Rule number one of the Puppet Wagon: don’t let the children hear the panic in your voice. Rule number two: START PANICKING!
I’ve been told what the first day of teaching is like, and I think I ran that gauntlet today, my first day in the Puppet Wagon. As I hopped into the City of Lakeville truck and we rode around in circles trying to find the first park, I thought about what at all this experience would contribute to my time teaching college-level students in Hangzhou, China. I’d always joked with my friends that it was literally the opposite thing that would be useful for that transition, and we’d laugh, knowing that I’d have a good time nontheless.
I’ve thought about teaching. Mostly, I’ve thought about all the potential failures of trying to assert authority or communicate lessons. One of the former teachers I talked to told me “Some of your lessons are going to suck. That’s just what’s going to happen. You figure out pretty quickly what works and what doesn’t.” Little did I know that there would be no better teacher than a pile of puppets.
“Okay, seriously, where is this park?”
“There! It’s right there! Turn right there!”
“Oh, sorry, should have said ‘left.'”
We only had about 15 minutes until the show when we arrived, and a lot more to do than we would have liked. We hadn’t run through the script with puppets yet, we needed to change the sign, pull-start the generator, test our mikes, decide WHICH puppets we were going to use, and get everything set up.
Rule number one. Don’t let the panic show.
Last year, the puppeteers used a dog puppet named “Sparky” to get the kids excited about the show. The show started with the dog peeking out of the window, a puppeteer outside talking to it, and lots and lots of puns and songs. Then, they would do this routine called “checking the mailbox,” which is a tradition of children writing the puppets messages and sticking them in the mailbox outside the house-shaped wagon.
This year, we decided to shake things up a bit. Sparky would be no more. Instead, it would be “Bernie,” a blue puppet with an oblong head. We’d introduce a note from Sparky saying he’d found a new puppet family and might come back to visit sometime. So we took the curtain with his name on it, ripped off the letters and let it hang there with the flowers in the background, like a skeleton hanging in the gallows. A bit brutal, now that I think about it.
But then we quickly learned rule number three: kids like predictability.
All of the letters in the mailbox were addressed to Sparky, and the kids were really upset that the dog wasn’t there. Not only that, but without rehearsal, the first show was full of quick puppet-changes, dead silence, and voices blending together. At one point, the puppet on my hand almost flew off into the audience. The cotton was slipping along my skin as my character “Pinky” sang “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” faster and faster. I had a horrible vision of an empty puppet carcass landing in a child’s lap, but luckily that didn’t happen.
I thought I heard a child yell out “You FAILED!” and was ready to hang my head in shame, but they were only saying “You have MAIL!” We hastily promised to check it next week, played Hot Potato with them, and drove away.
That’s when the wind started to pick up.
It wasn’t so bad for the show at North Park. The kids danced, called out to wake the puppets up and even returned a fallen prop into a puppet’s mouth. They were excited, so we were excited, thinking that we were getting the hang of it.
We figured that the last park would be a breeze. It was, I guess. The wind was blowing the curtain so far back, the kids could have seen everything. Inside the wagon, all of the puppets are hanging there, lifeless, on a series of hooks in the walls. Some of their mouths are hanging open, some of them are dangling upside down and some are even missing eyes. In other words, it really looks like a puppet massacre. So our #1 priority is to keep kids from seeing that.
We pressed our forearms into the wood to keep the curtain down, our other hands gesturing wildly as we tapped our mics to see if ANY sound was coming out. And the kids were still wailing about Sparky being gone.
“Sparky will be back next week,” we said, desperately hoping to placate the audience. Already, rule number 2 was blaring in my head, a giant red PANIC PANIC PANIC! banner scrolling in front of my eyes.
I, with my face mashed against the curtain as my mic failed, as both of my hands were occupied by puppets, as the script blew around the wagon, sputtered out nonsensical words to entertain the children. A mother came up to the side to tell us that the speakers were off. We know!, I wanted to yell. Stephanie was trying to fiddle with the stereo with her one hand that wasn’t attached to a puppet, Steve and I trying to keep the curtain down. Kids didn’t want to sing, or couldn’t hear when I asked.
Then it was over, we were playing “Simon Says” with the kids, and we drove back to Maintenance to clean up.
In a weird sort of way, this next step of mine–right into the Puppet Wagon curtain, makes sense. Because you do learn quite quickly which bits work the best, which ones are doomed to fail, which things you really have no control over and can only go with when they crop up. And that’s kind of what my life is like right now. I can predict what next year, or even next week will be like, but it’ll only ever crop up, and I will deal with it as best as possible–making sure not to let the panic show as I do. Because no one can actually be in control of their lives (at least, the outside forces that work upon them every day). All we can control is how we respond to them, and whether or not we will let them knock us over. In a classroom, this might be an unresponsive group of people. Or, a fire could break out and knock a tank full of Pit Vipers over. There’s no predicting it. So you might as well go with what makes sense through the panic.
And for now, I think that’s puppets.