Here's one performance I wouldn't sleep through

I had been afraid of high schoolers for a while. In spite of substitute teaching all around the district (a job that affords me time to write and care for other important matters), I would routinely turn down all assignments at the high school.

I figured the kids at South would take one look at nerdy little me, chew me up, spit me out and throw my bones into the compost bin.

But truth be told, I have another, tinier problem that makes teaching at the junior highs and high school interesting at best.

Typically, I don’t think of this as a problem. It certainly isn’t a problem at home, or any place where I have access to a couch and a soft pillow, but at a high school it may appear to be a problem.

You see, I sleep through movies — all movies.

I think the last movie I stayed awake for was the second installment of Star Wars, which I saw in Brazil in 1980. I only stayed awake because I was trying to read the Portuguese subtitles (and doing a darn poor job of it, too, I might add.)

Typically, when the lights go out, I go out. It’s that simple.

I can handle dialogue, because it forces me to think, but throw in some action – gunfire, car chases, explosions, maybe a zombie attack or two - and I’m gone, totally gone, drool dripping down my chin and everything.

My brother says I suffer from the law of inertia – an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by a force – which, come to think of it, afflicts a lot of high schoolers, too.

The problem is, and this truly is a problem, teachers leave a lot of movies for substitutes to show — dozens of movies, in fact.

I figure they do it for one of two reasons. They think we’re incredibly stupid and they don’t trust us with real lesson plans, like, for instance, leading a political discussion. (Actually, with me that decision might be wise.)

Or they’re just too sick to think.

Well, my resistance to subbing at the high school finally wore down and I was assigned a classroom, complete with a movie, “The Eruption of Mount St. Helens.”

You should know that I showed remarkable self-restraint. I did. I graded papers. I tidied. (I can’t begin to tell you how messy teachers’ desks are. They’re scary messy.)

I walked around the classroom, tripping on backpacks. I tapped my fingers on the desk and managed to get through the whole exploding, lava-oozing mess.

That is, until I had the show the movie again for the next class. Bad news all around.

I didn’t realize anything was amiss until I was startled to hear the whole class erupt in laughter. I looked up to see a dozen cell phone cameras pointed at me.

“Oh, guys come on,” I pleaded. “Give me a break. How many toppling trees is one expected to watch?”

Since I’m always a bit chatty when I first wake up, I had the chance when the movie ended to talk with some of the kids about their concerns. Two expressed worries that the flu would keep the cast from pulling the spring play, “Bye, Bye Birdie,” together in time for opening night.

Ah, the flu was no match for these kids. I tell you every year that the high school plays are extraordinary and the performances are exceptional, but there was truly something unique and special with “Birdie.”

I have never heard as many people walk out of a theater exclaiming, “That was the best play ever. I want to see it again.”

One woman, Sharon Chriswell, said, “You could feel the spirit of the kids’ onstage.”

I tried to figure out what made this play experience so memorable, what stood out that makes you feel as if you must see it again?

It could be that the play is dedicated to Brigitte Elwell, the John Sedgwick Junior High teacher who passed away from pancreatic cancer the week of opening and whose love of musical theater looks to have passed into the cast.

For there is a unique and special camaraderie there, akin to love. It’s really quite magical to see 40 people onstage at any one time, always in motion with their choreography spot-on, playing off each other.

One of the students said that the secret was that their director, teacher Debbie Emans, gives them freedom to play and have fun with their characters. So their performances have that extra bit of charm that can only come from students’ imaginations.

More so than most plays, there are spotlighted performances, with an actor leaving the pack and dazzling us for one a fraction of a section with a brilliant pratfall or witty one-liner.

Aaron Vetter is a case in point. He’s hilarious as nerdy Harvey Johnson, desperate for a prom date, and lights up the stage every time he appears, as does Kaitlin Larsen.

Those big, brown eyes of hers could melt anyone’s heart and the girl simply sparkles onstage. She’s a natural, so beautiful, so gifted, so graceful, so fun.

The two lead performances, though, are more difficult to describe. The word “good” isn't adequate for Aaron Terry and Michelle Tapia. They are such pure souls both on and off stage.

They make you feel, as an adult approaching 50, that you should try harder to be a better person, that maybe I shouldn’t joke about falling asleep in class. That maybe through their example, we can all work a little harder and give a little more.

If I fall asleep easily, I cry even easier and these two both made me want to cry, in gratitude for their performances and in humility for the privilege of being in the presence of such open and kind-hearted souls.

I did cry with Michelle.

She described leaving the Philippines when she was 11 after having wandered around the country with her parents, always in search of a new home, never quite feeling like she had a family.

She spoke of coming to South Kitsap High School as a sophomore and setting goals for herself, giving herself permission to do what she loved best, dance, sing and make people laugh.

She talked about giving up dance team and choir so she could focus on the play.

She spoke of the sadness of watching her Filipino grandparents die and feeling as if everyone had abandoned them, spurring her resolve to become a nurse, because, “I don’t want to let people live or die like that.”

She talked of her estrangement from her own family and how painful that has been, but it wasn’t until she shared her mantra, “Every day I’m going to change something in the world for the better. Every day I am going to figure out a way to make someone laugh,” that I broke down and looked at her and said, “Please, child, don’t tell me that your biggest fear is that your dad won’t come to see the play. Not with your amazing solos, not when there are scenes where you carry the entire play on your shoulders. Not when you achieve your goal and leave us all laughing. Not when this is really your play.”

And, then it hit me, maybe it doesn’t matter if her father comes to watch or not, because I know you will. I know that you, like Debbie Emans, Mercedes Westenfelder (and the entire Westenfelder family) and Pastor Laurie at the Christian Life Center, will be there for Michelle and the amazing Aarons and this extraordinary cast.

You’ll fill the house to the rafters this weekend and I’ll join you, because I have to see this play again.

For the record, I owe Aaron Terry a column. I’ll devote next week’s entire column to him. When you see him in “Bye, Bye Birdie,” you’ll know why he deserves it.

The play runs March 14 and 15 at 7:30 p.m. and March 16 at 2 p.m.

Mary Colborn is a Port Orchard resident.

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