I dusted off an old puppet friend, Granny Grace recently and was reminded of the power a puppet has, to relate in a way that we mere humans cannot. Granny was conceived in the late 1970’s for a job I had in Vancouver Public Schools in Washington State. Hired to bring “the arts” to students with special needs was a challenging, and captivating task. Students ranged from kindergarten to middle school and spanned a wide variety of disabilities from hearing impaired six year olds to intellectually challenged thirteen year olds.
A puppetry class with the young company, Tears of Joy, opened a whole new world for me. With a few chords on my guitar, and a slew of Burl Ives songs, I packed up a bag o’ tricks and hit the road visiting several schools a week. I told stories, sang songs, and brought along a family of puppet friends to help with the task. Marshall Mello was a scruffy muppet style guy, who would engage anyone who would listen. He could go on and on about being teased because he looked like a burnt marshmallow, and yes he did. C-sharp was a martian that maintained an eery trill, engaging a blind boy into fits of laughter. The sound managed to tickle his funny bone, which prompted a one-on-one with tactile investigation of Marshall’s actual existence. As an early student of improv theater technique, this would be a definite plus in this plethora of situations.
My hearing impaired students loved to act out songs. The Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly worked well with this ensemble.
Enter Granny Grace.
I decided to make the old woman and put a plastic jug inside her so the kids could meet her and see for themselves, the fly, spider, bird, cat progression that delighted them so. No one was more surprised than me. Granny Grace allowed me to channel my inner feisty granny self to adlib with all the students. One remarkable day, a 5’10 thirteen year old, who rocked all the time I was there, stopped, maintained eye contact with Granny, grabbed her head and pulled us down to his cheek, with a cooing sound that would melt your heart. The teachers told me later, with amazement, that he rarely engaged on any level with anyone. Thus the power to relate became very apparent that day.
I left this job and spent the next few years touring with Tears of Joy.
I brought Granny along to the Women’s March in Hartford, January 20. A last minute idea, really, thinking she would look so cute in my pink hat. So Granny, along with a sea of pink protesters chanted, “Show us what democracy looks like? This is what democracy looks like.” I lost count of the number of selfies she posed for. One of my favorites was with Hartford’s mayor, Luke Bronin and Patty Swayne Bengtson art teacher from Rockville High School.
A surprised group of former students waved to Granny and I. With her support I was able to demonstrate my responsibility to not only talk the talk, but to walk the walk.