Having spent many summers since becoming a parent marveling at the fact that if you continue working in the summer, your kids need something to do once school lets out–ah, camp, that thing no one mentioned in childbirth class, along with the omissions about so many other things that might actually help you prepare for parenthood, from the first threee months really are endless until they're over to you'll be finding small stones ("treasures") in your pockets for years to your children's feet may get bigger than yours someday, really, and of course, the laundry–this year, we found ourself in a new place. Our eldest son, Ezekiel, is nearing fourteen. Signed up to return to the beloved (and truly wondrous) Deerfield Academy Summer Arts Camp–or in insider speak, DASAC–for three weeks, he was too old for some old favorites, another anticipated camp didn't happen and the possible substitutions didn't quite entice him enough to jump. He didn't want to try overnight camp (maybe next year?). The DASAC schedule conflicts with most of the ballet camp… Long story short (but herein lies a glimpse into the nightmare parents really should be warned about, otherwise known as summer scheduling), he–and his parents–were looking at something that could only be deemed too much free time.
Note to parents with younger kids or parents-to-be, here's a piece of friendly advice from a parent securing toehold into this adolescent era: it's a good thing for a young teen to have some passions, i.e. something to do. Now, do I mean force your kid to do sports or play an instrument? No, not at all; what I mean is if you see that your kid loves __, facilitate their getting to do some __. Not in a pushy and overzealous way, mind you. Just love that your child loves reading, cooking, soccer, swimming. Life is more fun when you care about stuff, right?
At this awkward moment in time–after day camps are as plentiful, before becoming eligible as camp counselor or for many other teenage summer gigs–that passion–in Ezekiel's case, one of his real passions is theater–has come in handy. Oh, the beauty of the apprenticeship! Ezekiel's spending four weeks with the Paintbox Theatre, housed for its sixth summer at Smith College's Mendenhall Center (performances on the main stage, Theater 14). For the first production, Winnie the Pooh, which opens Wednesday July 8th–and runs each morning through Saturday at 10:30 AM–he's the assistant stage manager (ASM, in theater-speak). What a grand time he's having memorizing the entire play before the actors do, making confetti for publicity photos, standing in as needed, working backstage, setting up the company's Twitter account (and maintaining it, many tweets)…. His age and station would seem to comprise a win-win, suddenly; Paintbox Theatre would have some energetic (extremely enthusiastic) free help show up (if, at times, I bet, requiring some management or cajoling or teaching, more so than for an older assistant) while said young teenager in the awkward trough of time between more pure childhood and more mature teenhood gets something meaningful, meaty and fun to do. And what's more, he learns a lot about working in a way his parents probably can't teach him nearly as effectively.
Some of his friends are spending a week or two or four as counselors-in-training at various day camps. Some are serving as babysitters or mothers' helpers. Ezekiel volunteered regularly during sixth grade (Friday afternoons after school) at the school library, and used many of his (too many) vacation days from middle school returning to the elementary school library to help out. As I was piecing his summer together–emailing those theater folks I knew well by now, in large part by our having placed ourselves in "biggest fan and booster" category–I didn't stop to think how much Ezekiel's summer (and library volunteerism) resembles my late childhood and adolescence. I helped in my elementary school's Infant room (there was a Headstart program in the building) before school starting in third grade (through sixth) and went on to volunteer at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, both after school during middle school and during school hours in eleventh and twelfth grades. Germantown Friends also had a month-long junior project during January of that year (I apprenticed with a jeweler). Along with paid work–babysitting, salesperson at The Little Nook, a small crafts gallery in Philadelphia's Chestnut Hill section (that's how I met the jeweler)–a lot of time and energy was taken up during my adolescence. I learned a lot. I developed meaningful relationships with adults beyond my parents and teachers (another note to parents of younger kids or parents-to-be, the more wonderful adults in an older child or adolecent's life, the better; hard to imagine you won't be the go-to for all aches, but you won't–shouldn't–be). Even when I couldn't be 1) responsible or 2) pleasant at home (sometimes not at school, either), I managed to show up and do so well in these work settings. Those were critical opportunities to keep growing. I am watching the same hold true for Ezekiel. He comes home wound up and tired, eager and sometimes grumpy all at once, exactly the way a parent hopes (minus the sometime grumpiness).
Beyond the gratitude I feel to Tom McCabe and his industrious minion of Paintbox actors and backstage hands, I couldn't write this without adding that not only are my children amongst Paintbox's biggest fans, I would count myself as an avid follower of Paintbox Theatre's summer season for many summers now. The formula is simple: three actors, a screen behind that projects some text–in the form of instructions to the audience of what to say or do–and images–mostly drawings by area youth that are solicited for each show–a modest set (that is taken down for New Century Theatre's very fine shows in the evenings, another gem for Northampton) and a lot of silly, smart, good fun retelling oft-traveled tales. Besides Pooh, this year (two weeks from now, and two weeks beyond) Paintbox will present Chicken Little and Pinocchio (the latter two with the all too hilarious and rubbery, magical Kelsey Flynn, herself with a following of devotees). This is children's theater that actively supports literacy, and this is children's theater that is actively fun for adults, too. Ask my husband whether I always volunteer for chaperone duties on Paintbox days, and the answer is a resounding (possibly relieved) yes.
So, one last piece of advice: even if you don't have a young child, borrow one or convince your older child to attend for old times' sake or forgo the child altogether… but go see Winnie the Pooh!