Sometime in the middle of last week Martha let me know via text that she wanted to spend a portion of our weekend going to see our high school’s annual musical production. This year, their choice of show was Les Misérables. Ben opted not to go, saying it’d be “weird” to see friends and classmates on stage (his D&D group was also wrapping up a fierce campaign on Sunday afternoon, when we went). He missed a whale of a show.
I’d seen Les Miz one other time, when I was in grad school—a touring company had come to Champaign to play at the Assembly Hall. Sometime soon after I picked up the soundtrack, but it’s been years since I’d listened to it.
Contra Ben’s opinion, what made this special was seeing “kids” we knew. Éponine was the older sister of a boy who takes lessons from the piano teacher that Ben had. We’ve known Cosette since pre-school. The Bishop and Thérnadier are in the band with Ben. And Jean Valjean was, well, he was someone I remember well from ten years ago.
I did a little volunteering when Ben started his elementary years, going in one Friday a month to read to his class. It was a combined first- and second-grade primary; “Jean” was a year ahead of Ben, but the two of them got along very well. They’re in my mind’s eye right now, sitting together, looking up at me as I plow through McBroom and the Big Wind, by Sid Fleischman, a Weekly Reader book I’ve had since I was 9 or so (I didn’t remember the story when I cracked it open again in 2007, but the names of McBroom’s 11 children came rushing back immediately when the title character called out to them to seek shelter from the storm: “Willjillhesterchesterpeterpollytimtommarylarryandlittleclarinda!”). Those Friday mornings were so very fun.
Jean killed it on Sunday. So did Éponine, Fantine, Cosette, Marius, Javert, the Thérnadiers, and so many others.
Before the show began, Ms. Marshall, the director, came to the stage to tell a little of how she came to choose such an ambitious production; it boiled down to believing the students she’d have on hand were up to it. But in the course of her remarks, one thing she said stood out: “I had to teach these students how to feel things they’ve never experienced.” Did she ever succeed—afterward I was emotionally drained, and remained so well into Monday. (Some of the same feelings are returning as I’ve been writing this.) There were plenty of points in the show where I was fighting back tears. “On My Own” was certainly one of them, but Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” and her subsequent death scene with Valjean were probably the most affecting moments for me. Fantine’s despair and resignation, Jean’s tender care and resolve at her death bed—heavy stuff for 17- and 18-year olds, but they made me feel it all. I wonder if it being the final performance made it more emotional for the performers.
While the weight of the story hung over me for hours afterward, there was something else at least equally as important. At the end of the day, I was indeed another day older, but I was also inspired. Inspired by the dedication of everyone—director, actors, parents, teachers—to the success of the production. This was no doomed cause; Ms. Marshall had a vision, got the buy-in, and gave those students a fabulous learning experience as well as a treasure chest of memories.
I have heard the people sing, and it was magnificent. Those tomorrows keep on coming, and with them opportunities for making a difference in my students’ lives. Even though the school year is ending—finals start, as it turns out, tomorrow—I plan to be on the lookout.