Yesterday evening was what Dylan had been looking forward to for weeks – her school concert, the Penbank pantomime. She practically shimmered and smoked with excitement the whole day, like a wok full of hot oil. Last year, we were travelling and we couldn’t attend it, but this year, that injustice would be righted. This year her parents would be there, rapturous and transfixed when it was her turn to glide onstage and shake her bon bon in a feathered toucan outfit, what joy!
Finn was also in the concert, but his attitude was more one of tolerance than enthusiasm. Finn does not like big audiences or dancing. When I swabbed his face with makeup, he had the same placid gritted teeth expression that our greyhound Coco has when you put her muzzle on. In contrast, Dylan wanted Eye Shadow! Lip Gloss! Cheek Colour! Sparkles! so by the time we finally managed to get out of the door we were horribly late, which resulted in our being squashed at the back of the school gym far away from the stage.
The school gym was packed to the rafters with parents and relatives. The ceiling was festooned with great swathes of parachute material which changed colours in the theatrical gelled lights. A giant backdrop of Melbourne inspired street art made by the students dominated the stage, and pairs of shoes dangled from the rafters in a whimsical installation.
It never fails to astound me, the size and ambition of these Penbank school productions given the scale of the school. I almost can’t believe that Penbank with its 217 students, is about a twelfth the size of my old primary school, (2700 pupils in two sessions spread across 52 classrooms!). Much of my childhood was spent standing in the hot sun with a thousand other uniformed children, a sea of shiny black ants on a parade ground, either being lectured or hectored. And when I had school concerts, my mum would be lucky if she could glimpse my bobbing head onstage for a second, especially considering that I was always strategically placed at the back due to my inclination towards general tomfoolery.
Coming back to the Penbank pantomime. I was thrilled to be there. It was really the most charming concert I have ever been to. And, BIG PLUS, there were just handful of song and dance numbers instead of the usual Dead Sea Scroll-length programme I was bracing myself for.
The children had been asked to select electives as part of Arts Week, and the performances were grouped depending on what they had chosen and children from different year levels were interspersed in each performance.
Finn had chosen African drumming so he ended up doing a rhythmic bongo routine with the only teacher on-stage as his dance partner. Yep, that boy is my son. I was always partnered up with a teacher for any high-risk school activity so that if I went off-piste, a swift taser-like correction could be administered before it got out of hand. To Finn’s credit, he was rather more cooperative than I was, and actually danced or wiggled with a bit of prodding! This is major, for Finn.
And then Dylan the Dancing Toucan made her appearance, resplendent in her tremulous feathered headpiece and fluttery black skirt. She shimmied and smiled so hard our eyes watered and our hearts burst. Afterward she said to me “Mama, I was trying to act cool but I couldn’t stop my face from smiling!” Bless her little face.
My Asian Tiger Mum instincts betrayed me and I zooted up to the front of the aisle as soon as my little ones came on, practically hobbling on hands and knees trying not to block anyone. These school concerts are always a mix of camaraderie (Oh my god, your child was so divine onstage!”) and every man for themselves (Oops, sorREEE!!! I’m just trying to take a photo of my kid!). Finn was mildly relieved to see me waving manically and Dylan was overjoyed when her wide eyes finally found my face.
After their dance numbers were over, I slunk to the back of the hall and hung out with some parents I knew to watch the rest of the concert. I could recognise so many of our friends children, and it was gratifying to see the Prep and Year 1 kids blossom and grow.
My favourite part – the teachers did a dance at the end and Katherine, the concert choreographer declared that they had mucked it up, so the school principal Vivienne made them redo it! I’ve never seen that before! Moral of the story – there’s always a second chance to get it right.
Everyone was so proud and so present. Sometimes we get so busy that we forget that we are human beings, not human doings. That night, it was all about being. Being there to watch, being there to give, being there to receive. Being part of something full of love and community.
I could just end here. But something else happened that evening. One of my friends was telling me about what a fantastic job that Katherine, the lady who masterminded the whole concert, had done. Then my friend got all choked up and tried to tell me about Katherine’s sister Mandy. I couldn’t really understand much of it over the noise in the gym hall, apparently Mandy had been very ill and ended up having her arms and legs amputated. The community at Penbank school had raised an incredible amount of money for her, which I had completely missed while we had been away.
This morning, I remembered to look it up on the internet and read about Katherine’s sister, Mandy McCracken, a woman who came down with what she thought was a simple flu bug, but turned out to be invasive Group A Strep which had turned her limbs gangrenous in a matter of days while her husband and children watched, helpless against its toxic spread.
I say “story” not to trivialise or dramatise what happened, but because Mandy and her husband Rod have narrated this sudden twist in their lives in their own voices with such candour and authenticity. In support of Mandy, the wonderful Penbank children made things to sell, donated their earnings and wrote messages of hope.
I know I’m very late to this but if you have a few minutes to spare, I highly recommend you read this Australian article which is simultaneously disturbing and tranquil, beautiful and gory, prosaic and sublime. And then to say a silent prayer of gratitude for all that we have, to ask that we may heal the past and focus on the present, and our presence. You can also follow Mandy’s progress and get details of how to donate at http://www.facebook.com/InspireMandy
Love & Peace,