I enrolled both kids in a one-week theater camp. They wanted to perform in The Wizard of Oz, and I saw it as an experiment. I needed to see if seven year old Julian, who has autism, could hang with the other kids all day. He’s attended a school for children with autism since he was three, but this year he’ll be mainstreamed in my daughter’s private school and frankly, I haven’t felt confident about the plan. He could crash and burn in a classroom of twenty-three kids as opposed to eight. And nine year old Victoria might be uncomfortable having her autistic brother on her turf.
This past Monday was the first day of camp, the day of auditions. Julian immediately announced to the group of twenty children and two teachers, “Hi, I’m Julian and I’m going to be the Scarecrow.”
Julian really wanted to be Scarecrow. He’d wanted this since last summer when I’d signed the kids up for camp but had to back out at the last minute. He could identify with Scarecrow most of all because he knew what it felt like to be intimidated by the intelligence of others, by the normal of others, even if Julian didn’t quite know what normal was. Scarecrow was funny, cool and had brain trouble. That’s something Julian could relate to, since autism can make life and learning hard. “I just can’t fink today,” he says when struggling to find words or answers to homework questions.
On Monday I explained to him that he might not get the part of Scarecrow. I worried about his reaction to not getting what he considered to be his part. He’d been waiting for this moment, to act on a real stage, in a real play, to be the one and only Scarecrow. More than anything, he’d wanted to be Scarecrow. And I had no contingency plan.
I figured the teachers might give him something easy, a part that would blend in somewhat unnoticed, like the Winkies or Munchkins. But deep down I hoped they’d just go with it, give him what he wanted. He’d watched the movie a thousand times. He acted Scarecrow’s part like a pro ...if I only had a brain…
On Monday afternoon I picked the kids up from camp, braced for a meltdown. I asked my nine year old daughter first what part she would play while watching my son’s face.
“I’m the Witch! Just like I wanted!” she said.
“And Julian, did you have fun today? What part did you get?” I was mentally lining up the most exciting adjectives I could think of to describe the lesser roles. Then he said, “I’m the Wizard.”
The Wizard? I took the script from his hands. There it was, three pages of dialogue, one entire page of, essentially, a monologue.
We would have to practice a lot to pull this off. The script was only somewhat like the movie, so memorizing movie lines wouldn’t work. My autistic seven year old would have to learn three pages in three days, become a character he didn’t really identify with, didn’t want to be. He’d never memorized anything but favorite movie characters’ lines — he was Scarecrow, Simba, Pinocchio, Mike Wazowski… The list was very long, but Wizard wasn’t on it.
Getting him to practice was a struggle. There were hard words like testimonial and beneficent, tongue twisters like good deed doer. Julian struggles with pronouncing even the simplest words because of his apraxia, a severe language deficit that often goes with autism. He also struggles with social skills, nuance, with everything. Maybe I’d made a mistake. Maybe he wasn’t ready for this now, if ever. He might fail miserably on that stage, might be humiliated in front of peers and parents. People can be cruel, children and adults alike. What had I done?
We practiced our lines when we could, which wasn’t very often. We tried to squeeze practice between speech therapy appointments and swim lessons, then just before bed or in the car on the way to camp. It wasn’t ideal, and he really wasn’t into it. We would get only halfway through the script and he’d say, “No more.”
He refused to practice the group song, Somewhere Over The Rainbow. He didn’t feel like singing. Not all dreams came true. Why sing about it? I couldn’t read his mind, found its mysteries hard to even imagine, but apathy was probably a close approximation.
During the drive to theater camp this morning, I struggled to keep my eyes on the road while reading Julian’s lines out loud, one last time, hoping that by some last minute osmosis they would sink in. My daughter’s Witch character was spot on. Then she sang like an angel about blue skies and rainbows while the Wizard just stared out the car window, deep in thought. “Sing it again, Victoria,” he’d say.
“But why won’t you sing?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
When the green velvet curtains opened a few hours later, I held my breath. A few minutes in, after Dorothy crashed in Munchkin Land, Julian walked on stage with other Munchkins. Surprisingly, he had a second part as a Munchkin. Suddenly he was singing Ding Dong the witch is dead… His voice sailed above the others. He stayed on his mark, danced, sat or stood still at the right times. He looked like any other child, except he was the only kid with a propeller on his cap. And he was beaming.
The role of the Wizard was played mostly behind a curtain, and without a microphone, but he seemed to know his lines, or perhaps the instructors were right there prompting him. Then came the hard part. The green curtain opened and the Wizard was revealed. Julian was on his own. Dorothy told him he was a very bad man. I knew what came next. I waited, not breathing again. Julian fluffed the tails of his green wizard jacket then turned to the audience.
“Oh no my dear, I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.” He spoke clearly. The crowd chuckled. They loved him. Then he turned to Scarecrow, and his lines flowed freely, until, “There’s one thing you haven’t got…a…” Julian couldn’t remember the word diploma, so he substituted “degree.” Where had he learned that word?
One by one, the Wizard pulled healing props out of his black velvet bag, the missing pieces for Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion. The Wizard had come through. He remembered his lines. He’d known them all along.
All the children sang Somewhere Over The Rainbow, the witches, the Munchkins, a lost girl and her outcast friends. I realized that the reason we root for the lost and forgotten, long to see them shine as heroes, is because they’re us.
Julian had gotten his moment, only different than he imagined. That’s how life works, throwing us curves to see what we do with them. All we need is a little faith, and our dreams — or some version of them — really do come true.