Last week, my son’s fifth grade class put on the show Oklahoma. This show and those that had come before are part of an annual year-end ritual at our little elementary school, the fifth grade musical. The show was double cast, and each cast had a day that they did the show twice, one performance during the day for students and another in the evening for parents and guests. Students not only acted but also did make up, ran the lights, pulled the curtains, and took care of other technical issues. Several adults were instrumental, particularly the school’s hard-working music teacher and two fifth grade teachers.
As a parent at this school for the last six years, I was aware of the musical but just did not get the hullabaloo that surrounded it. I remember saying to myself: OK, so there’s a year-end musical – yeah, yeah, yeah. Just what is the big deal? Well, now I get it. Boy, do I get it. And as wonderful as the performances themselves were, all that bubbled beneath those performances – the ritual of the year-end musical, the work that preceded the performances, the show Oklahoma and its messages – were just as wonderful and even more powerful.
I’ve written about year-end rituals before, and the fifth grade musical is just one more at this school that closes an important chapter for the students. They work intensely over several months on the show, collaborating with peers, teachers, and parents on the year’s biggest project, a project that has a real-world exhibition at the end, the four performances. While this school project is not about biomes or acute and obtuse angles, it does encompass many skills that students need to succeed in school and in life: speaking and listening, for example, and the ability to work cooperatively with a team. There are also the personal qualities that can develop through this kind of extended project: responsibility, self-esteem, sociability, self-management, and integrity and honesty.
Just as the kids (and their families) need this closing ritual, so does the school. This tradition of the year-end musical helps to define the school and the qualities that set it apart from other places, that make it special. I think about the importance of community at this school and how the musical epitomizes that quality, with all fifth graders and innumerable parents and staff members taking part. Even past participants can not escape that quality, as middle schoolers were in the audience the other night, reliving their experiences with the musical. And the younger students in the audience, siblings of those on stage, were learning this ritual and preparing to undertake it in a few years and transmit it to another set of students.
Lastly: Perhaps unbeknownst to her when the music teacher selected Oklahoma back in the fall is just what the show says about the American ethos and how that can be applied to these young people as they emerge from this cocoon of a school and head off to middle school. For me the musical is about a lot of things: That darn and eternal American quality of optimism, epitomized by Curley’s very first song, Oh, What a Beautiful Morning. The tension between the ranchers and farmers, between the dark inside of Jud’s smokehouse and the open expanse of the Oklahoma territory, its fields and meadows and wide open skies. And then there are the dreams and imagination and hopes of these characters, as they conjure up fancy surreys and their futures in the United States.
How can that not apply to our kids as they load up their wagons and begin the trek from cozy elementary school to the far-ranging plains of middle and then high school? As they put into action their hopes and dreams, as they stake their own territory. Oklahoma served as an exclamatory end to their time in elementary school, the curtain closing on that final song, but it was also preparatory, reinforcing skills that they’d been taught during the year, during their tenure at the school, skills to use far into the future.
So, what’s your school’s culminating performance, its year-end ritual? Sure, the one I witnessed was a ton of work for teachers, staff, students, and parents, but not only was the final product spectacular, but the process to get to it was instructive, difficult, fun, and full of risks – all that school should be.
OK, enough highfalutin talk, as Aunt Eller might say. Let’s just sing – and be sure that you do so with “Plenty of heart and plenty of hope!”
Photographs courtesy of my friend and great photographer David Baratz.