then drove a stake into that with an “Elbow Room” diddy. That one was like, “Wow! Look at all of this open space on the frontier!” I thought the kids played it well. You could see that at least some of them knew damn well that the real-life story wasn’t nearly so pretty. They kept at it though: the singing, the choreography, and the acting. Happy kids.
At the end, the whole cast gave the director a signed show poster with some flowers. She was so touched that she gave an impromptu Oscar-level speech thanking absolutely everyone who helped with the set and everything, including some key parents, a few high-schoolers, and her husband - the superintendent. More tears, on her part this time.
On the night of the Iowa Caucuses, I talked to a person I had met only recently - a federal employee, as I had been. She said that her biggest frustration with some of the politics around the whole race-for-the-presidency was that people kept saying that the country is broken. Her voice cracked when she said, simply, “This country isn’t broken.” She paused. “It’s beautiful.” Tears again - and for me, too.
I might be a little bit of a citizenship nerd (my friend that I went to the play with would say, “a LITTLE bit?"), but I don’t think I was the only one who came away from that musical inspired. If I’m honest, not all of my tears were from laughing. Seeing junior high kids making political jokes - and on both parties - was impressive, but that was just an extra bonus. Probably also a side-effect: two-plus years of presidential campaign BS saturating the state have an impact.
These are kids who are genuinely going about learning and doing, and being good kids. They are getting ready for lives that we can’t even imagine. My brother and I were on the phone recently talking about how we grew up and when the first computers came into schools. The technology evolution in our generation is nothing compared to what kids these days will see.
These kids are going to be even bigger superstars than they already are, given the tools they have. That’s good: we need them. My guess is, there are kids all over this country - and the world - who are an awfully lot like these kids. Trying, doing, learning, evolving, growing, following guidance, listening, taking risks, factoring things, making their own way, and shining.
If that’s not inspiring, I don’t know what is. This is the world I want to live in.
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