Sunday, April 14, 2013

Waiting on the World to Change - Part 3

Zach, Anna G and Carolyn at dinner after changing the world

Buckhead Pizza Company hasn't been the same since January 20, when five teenagers, their families and I ate dinner there immediately after the incredible performance of "Waiting on the World to Change" at the NRG Dance Project. Our waiter, Dwayne, looked quite apprehensive when we walked in - four teens with Down syndrome, one teen with autism and nine adults must have seemed like a tall order to fill. At the moment we entered, Katie was in the throws of a fit, stomping her feet as she walked and registering her complete displeasure with the situation through her facial expressions and body language.

What sparked Katie's outrage was a misunderstanding. When we left the lobby of our hotel to change for dinner, Katie had been under the impression that the only people going to dinner were the two of us. When she realized that her friends and their families were heading out the door with us, she stopped and said, "Ok, there's been a mistake. This just won't do." Her mother asked her what was wrong and she explained that the only people who were supposed to be going out to eat were Katie and me. As her mom tried to convince her that it was okay for the others to join us, her frustration only increased. Actually, she wasn't frustrated, she was furious.

"Katie, I will sit right beside you," I assured her. 

"Yeah," said Carolyn. "The rest of us won't even try to talk to Miss Debra - you can have her all to yourself."

But no matter what anyone told her, Katie was not happy. Once Dwayne got us seated and I started engaging Katie in a conversation, she began to relax. Eventually, she tapped on her glass to get everyone's attention, saying to the group, "I'm sorry how I acted before. I was just very disappointed."

The other kids accepted her apology with open hearts, with the sort of acceptance and forgiveness they always show. Within a very short time, all the kids were laughing and talking, Katie's anger completely forgotten. We thought the rest of our meal would be uneventful but then...

Layne, Anna G's big sister, suggested to Carolyn that she should wash her hair before she went to bed. Carolyn's hair had been straightened, curled and fussed with for two days - starting with the crew at HLN, where she made her national television debut (Part 4 of this series will detail that experience), then she had sweated throughout a day of intense dance classes and had more hairspray in her hair than Dolly Parton by the time we made it to dinner. Unbeknownst to Layne, Carolyn has an app on her iPhone that helps her keep up with her schedule, down to personal details like when she plans to wash her hair. She hadn't planned to wash her hair that night and, the more Layne insisted that she should, the more frantic Carolyn became. One of the ways Carolyn's autism manifests itself is in a ritualistic insistence on routine; deviations from her set routine are not allowed. Everyone starting chiming in, telling Layne to be quiet (she's used to me bossing her around and didn't take offense), telling Carolyn that she didn't need to wash her hair after all. But the damage had been done, the thought had been planted that Carolyn's routine should be adjusted and her meltdown went into full-out panic mode. As Dwayne tried to serve our appetizers, Carolyn's anguish turned into sobs, everyone jumped out of their chairs to rush to comfort her, Anna G was yelling at her sister to hush up and leave Carolyn alone, Layne was apologizing profusely and Dwayne looked like he was going to have a nervous breakdown.

All of the adults were having adult beverages. At about this point, I excused myself from the table and went outside to smoke a cigarette. I's awful that I'm a smoker. I always say that I need at least one vice and since I'm like Mary Poppins - practically perfect in every way - smoking is my one flaw. Of course, that's a joke. I'm seriously contemplating a strategy for quitting this year. Anyway, by the time I rejoined the table, everyone had settled down, the food had been served and the conversation turned to how our program has changed everyone's life.

One of the moms said that I was such an amazing woman, that I had done something so remarkable, that Alan and I were the ones who were changing the world. "Guys," I said, "Give me a break. I just came back in here from smoking outside while I'm guzzling Budweiser in front of your children. You're talking about me like I'm Mother Theresa. We all did this together. It wouldn't have mattered if Hayley and I created a program and Alan paid for it if none of you had come on board."

What a leap of faith these parents took when they enrolled our children with us. There was nothing to show that Hayley or I were remotely qualified to do what we said we could do, no reason for parents to turn over their beloved - and vulnerable - kids to our care, even if it was just for 90 minutes at a time.  We ended up agreeing that we were pioneers together, that we all took a leap of faith when we joined forces. Hayley, Alan and I are no more responsible for the success of our programs than the students and their parents are. We entered into a pact together, one that required both sides of the equation to put a lot at risk. The parents had to risk their children's safety and security by trusting inexperienced folks like us. The students had to put themselves at risk and trust that we would never put them in a situation where they might be made to feel "less than," had to trust that the volunteers we pair them with would never have anything but their best interests at heart. And Hayley, Alan and I had to trust ourselves that we could go with our instincts and our hearts, even though none of us had any sort of pedigree, experience or education to help guide us. We all decided that, together we made one hell of a team.

While we had this deep discussion, the kids were amusing themselves with a series of knock-knock jokes, each one more ridiculous than the next. Knock-knock. Who's there? Train. Train who? Trains go fast, for example. Raucous laughter was coming from the kids' end of the table, making it difficult to place our dessert orders with Dwayne. Throughout our desserts, the knock-knock jokes continued.

Finally, exhausted Dwayne brought the check to the table, we paid and he returned with our receipt. I didn't notice until we were almost out the door that Dwayne had left us a note on the back of our receipt. It said, "Knock knock. Who's there? Dwayne. Dwayne who? Dwayne the bathtub, I'm dwoning. Thanks for a good time!" What an awesome guy! And what a fun dining experience!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Waiting on the World to Change, Part 2

During the planning for our trip to the NRG Dance Competition in Atlanta, Hayley, Melissa and I were concerned about the reception our kids might receive in the classes that are part of the huge dance event. We debated whether we should enroll the kids in the intermediate classes, designed for kids ages 8-12, or if we should put them in the advanced classes for kids their actual ages. We worried that younger kids might be less accepting than older teens, might be more prone to stare, snicker or mock the five Project UP kids.

It was a tough call. In this dance's group of five, there are four teens with Down syndrome and one with autism. We knew that our kids were going to have a physically difficult time in either age group. They are all prone to tire easily – because of poor muscle tone, some people with Down syndrome find physical exertions to be exhausting, requiring so much more of their focus and determination than those of us who don’t have Down syndrome. I am continuously amazed by these kids’ capacity to accomplish anything and everything they are given the chance to, given how much harder they have to work to achieve the same results as us “normal” folks. With autism, there may not be as many physical difficulties to get past, but the intense mental exertion can be draining for some of our students. Both age groups would have the same level of physical demands, so what was better for our kids -  putting them with kids their own age but where we were positive they couldn’t keep up or putting them with younger kids where they would have a better chance of performing well but where they might be made to feel less welcome? We also considered how our kids would feel being with younger kids – they are teenagers and obviously would prefer to be with kids their own age. After much discussion, we decided the intermediate level was best for the kids.

Anna C, Hayley, Anna G and Katie ready to take class at NRG!
At the first class of the convention, we were hyper-vigilant, looking for any sign that any kid might do anything ungracious to one of ours. There were a few stares, a few whispers behind hands as our kids tried to master the dance combinations. Layne Giardini, big sister to Anna G. and a volunteer we could not begin to do without, started to get a bit defensive when one little girl sneered ever so slightly at one of the kids. She whispered to me, “If that little girl looks at our kids one more time, I’m going over and snatching her hair out.” I urged Layne to try not to over-react, to wait and see what would develop.

The typical kids seemed curious as they watched our kids, surprised to see kids with special needs in their class. But by the time the second class of the day began, that curiosity slowly turned into cautious sociability. I overheard typical kids say things like, “I like your dance pants,” or “Good job…you almost got that combination!” By the end of the first day of classes, there was outright enthusiasm from the majority of the 100 or so kids in the class, excitement that our kids had kept up and done their best. The next day in class, our kids were greeted with warm words of welcome and by the time the convention was over, there were hugs, Facebook friending, pictures taken and posted.

The kids performed their dance on Saturday night. When the classes resumed at 8:30 on Sunday morning, I went around the convention with a video camera. I stopped people, asked if they had seen the performance of “Waiting on the World to Change” and if they would be willing to let me videotape their reaction to the dance. The link at the bottom of this post will connect you with their comments. A few of the people who commented were affiliated with us as volunteers or their parents but the majority of people I talked to were strangers to me. Their honest reactions to seeing "Waiting on the World to Change" are proof to me that our students are changing the world, one performance at a time!

Zach, Katie, Anna C, Carolyn and Anna G with Robert Hoffman, after taking his master class at NRG Dance Project

Audience Reaction Video

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Waiting on the World to Change

I haven't blogged in a few months - things have been happening at Merrimack Hall at lightening speed lately! This entry is the first in a series I will be writing about Project UP's experiences this winter, so please stay tuned and read the whole inspiring story.

Pictured here are 10 of the most amazing kids I've ever met. From left to right, they are Zachary, Lauren, Anna, Katie, Haleigh, Carolyn, Peyton, Anna, Sarah Katherine and Shelby.
The five in black are students at Element Dance Company and the five in white are students in Project UP. This photo was taken just after they performed a dance piece to John Meyer's "Waiting on the World to Change" at the NRG Dance Project in Atlanta. While they are all smiling, this image does not come close to depicting the exhilaration they were all feeling. I'm not sure I believe this, but an audience member clocked the standing ovation these kids received at a full seven minutes; regardless of the length of the ovation, the audience's reaction was palpable. Hundreds of dance enthusiasts were on their feet, wiping tears, their cheers as loud and rousing as the ones I heard at Alabama's National Championship victory over LSU in 2012. And to think this reaction was occurring at a dance competition!

I'm not a big fan of dance competitions. My own daughter participated in them throughout middle and high school and while I enjoyed spending time with her on out-of-town trips and loved watching her perform, I loathed her dance teacher and found the atmosphere of a dance competition to be contrary to everything I had been taught and experienced as a young dancer myself. Seeing young girls tarted up like Vegas showgirls - Jon Benet Ramsey style - and older teens wearing next to nothing while performing suggestive moves to provocative music was not my idea of a wholesome way to foster the art of dance in young girls. I had reluctantly agreed to let Project UP participate in the Alabama State Dance Championships and found that environment much more palatable. Of course, I was thrilled when our students one first place overall in their category (see previous blog post on this experience, entitled "State Dance Champions"). Hayley and I wanted to take our students to a full-fledged competition experience, including staying in a hotel and taking master classes, so we turned to our good friends Nick Gonzalez and Rustin Matthew and their highly regarded NRG Dance Project.

Nick and Rustin created a place in their competition schedule for Project UP to perform, but not compete. They allowed our students to participate in the workshops and master classes in the age level below their actual ages and even allowed us to pay only the observer's fee, just in case our kids got overwhelmed and were not able to take the classes. I was grateful to Nick and Rustin, but not surprised by their largesse - they are both incredible artists who are devoted to educating and inspiring young dancers and have both been a big fan of our programs since they first saw them in action back in 2010.

I wrote about our rehearsals in a previous blog post (We're Going To Change The World) but after selecting the music and setting the choreography on the five dancers from Element and the five from Project UP, Hayley and I knew we had a powerful piece on our hands. The video of their performance (link below), although grainy and unprofessional, will attest to the power of movement to express emotions. Project UP performed the piece at Merrimack Hall's Evening of Dance the week prior to our trip to NRG Dance Project and it received a rousing reception. But no matter how many times I watched rehearsals of this piece, no matter that I had seen it performed before a hometown crowd, no matter how much effusive praise had been heaped on the performance, nothing prepared me for the reception it received in Atlanta.

Just prior to taking the stage, I told the kids that they were going to do a great job, told them to break a leg and then, forgetting how very literal some of them are, I said, "Y'all are going to bring down the house!" Carolyn looked at me with concern and asked, "What does that mean? Bring down the house? I don't want to do that."

"No," I reassured her, "I don't mean we are going to make the house fall down! What I mean is that your dance is going to be so great and people are going to applaud for you so loudly that it will feel like the roof might cave in. But it won't - I promise! This building is very sturdy and even though people will clap really loud, we are perfectly safe."

Carolyn looked slightly reassured and bravely stepped in line to enter the stage. I ran to the audience, where Carolyn's dad had saved me a seat on the second row. The minute the first beat of the music began, the audience started cheering, and they didn't stop until the estimated 7-minute standing ovation ended. After the performance, the parents and I met the kids, Hayley and Melissa backstage, where we shared hugs and kisses, congratulations and high-fives. Nick and Rustin ran backstage between other dance numbers, tears streaming, to hug the kids and tell them what a great job they had done. The parents and I decided to change clothes and meet in the lobby in thirty minutes so that we could head out to get dinner together.

I didn't cry until I got into my hotel room. I had to stand there for a minute and just let the emotions wash over me - gratitude, pride, awe, joy. Then I called Alan and through my sobs I said, "They did it and the audience went wild." I could tell that Alan was crying too. He wanted every detail and I told him how we had a hard time getting through the crowd in the lobby to the elevators because everyone we encountered stopped us to tell us how great the kids were, how wonderful the piece was, how moved they were. Alan said, "Now do you know how Carolyn felt?"

He was referring to a funny comment Carolyn had made to me after the previous week's performance. "Waiting on the World to Change" had been the finale of the Evening of Dance. When the curtain closed, all 10 kids were hugging each other, saying things like, "Atlanta, here we come." Carolyn, standing off to herself and talking to no one in particular, was saying, "We did so great. Everyone is going to be so proud of me. Everyone is going to be so proud of me next weekend. Everyone is going to be so proud of me when I go to the Special Olympics in South Korea. Everyone was so proud of me when I graduated. Everyone was so proud of me when I got a job." She stopped, realizing that I was looking at her. And then she said, with resignation, "Miss Debra, I don't think I can take one more person being proud of me."

Yes, I told Alan, I know how Carolyn felt, because I had been besieged by people telling me what amazing work we are doing, how moved they were, how seeing Project UP and Element Dance Company perform together had changed their lives. While I certainly appreciated all the praise and compliments, I didn't want to stop and listen - I just wanted to change my clothes and meet up with the five kids who have changed my life so we could eat pizza.

Once we were seated at the Buckhead Pizza Company, I asked Carolyn, "Now do you understand what it means to bring down the house?"

"Yep," she answered. "I sure do and we sure did. And I want to do it again!"

Project UP and Element Dance Company brought down the house, they rocked it out, they blew everyone away and they changed the world that night. Please watch this video link and let them change your world too!