Thursday, July 28, 2011

Summer Camp, Dead Parents, and Elmo

Never underestimate the healing power of Elmo.

This afternoon I spent my lunch hour in a Roosevelt University classroom talking with 45 kids who, on the surface, seemed to have little in common with me.  Few of them looked anything like me.  Most came from neighborhoods far more rugged than the North Side bungalow belt in which I live. And the vast majority of them would have been hard-pressed to name even two of the four Beatles. 

But as I told the kids, who ranged in age from 10 to 14, we did share one important bond. We belonged to a “club” that, for better or worse, will continue to play a big role in shaping each of our lives.  It’s a “club” that no kid wants to join, but its members don’t have a choice. 

We were initiated into that “club” when, as kids, we each experienced the death of at least one of our parents.  For my money, I told the kids, that meant we had something in common that was far more important than, say, a shared love of the Chicago Bulls. 

The kids and I met because they are taking part in a two-week day camp called “Hands Together, Hearts on Art.” The camp, now in its seventh year, uses the arts to help kids deal (at many different levels) with the loss of a parent. I had not heard of the camp until a few weeks ago, when one of my cousins, who happens to work at Roosevelt, suggested that I share my own story with the kids.

I’m a pushover, so I signed on.

I had thirty minutes to fill. I explained to the kids not only how I gained admission to the “club” – my 39-year-old dad dropped dead from a heart attack at work in 1978 – but also how I spent the next ten years living an aimless, day-to-day existence, all because I saw no point in planning for a future that could be so easily snatched away.  When I asked the kids whether any of them had had similar feelings, a lot of hands shot up.

We then talked about how to recognize and hopefully move beyond such a highly negative world view. I didn’t profess to have a lot of answers, but I did tell the kids this much. At some point in my early twenties, I acknowledged that the life expectancy tables might be right, and there was a good chance that I might actually live to be an old man.

Having made that leap, I then decided to start living life with an eye to the future -- trying to set longer-term goals while still taking some pleasure in the moment. The kids then asked me a lot of great questions, and I answered them honestly. I know some of what they’re going through right now, and I’m rooting for all of them to enjoy what’s left of their childhoods.

Which brings me back to Elmo.

Since the camp is an arts-themed camp, I brought my acoustic guitar with me. I told the kids that my dad had sparked my love of music by spinning his old records for me when I was little, and then telling me tales about folks like Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, and Little Richard when I was a bit older. To this day, a large number of the songs I perform in taverns are tunes I learned from my dad.

And I was all set to play one of those songs for the campers until I noticed two kids -- one boy and one girl -- on opposite sides of the room wearing Sesame Street t-shirts. The boy was sporting a blue Cookie Monster shirt; the girl had opted for a resplendent red offering from the Elmo collection.

So I called an audible: “Elmo . . . Cookie Monster. Come up here with me.” The kids grudgingly wandered up to the front of the room. I then channeled my inner Elmo and kicked into a rousing version of “Elmo’s Song.”

Ten seconds into the tune, every teen and pre-teen voice in that room was singing every word of “Elmo’s Song” along with me. Not something I’d normally expect from kids that age, but these kids appeared to have gotten comfortable enough with each other over two weeks that they weren’t afraid to get a little silly.

I then blasted through a quick version of “C Is For Cookie” for my buddy in the blue t-shirt, but he was less than impressed.

With the Sesame Street songbook out of the way, I moved back to my dad’s record collection. Before launching into the next tune (a #2 smash for both Bobby Day in 1958 and Michael Jackson in 1972), I told the kids that I’d be happy to have them as background singers and dancers if the spirit moved them.

And wouldn’t you know it -- halfway through the first verse of “Rockin’ Robin,” three of my background singers jumped to their feet, got behind me, and worked out their choreography on the spot. By the time I hit the first chorus, two-thirds of the kids in the room were “on stage” with me, entertaining their friends who were still sitting on the floor.

It was a heck of a way to spend my lunch hour.

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