Our Children. Yesterday, as I've done hundreds of times, I performed at a child's birthday party. I range all over the NYC metro-area, but this party, for a 5 year-old boy, was close by, right in Cortlandt Manor. There were about 20 kids there, fresh-faced, exuberant and terribly excited about the holidays.
I've done so many parties that I can gauge the energy in the room as soon as I walk in the door. At most birthday parties, the parents drop off the kids and pick them up two hours later. At yesterday's though, the parents all stayed, and the energetic subtext was palpable; the parents wanted to stay near their kids, and they wanted to be together with the other parents. The adults were operating on two levels--normal, upbeat and light-hearted with their kids, but exchanging silent, meaningful glances with the other parents. Nobody was taking anything for granted.
I did my regular magic show, and the kids reacted in the usual way, wide-eyed at the magic, dissolving into paroxysms of laughter when I appeared to make a mistake. As always, various kids, especially the birthday boy, became my onstage helpers. I had hooked up my wireless headset mic because usually, with that many adults present, there can be a lot of background noise. Usually a couple of parents will watch my show, but with the kids occupied by the magic, a lot of adults will take the opportunity to chat and catch up.
Yesterday I didn't need my mic. Nobody talked during my show. You could've heard a pin drop. But the parents weren't really watching my show; they were watching their kids watching my show.
People often remark on the fact that I don't have kids of my own, saying, "but you're so great with kids." It's true, I adore kids, and, for some indefinable reason, they adore me back. I'm a kid magnet. Wherever I go kids pick me out and follow me with their eyes. Sometimes in a grocery store a toddler will leave his mother and follow me instead. If I'm doing strolling magic at an event with kids, I'll attract a cadre of eight-to-ten year-old boys who will follow me around for the entire event. (I always give the hosts an advance heads-up; they never believe me until after it happens, which it always does.) I've learned to enlist my little boy gangs as my semi-confidants, so they don't ruin the my tricks. ("OK guys, here's the deal, please don't say 'Do the one where all the bunnies come out at the end!' BEFORE I do it because then it's not much of a surprise...")
So even though I don't have kids of my own, I live in the world of children. I consider all children My Children. I've performed for tens of thousands of kids, and when I look out into their faces, I see little individuals, but I also see the universality of childhood. When something bad happens to any child, anywhere, it cuts me deeply.
When I heard of Friday's tragedy in Newtown, all the children I've ever performed for flashed through my mind. I thought of the classroom of first-graders I performed for just a few weeks ago. I thought of all the schools in which I've performed - hundreds over the years - and how I took everyone's safety completely for granted. I revisited the heartache of losing a child I'd performed for - a first-grader - who perished in a house fire in New Jersey a few years ago. I thought of the shows I did in the nineties - as the opening act for the Army Band's children's concerts at West Point's Eisenhower Hall - where nearly five thousand grade-schoolers rocked the house.
Then I thought of all the kids I've met since I moved to Peekskill a little over two years ago. Because of all the shows I've done locally, kids recognize me almost every time I go out. I've come to expect that tug on my elbow and the little questioning voice - "Did you do magic at the Salvation Army*?" (*or "Riverfront Green/the Middle School/the BeanRunner/my church"?) I'm always surprised, because my public presence is very demure, compared to my much more flamboyant stage persona. But they always know me.
In a way I feel very helpless. I know that, try as we might, we can't always protect them from harm. But I also know that my job has never felt more important. I can't protect them from the world, but I can, for a little while, transport them to a safe place of wonder, and innocence and Magic.
Yesterday, I entertained a group of little kids, and they experienced what all little kids experience at a magic show, always and forever. What was different about yesterday was what they did for me. Their beautiful, smiling faces, while touching a bittersweet chord, began my own healing.
So, we will love our children and hold them close. We will do what we can to protect them and preserve their innocence. And in turn, they will heal us.