Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Dec. 21, 2012
For the past few weeks, Riley County Grade School music teacher Carey Zeak has been preparing the third through sixth graders for "The Nutcracker," a musical adapted from Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite." Last Friday night was the big show.
Even though we don't have any children involved, I decided to attend because the sheer joy that youngsters show when they sing and dance always puts me in the Christmas spirit. Since husband Art helped with the lights and sound, I knew I'd have company.
Carey presents the show only once every four years, but even then I really don't know how she does it. Elementary school teachers usually find it a challenge to keep 15 - 20 youngsters occupied, so how she keeps all four grades working toward the same goal and singing the same songs at the same time while still preserving her sanity is a mystery to me. She's said she only partly succeeds at all of those.
Supporting activities must also be coordinated. Parents and older students help with costumes, props, hair and make-up; others make cookies for the after-performance reception; teachers keep kids corralled; bus drivers transport youngsters from the grade school to the high school and back for rehearsals; custodians clean the gym and set up chairs and later put things away; others print and fold programs.
Yet sometimes even that help can be a source of stress. One day during rehearsal, the "cheese" could not be found for the segment involving the mice. Everything paused while a search commenced. In the end, it was determined that it had suffered some damage the previous day and a parent had taken it home to repair it.
But by producing the show once every four years for the four grades, it assures that at some time during their schooling, every child can be in the show. Daughter Mariya, now 26, was an Arabian dancer when she was in fifth grade. She really wanted to be a Russian baker, but only boys were cast in that role. Katie, now 20, was a Chinese tea party dancer when she was in sixth grade.
We arrived an hour before the show started, providing me with an opportunity to wander through the school to see some of the behind-the-scenes preparations. A laminated color-coded map on a wall of the hallway directed students - and their parents - to the proper "dressing rooms."
In the family and consumer studies classroom, older students were putting make-up on the red, blue, yellow and white "flowers." A blue "flower" scrunched up her face when it came time to have blush brushed on her cheeks.
In the music room, a mother handed out red capes to toy soldiers. The boys appeared "antsy" to get their swords.
"No, I'm not giving you your swords until the last," she told the soldiers.
In another room, the candy flutes had tubes constructed from white and red corrugated cardboard lowered over their heads. Once in place, mothers applied red and white paint to the faces peering out from the holes cut in the front.
By the time I got back to the gym, it was nearly full. I told Art it looked as packed as at any sporting event I've seen there. He said they wouldn't have rows of chairs on the court, so there were more people present than for a basketball or volleyball game!
Soon the students who had speaking parts appeared and he went about the business of attaching wireless microphones to each one.
When 7:30 p.m. arrived, grade school Principal Teresa Grant welcomed everyone and then asked for a moment of silence to remember the children who had been killed in the Connecticut school shooting that very morning. A hush fell over the crowd. Losing a child is always hard, but to lose so many - and right before Christmas - makes it especially difficult. A few minutes later, music from the "Nutcracker" filled the gym and the colorfully-costumed youngsters marched in. The events of the morning made us cherish the scene before us all the more.
Then, for the next 45 minutes, mice scampered across the stage as the toy soldiers drew their swords to fight them off. Russian bakers clacked their wooden spoons together and jumped into the air. Arabian dancers glided across the stage with arms swaying gracefully. Chinese tea party dancers hopped and bowed while balancing cups and saucers on their heads. Candy flutes - shaped like candy canes - tweeted up a storm. Flowers and sugar plum fairies twirled and swayed.
At the end, the gym was filled with applause. Carey was obviously pleased - and probably also quite glad it was over.
Soon audience members flooded the hallways looking for their special actor or actress. Mice could be seen yawning and readjusting their ears, bakers were tapping each other with wooden spoons, toy soldiers were poking each other with swords, candy flutes were toppling, and Arabian dancers, Chinese tea party dancers, flowers and sugar plum fairies were fidgeting. In other words, kids were being kids.
And the evening? Well, it had been Nutcracker "sweet."