Most parents who’ve been tireless school volunteers eventually confront an uncomfortable truth when their child starts high school: their services are no longer required. This is as it should be, since by that time kids are ready to take on more responsibility. Still it’s hard not to feel a little bereft.
This past weekend John was onstage for the first musical production of his high school career,“Bye Bye Birdie,” and for the first time in two years I was not working backstage. Throughout his middle school years I served as a “costume mom,” helping to sew and fit outfits for dozens of preteen actors, then hanging around during dress rehearsals and performances to zip, mend, primp and supervise. We costume moms have dressed workhouse orphans, Scottish thanes, seven brides and seven brothers, various human fauna and flora, and hundreds of other characters. I spent many hours in our spare room, sewing machine and iTunes playlist at the ready, stitching dozens of costumes and hundreds of yards of fabric. We altered prairie dresses from a size 16 to a size 2, and vice versa. We worked with costumes that had been used in so many productions that they were nearly disintegrating, working magic with fusible fabric and thread, like fairy godmothers in sweats.
But by high school the drama troupe is much smaller, tighter and more experienced onstage than the middle schoolers. Their hormones are calming down; they know how to get dressed all by themselves; and they no longer need parents to tell them to behave and keep their hands to themselves. Unlike with middle schoolers, managing them is no longer like herding cats. In fact, they don’t need to be managed at all. As in so many other realms, high schoolers no longer want or need their moms hovering backstage or anywhere else.
And if I think about it, that’s a key reason why I volunteered, along with the official reason of wanting to help out. It was my excuse to hover, to keep an eye on my youngest child — who has always been like an only child because his five siblings are much older – and make sure that he would be okay. While he dabbled in soccer and Scouting, John was always happiest playing with a buddy or two in our family room. We always had to import friends because our neighborhood was so isolated; he had no neighborhood kids to teach him how to roll with the punches and hold his own in a pack. Drama was his first opportunity to work collaboratively and create something with dozens of other kids his age.
In the beginning, I worried about my new thespian. Middle school children have different levels of maturity and precocity, and backstage we saw everything: a seventh grader who couldn’t keep his hands off his “girlfriend,” an eighth grader who stripped down to her pink Victoria’s Secret underwear in front of the boys, pre-teens who already elevated flirting to a fine art. Just a few feet away from them were pre-pubescent kids still hanging on to their soprano voices and Pokemon cards. John seemed to be part of neither world at times; he was happy to retreat silently into a book when he was not onstage. He didn’t flirt, banter or swagger.
Over the past few years we’ve watched our quiet and introspective boy blossom a lot more, both onstage and with his peers. He does not have the swashbuckling presence of a leading man but thrives best in a “character actor” part. He played a Capulet in Romeo & Juliet, a Shark in West Side Story, an old man in Walden, a British policeman in Oliver, the evil henchman Seyton in MacBeth, the preacher in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and a reporter and dad in Bye Bye Birdie. We documented every performance in video; with each production his voice has grown deeper and his presence onstage more imposing. He’s learned to regroup when things don’t go according to the script, and even improvised a brilliant and funny monologue on the spot during comedy night, something I thought only Robin Williams could do. And through drama he has developed friendships with some terrific kids who appreciate his kindness and quirky sense of humor. He is still quiet and introspective, but he is more engaged with others.
So it’s time for mom to exit stage left, knowing that John Barrymore can take it from here. Our role now is to ferry him to and from rehearsals and performances, not to hover and fret backstage. What goes on behind the curtain is now a mystery, but not a scary one.