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Columnist Carrie McGee: Erasing the lines of differences

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

In this time of fear and uncertainty, where seemingly impassable lines have been drawn in the sand between different groups, ideologies and perspectives, it is refreshing to experience the magic that happens when those lines are erased.

My son Alex is 20 years old and has Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that can result in developmental delays, among a host of other issues. He loves music and has been singing for most of his life. When a colleague recommended that he try out for the cast of “Shrek the Musical” through Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater, I was skeptical. “Try out,” she reassured me. “I know this group will welcome him if he gets in.”

Alex is not new to theater. He has acted in productions at Whole Children in Hadley, an after-school recreation program designed for kids and adults of all abilities. But this was not like the Whole Children productions he was used to — where the focus is on having the experience, learning skills and everyone who wants a part has one. Sometimes four different people play a single role.

I explained to Alex that this would be competitive — one person gets each part and some people don’t get a part at all. Did this mean he would be left behind? It might. Trying out and failing is also a valuable learning experience, we decided. Alex tried out. It turns out that very few people can sing in the range of his rich bass voice, and there was a place for him in the cast.

I prepared myself to sit through hundreds of hours of rehearsals, to learn all his parts and work with him extra at home. I would have to set up charts and other visual supports and get permission to be backstage with him, even though there are clear rules about who can be where.

And then something extraordinary happened. One by one, the other 100-plus cast members got to know him. Nobody sat everyone down and said, “Hey, someone might need a little extra help.” They just noticed. More and more often, I would start to get up and help Alex find his place, his drink, his line, but before I got to him, someone else had helped. Quietly. Naturally.

When another mom noticed that I was sitting backstage for hours, she and the volunteer coordinator began looking for volunteers to help Alex. They were already looking for help with ushering, and snacks and the many, many jobs it takes to put on such an elaborate production. So they quietly added volunteers to help a cast member to the list. Gently. Naturally. Now I felt welcome too.

Perhaps the greatest gift of all was seeing how much Alex can do, without help, simply because he was invited to try. He is a genuine member of this cast. He has a part and his presence contributes to the success of the whole. He has new and genuine friends. And so do I.

In a world that seems to value success, wealth, and winning above all — here is an example of how everyone has something to contribute, not just the fastest or prettiest or richest among us.

Making space for someone who is different does not diminish the outcome; I would argue that it enhances it. We shouldn’t have to choose between success and kindness. There is a way to have both. Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater has proved it. Come to their performance of “Shrek the Musical” Jan. 12 through 22 in Bowker Auditorium at the University of Massachusetts, and see for yourself.

Carrie McGee, of Granby, is the vice president of family services at Pathlight (formerly the Association for Community Living) in Springfield.