Once upon a time, when Broadway Books First Class was merely a twinkle in my eye, I imagined facilitating simple, low-key guest visits for my students. Of course, that was never really the case as we welcomed administrators, guests and - most importantly - ASL interpreters from the start. Over time the visits have expanded to include more children and more adults, so that I now find myself playing the role of event planner.
Actress and singer Ali Stroker's visit was an event indeed! (We even had exquisite "pre-show" music from Esther Kim of Tokyo & the Boy!)
Ali Stroker made her Broadway debut in the 2015 Deaf West Theater revival of Spring Awakening. She's also performed at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and New York's Town Hall. Television audiences recognize her from the hit shows Glee and GleeProject. Her guiding principle of "Making Your Limitations Your Opportunities" helps educate, entertain and energize others.
Ali and I selected the book The Gold Leaf by Kirsten Hall and Matthew Forsythe for her reading. It is a story of longing, tranquility, beauty and loss told through descriptive language and muted color. In the book, forest animals discover "something most unusual" in a gold leaf that shines and sparkles.
Inspired by the richness of the illustrations and story setting we created an autumnal wonderland in our classroom to mirror the theme of the book.
This meant a trip for me to Michael's craft store to purchase leaves and branches and an outdoor excursion for the children to gather fallen foliage.
We painted the leaves with gold acrylic paint and coated them with Mod Podge. The idea was that we would all toss our leaves in the air before Ali read so that as the words of the book washed over us, we'd be surrounded by leaves of every color, including the eponymous gold ones.
Being a deliciously sneaky event planner, I also had a surprise up my sleeve for Ali. I arranged for the author of The Gold Leaf, Kirsten Hall, to attend the event. I introduced the two talents after Ali read, but just before I did the children had a surprise of their own. Kirsten wrote about what transpired...
"The kids threw leaves in the air to begin Ali's reading. Only a (lucky, envied) few caught gold leaves as they fell. When the story was over those few kids who had caught the gold leaves surprised us all by getting up and approaching Ali to give HER their gold leaves. All on their own volition, all in the spirit of the book. The entire experience was a golden reminder of the many things we all have vs don't have, what matters vs what doesn't, and how not having can sometimes be the bigger gift."
Afterwards, Ali shared how she fell in love with the theater as a 6-year-old girl because it allowed her to express herself in a way that was otherwise unavailable to her. The joy of performing offset the difficulties she endured after being hurt in a car accident at Age 2.
Ali is the first person in a wheelchair to perform on Broadway, which she said was a big reminder to her that we need to create more opportunities for people living with disabilities. It was a rather powerful thing to watch a restless, rowdy group of leaf-throwing children quietly focus on the message behind Ali's words. And it was even more impressive to witness them transfixed by her beautiful singing voice. (You can watch her singing BE A LION by clicking the song title and watch a short compilation video of her BBFC guest artist visit by clicking here.)
Gifts and hugs and a bit of chaos followed as Ali and Kirsten autographed books for each child. Books were funded by my friends who supported a DonorsChoose project to ensure that each child gets a copy of the books read during the Broadway Books First Class visits.
It was heartwarming to see the preschool and second grade children sitting together on the rug to read and talk about the story or the illustrations. I heard from one parent the next day who shared that her son wanted her to read the book three times before he went to bed that night!
Farewell is not goodbye. Ali is interested in setting up some theater classes or a workshop at our school. We are meeting later this month to discuss it.
"And then a mighty roar/Will start the sky/To cryin'/But not even light'ning/Will be frightening my lion/And with no fear inside/No need to run/No need to hide/You're standing strong and tall/You're the bravest of them all"
Ali is a lion!
A Visit with Ali Stroker
Broadway Books First Class
"Make Your Limitations Your Opportunities"
Guest Artist Ali Stroker inspiring dreams in Pre-K and Second Grade