Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Portraits of the Shark as a Young Man: Mary Poppins

I have been overwhelmed by the response this blog has received, both quantitatively and qualitatively. And as a result I feel anxious to keep up with my writing and keep this momentum gathering.

However, sometimes I actually need to be a parent to the subject of this blog. And I feel a bit odd saying, when Sharky asks me to play, "not now son, I'm trying to share your story with the world!"

Another issue (and this one far less desirable) is that much of my free time, my writing energy, and the daily allowance of time my eyes can bear gazing intensely into a computer screen are usurped by the need to write letters of protest regarding the Seattle Public School District.

Specifically, Sharky is one of several dozen special education students who, somehow or another, ended up with NO school placement for next year. As a result, and despite the very gracious form letter I got from the district 4 weeks after expecting to hear about our placement saying they do intend to eventually stick him somewhere, I filed a Citizen's Complaint with the Washington State Office for the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), who did indeed decide to launch an investigation.

Over the weekend I received a copy of the district's response, in which they claim that the investigation should be called off because my complaint is "premature." Premature because they are still in the process of taking steps to "accommodate a systemic capacity issue."

OH! Here I thought they completely botched the whole thing and ended up with six fewer special education classrooms than they needed, and as a result brought untold pain and anxiety upon dozens of families. Turns out it's just a systemic capacity issue. Yeah, those systemic capacity issues sure are a bother, aren't they? But like the rain in Seattle or tornadoes in Kansas, they're just one of those natural things we have to learn to live with.

(By the way, I called my doctor and asked if a systemic capacity issue was similar to a systemic yeast infection. She hung up the phone on me)

So time I'd hope to devote to this blog went towards scripting my response. There is much more to come about this and many other subjects pertaining to "The District," as they refer to themselves in every letter written by their legal counsel.

But today, lacking the spirit to write something new, and still wanting to speak about happier things, I will share a story from the past, which I had the good sense to write years ago for use on some rainy day such as this.

My father had a stroke when Sharky was almost a year old. In the aftermath of that, it came to light that he had Lewy Body Dementia. He has since that time lived in a nursing home. One of his great joys during this stage of his life has been to watch Sharky grow, and Sharky has always been very good to his grandpa (much more on this subject in the future as well).

Another source of pleasure for my father is when my mother reads emails or letters to him about things going on with their loved ones. Knowing this, I made it a point to regularly write descriptive emails to the two of them about experiences Sharky and I had. What follows is one of those, written in April of 2005.


I wanted to write and tell you both about our fun Sunday afternoon going to see Mary Poppins at the historic Capitol Theater in downtown Olympia.

I spotted the flier at the Olympia Library last week saying that Mary Poppins would play, and folks were encouraged to dress up and sing along. As you may know, Mary Poppins is possibly Sharky's favorite movie of all time (of course, “of all time” is a much more limited concept when you are not even three years old yet), and he can sing and dance most of the musical routines in it. So we spent a week in anticipation of the event. I was very excited to be a witness to his first experience at a movie theater. And I was glad it would be at the Capitol Theater, a beautiful, old-fashioned theater with a stage and balcony, and ornate fixtures, and velvet curtains, instead of some mall cinema crusted in popcorn and $20/gallon soda.

There was a line around the block. Sharky got tired of waiting so he and I went into the alley behind the theater and splashed in puddles. When we returned, Lillie was near the front of the line and had been joined by Jean, one of our babysitters. Sharky loves Jean, but when he saw her a look of terror came over his face, and he ran into my arms and made me hold him. I realized that he is used to Jean’s presence meaning Mama or Daddy is leaving, and he wasn’t ready for that. Not here. Not now.

Lillie had dressed him up as Michael Banks, the boy child that Mary Poppins nannies. He was wearing a yellow sweater vest with argyle across the middle, knee-length blue shorts (or knickers) and green stockings under them. We went into the theater and found an open row of seats near the back. But it ceased to be the back a few minutes later when the staff realized they were going to have a full house and pulled back the curtain behind us, opening up the last 12 or so rows of the theater. Sharky took his own seat and sat upright near the front of it, his little legs dangling off the edge. He sucked on his sippy cup of juice and looked all around in wide-eyed amazement. He pointed at the red lights along the side of the theater and said “oooooooh.” He looked up at the ceiling fans and bounced up and down with excitement. He pointed at the screen and asked, “Whuddat?”

Then he decided it was time to get up and run around.

We ran up the stairs to the lounge area, across the top floor, then down the other stairs to the lobby. Then across the lobby, then up the stairs, across the lounge, down the stairs, across the lobby…into the theater, over to our seats just to check and make sure Mama was still there, then back into the lobby, up the stairs, across the lounge, down the stairs, across the lobby.

Finally, after much ballyhoo, the movie started. Sharky was running across the lobby, closely followed by me, when he heard the opening strings of the Mary Poppins Overture. He froze in his tracks, looked all around, screamed, “Whuddat?!”

We booked into the theater, found our seats, and watched. Sharky screamed at the exact moment when anyone in the movie became animated. He barked just as the dog in the film began to bark. He kicked the chair in front of him in time with Dick van Dyke kicking the drum pedals to his musical ensemble. He sang along with all of the songs. The woman in front of us, who was alone, about 45, and also knew the songs and sang, kept turning around and laughing each time Sharky had a burst. She asked him, “have you seen this movie before?”

Only about 1000 times.

And the experience was everything I dreamed it would be. I sat back and enjoyed the pure amazement of a child seeing the magic of a movie spectacular shown on the big screen. I remembered very vividly what it was like for me when I was introduced to the same thing.

And I really must say that Mary Poppins is an incredible movie. You really have to see it on the big screen to appreciate that. It may be one of the great movies of all time. It is such a joyous spectacle, and I really have difficulty finding any flaw with it.

There was an intermission.

Curse the intermission.

The trance was broken, and after sitting for an hour straight soaking up the film, Sharky decided it was time to raise hell. In addition to the running around the outside lobby, he decided to run up and down the aisles of the theater screaming, and then running out of the theater, throwing open the curtains and letting a flood of light into the theater. Over and over again. Attempts to redirect were ignored. Attempts to squash were met with extreme tantrums. As I staggered dazedly behind him, I seem to recall admiring adults saying things such as “a better show than the movie,” and “he has a future in entertainment.”

Eventually, he noticed that a large group of children had formed on the steps leading to the stage in front of the screen. He went and stood amongst them and danced to the music. Near him, there was a boy of about 10 dressed as a chimney sweep. He was dancing also, but in a more self-conscious way. I thought, this is the difference between 2 and 10. At 2, there is still the ability to be completely unadulterated in your expression. You can dance and sing for the pure joy of it. But by 10, you perform for others, hoping for approval. If you play your cards right, you can eventually regain the purity of a 2 year old, but it takes years of effort, awkwardness, and embarrassments to get there.

As I was thinking this, the ten-year-old crashed into Sharky, knocked him over, and then fell on top of him. It was 100% the 10-year-old’s fault. To his credit, he was very sweet and apologetic. Lillie and I whisked the screaming Shark away to a sort of broom closet near the front of the theater and consoled him.

As we were doing this, I heard from inside the theater that “Step In Time” had begun.

This is Sharky's favorite.

This is the reason we had come.

And I’ll be damned if some clumsy 10 year old going though an awkward yet necessary life stage was going to stop us from enjoying it. We went back to the front of the stage and danced. Lillie was holding Sharky and bouncing him.

IT WORKED! He stopped crying and started bouncing and singing along to the song. After a bit, he squirmed from Lillie's arms and onto his own feet. He was back to himself, dancing and singing.

Once the song ended, he decided it was time to run all over the theater again, so we decided it was time to leave (it was almost the end of the movie anyway). He didn’t take too kindly to that notion, and we had out last great tantrum of the day.

Once out in the light, I saw that his hair was soaked with sweat, his face dirty with theater soot stuck to the tears he had shed, his little British boy clothes were stretched and pulled to their limits, his eyes were red and cheeks were flushed.

I was hunched over from back pain and pretty sweaty myself, ducking Sharky's flailing feet as he tried to kick his way free.

Lillie's eyes sagged and she took deep breaths though her mouth, as if the nose was too narrow of a passage to meet her current oxygen requirements.

We hoisted Sharky, still whimpering, into his car seat, and plied him with a piece of zucchini bread to pacify him. It worked. I managed to lift an arm half way up my side to signal goodbye to Lillie. Then I turned to Sharky and said,

“I sure had a lot of fun today, and I’m glad you did too. I’ll never forget your first ever trip to the movies, when we all saw Mary Poppins together…you made it a very memorable experience.”

He smiled and they drove away.



Sheri said...

Sounds like he had a really nice time with Mary. Matt loved Snow White the same way Sharky loves Mary. We got to do the big screen thing too. One day, take him to Disney-that's where the magic is.

I completely understand about your school district, and don't ever think it is just your district. They pretty much all suck when it comes to special education. I'm glad you are giving them hell. Keep up the good work!!!!

Double Bagger said...

My son is ten and was just diagnosed this year with Asperger's Syndrome. His school has been very supportive. The longview school district has an autism specialist who has been working with us to try and deal with his emotional issues.

Club 166 said...

Great story about the movie. You really captured the whole range of experiences there.

The district's response shows that you're getting somewhere. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Don't even think of dropping the complaint until you see real results.


p.s. saw your great response regarding job placements on Kristina Chew's blog. nice job.