Last Day of Summer
Yesterday morning, I headed to the Women's Shelter with the Quilt and a pile of puppets. I knew school was starting the next day and the kids might be wound up.
Sister and Brother
Her 8-year-old brother studied the quilt and smiled at my name tag. "It's the same!" He said. That made my day! For some reason, kids and adults never seem to notice the quilt image on my tag.
"I'll bet the quilt has been to 81 places!" he said. He asked if each square was for a different place. What made him even think of that? It wasn't until clean up time, that the underside of the quilt was revealed. As the kids helped me fold up the quilt, the wise brother saw the words printed on the muslin and asked, "Look! Those are all the places, right?"
The group wondered what else was in the quilted bag. The puppet reached in with his mouth and pulled out a smaller sleeping bag. Pickles had his own little giraffe friend and he was sleeping inside. The kids named her Penelope.
What Puppets Have Strings?
Eventually the young girl wanted strings, too. The kids caught on faster than expected, lifting and lowering and wiggling their limp arms, when I pulled their strings. Even the 3 year old was able to imagine my invisible scissors cutting his strings. They loved it best when I lifted all their strings together... and cut them all in one quick SNAP! I lucked out. None of the puppet kids conked heads, when they fell to the ground.
I introduced two marionettes after that. Tennis Shoe Boy and Pink Flamingo were a big hit. The kids learned quickly that one of the biggest problems with marionettes was... tangled strings!
They named the flamingo, Flori. We put on some old ragtime music and he danced up to each child. Some danced with him. Others watched and smiled. All wanted to hug him. Oh, if only I could have taken a video of their gentle hugs. I usually expect at least one, playful bop or punch. Not one.
The kids stayed calm, even when I handed out finger puppets. I told the kids to close their eyes and hold out a hand and I would drop a tiny puppet in their palm. I tried to work swiftly to avoid the expected whining. I didn't hear, But I wanted that one!
The kids stayed focused, working to get their fingers into their puppets. No conflict! Then Pickles suddenly started greeting each puppet. Some of the kids attempted special voices and some were too shy. Then I said they could find someone to switch with. Again that was tempting arguments, but I lucked out. We switched a few times.
Dancing Puppet Man
We debated over whether this wooden guy was a puppet. As soon as he started kicking and dancing on the bouncy board, the kids insisted he was a dancing puppet!
The kids sang along with me, "Jump, Mr. Puppet Man! Jump on the board now.... Dancing, dancing, dancing, dancing..." Then the kids stood up and and jumped and danced along with the song. At the end of the song, they collapsed on the quilt, along with Mr. Puppet Man. Lots of giggles and only one bump. No tears.
My Old Puppets
The jumping and collapsing could have made the group wilder, but they sat back down and seemed ready to see more puppets. I warned them that the ones I had left, were old and sort of creepy... from my childhood. They didn't recognize any of the storybook characters, but one little girl pointed to Wendy. "I have a dress with material like that!" Surprisingly none of the kids cringed at the eerie Big Bad Wolf, or the faded, torn fabric.
I asked if any of the kids knew of a puppet character from TV. (I was thinking of Sesame Street puppets) Suddenly, the wise 8-year-old answered, "Rumpelstiltskin?" Where did that answer come from?
First of all, I can't imagine kids today knowing that character! And what are the chances that I would happen to have that very character puppet in the bottom of the bag? There is no way he could have seen my hidden puppet. I brought him out, along with the donkey and "maiden". How odd!
Then I told the kids I was thinking of a green puppet character, they might have seen on TV. They all recognized Kermit. The 8-year-old wise brother, lit up and spoke to the frog. "Kermit! How is Miss Piggy doing these days?" It was as if I had trained this young boy to be a role model for the others!
The kids were delighted when Kermit's mouth sort of smiled at the group. They were not so delighted with my Kermit voice. The older kids teased. "No that's not Kermit's voice!" "Make it lower!" "No, that's not it!" I need to work on a proper Kermit voice!
All the Puppets!
Then it was time to let the kids be the puppeteers. I did what I never do. I just let the kids pick a puppet... any puppet. Of course, I poured on the praise first. "You kids have been amazing, taking turns and listening and sharing..." Maybe that helped, a little.
But mostly, this was just a magical mix of kids. The older ones were calm, while the younger kids picked first. Then suddenly, every child held a puppet or two and the music began.
As some lively Dixieland jazz filled the room, the puppets partied. Some puppets danced on the Quilt. Some puppets chatted with each other.
My favorite moment was when the sweet 3-year-old, (with an adorable name that I will never forget, but I cannot share) asked if he could hold Pickles. Usually I keep my special puppet in the bag. But how could I say no?
I watched him put Pickles on his hand, then struggle to understand. "He won't talk." he told another child. "He's not saying anything." The other children were gentle when they explained, "He doesn't really talk." I told the sweet little puppeteer that I would make him talk again, after we cleaned up. I love a little innocence on the quilt.
Suddenly, we were running out of time. I used the not so clever bribery of stickers and asked all the kids to gently lay the puppets in the middle of the quilt.
I didn't get a photo of the Puppet Mountain they created, but they made a nice one... quickly. I lifted the mountain into my largest tote bag and the kids helped fold the quilt... without a single child suddenly deciding to dive into the soft center. That often happens.
What Did I Learn?
I've been coming for 15 years and I know to plan for short attention spans and to expect a little conflict here and there. Their lives are complicated. So what made this gathering feel so different?
It helped that it was morning and the kids were fresh. My usual after school slot, is not ideal. But mostly, it was just a lucky combination of kids, with good chemistry. The colorful props, helped get their attention, but they came to me with big, open hearts. They made it easy.
Sometimes I leave, wondering about the sad stories behind the children at the Shelter. But yesterday, I left hopeful about these kids and their futures. If they can enjoy and share so easily, with whatever family stresses they have had... then, I have high hopes for each and every one of these Little Puppeteers, for the future!
For 20+ years children have called it the Magic Quilt. They've danced and pretended all over these colorful squares. I've dragged it to schools, shelters and studios where children have climbed on top to hear Magic Quilt Stories and to act them out.