While the boys were on an extended visit with my parents in Upstate New York, it became their custom to listen to the soundtrack to Les Miserables in the car. For some reason, it has struck a deep chord in Jack. He has never seen the musical. He has never seen the film. The story exists to him in the form of the music and whatever my parents have told him about the plot. And for a few weeks after his visit it was Jean Valjean this and “Master of the House” that. Knowing even less than my children about Les Miserable, I was at a complete loss to understand this new obsession.
When the craptastic live version of The Sound of Music aired on NBC not that long ago, Jack cannily deduced that my inability to resist watching meant that if he sat with me, I would be absolutely incapable of leaving my spot on the couch and that he’d be allowed to stay up really late. At first he seemed to be trying to disappear into the couch so that I would forget he was there. But at some point, around the time of Liesel’s “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”, I noticed that he was leaning his entire body toward the television. The glow of the TV screen bathed Jack’s freckled nose in a transcendent light. His blue eyes were wide with wonder.
I couldn’t even hate-watch Vampire Bill and that blonde in a satisfying way because Jack kept defending what he was seeing, and was so wrapped up in the music. The next morning I woke him up early and we watched the Julie Andrews movie huddled on the couch together before Zeke and Aaron even got up. Jack and I sang along with the children as they frolicked through the streets in their curtain outfits and cheered when it was revealed that the nuns tampered with the Nazi’s car! It was a wonderful mother-son morning. Though I didn’t think much about it afterwards.
On Sundays the boys take a class at the Society for Ethical Culture. There they spent some time discussing Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Their teacher explained to them that when King was alive, the laws in our country allowed people to be treated differently based on the color of their skin. She told them that Martin Luther King Jr. wanted all people to be treated equally, judged by the content of their character.
The teacher told me that when she explained this to the class and read them a story about him, she saw Jack thinking very hard. She could tell that he was processing all that he was being told and considering it in a serious way.
After the story Jack raised his hand and said that he thought that the way black people were treated in America sounded a lot like the way the Jews were treated in The Sound of Music and the poor were treated in Les Miserables. People hated them because of their religion or because they didn’t have enough money to take care of themselves, and did not pay attention to the contents of their characters.
The next week, as they continued discussions of King, the children were asked to share dreams that they had for the world. A 4th-grader in the class said that he dreamed that children would be treated as more than just numbers. He said that he felt that the standardized tests in his school reduced the students to their score and took away their individuality. Jack was quick to raise his hand and say that this was a lot like Jean Valjean in Les Miserable, who was referred to by a number when he was in prison, when he wanted to be referred to as a person, as a man with a name.
I have never seen Les Miserables in any form and I have to admit that the music does not really move me. I like the goofy cheeriness of The Sound of Music but I certainly haven’t spent time listening to it since I was barely older than Jack.
I generally feel that musicals are pleasant but simplistic– like slogan t-shirts or bumper stickers. Sure, I can enjoy them, they’re just not that substantial. But when I see the way these two examples of an art form I have dismissed as melodramatic and corny, have been able to engender deep thoughts in my son about injustice and inequality, I have to re-evaluate the Musical and it’s unique capacity for using a rousing melody to present us with simple human truths. So simple, a 5-year old can grasp and internalize them.
Jack once said that he thought
Love was all of the feelings in one.
“Sometimes you feel happy.
Sometimes you feel sad.
But when you feel all of those things at one time,
that is love.”
And when I think of Jack and his possession by the ideas in these musicals, I want to laugh and I want to cry. I have this amazing sense of dramatic movement which comes from watching this small person make sense of the world with such a keenly honed instinct. I marvel at the way that my son can find such deep awareness and meaningful connections in something so simple, that to me is merely vaguely pleasant. I am profoundly moved by his compassion and terrified for him to get the more complicated view of the tragedy and evil rampant in humanity.
I feel all of this at once. And I am sure that what I am feeling is Love.
September 8, 2014 | Categories: parenting | Tags: amanda brokaw, boys, childhood, children, conscience, Education, illustration, Les Miserables, molly schulman, Mother, musicals, Parent, parenthood, parenting, personal essay, Social Justice, The Sound of Music, zeke and destroy | 6 Comments