I never imagined when I started Broadway Books First Class three years ago that I would be welcoming my former team teacher and friend, Lauren Ridloff, as a guest artist. And I certainly could never have imagined she would be accompanied by the handsome, affable star of The Mighty Ducks, Dawson's Creek, and The Affair, Joshua Jackson! Yet, here we are.
Lauren made a huge splash on Broadway this season in Children of a Lesser God. She earned Outer Critics Circle, Drama League and TONY AWARD! nominations for her performance as Sarah Norman Leeds and became the darling of publications like The New York Times. Everyone was enthralled with this woman who, as Variety put it, "comes out of nowhere to knock us off our feet".
But, she did have a life before all the attention and accolades. Once upon a time Lauren used to dwell in that proverbial land of "nowhere" with me. Together we taught kindergarten and first grade at PS347 in Room 201 for 9 years and, as I have written in many blog posts, she has always been fabulous.
So, you see, she was really never "nowhere" after all. She was contributing to the development of young minds as an outstanding educator, a fierce defender of young children and a perfect partner - first as a teacher and then as a wife and mother. However, this new chapter allows her to leave a lasting impact and serve as a positive role model on a vastly broader scale.
Of course, Joshua Jackson has been a role model since he stepped on the scene in 1992 with The Mighty Ducks. His character, Charlie Conway, is the kid every parent wants to call their own. He is ethical, empathetic and kind. I know this because we watched the movie in preparation for his visit and I've laughed my way through a lot of quacking ever since. When Josh entered my classroom it was to a chanting chorus of, "QUACK! QUACK! QUACK!"
We also watched a scene from Dawson's Creek involving a tearful goodbye on the beach between Joshua's character, Pacey Witter, and his teacher. It may or may not have been an appropriate relationship and the mention of it in front of our young audience made Josh laugh disbelievingly and blush a little (rest assured, the 2-minute scene out of context is quite innocuous).
It was a bit surreal to welcome Lauren back into the classroom after 6 years, but it ultimately felt like a true homecoming. As with all guest artists, I spent the week prior to her visit preparing the children by discussing her work. Only once, when I welcomed former student Eden Duncan-Smith, have I ever known so much about a performer or felt as though I were welcoming family.
My words were filled with love, pride, and tremendous joy as I explained her journey to the Great White Way. Lauren's trajectory from ASL tutor to the lead in a Broadway show is the stuff of fairy tales. It is almost unheard of and yet, proves to even the most skeptical that anything is possible.
I seized upon this theme by selecting the children's book Happy Dreamer by Peter H. Reynolds for Lauren and Josh to read. It is a beautiful story encouraging children to embrace their creativity, nurture their dreams, and celebrate all the ways they are unique. The illustrations are colorful, imaginative and sometimes, even shiny! The timbre of the book speaks to my aesthetic of encouraging creative chaos and cherishing the dreamers.
The reading was conducted in both American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English with the teacher in Lauren on full display as she engaged the children in a dialogue and guided Josh to highlight various elements in the illustrations. The majority of the students in attendance have parents who are deaf, while some are deaf or hard of hearing themselves. Inviting guest artists who can communicate using the children's first language is an important consideration for me and a valuable experience for the students. Congratulations are in order for Josh, whose ASL development continues to grow since I first met him in the Berkshires last summer.
Near the end of the book the author asks, "What kind of dreamer are you?" and offers up a bunch of options. Students and teachers alike raised their hands in response to each choice. This informal poll showed conclusively that the adults in the room were mostly "Nap Happy" dreamers, while the children favored more active manifestations.
The reading was followed by a question and answer session. We learned that Josh started acting when he was 10-years-old because his mother was in the business. He liked playing so much that he stuck with it (and rather successfully too!).
Lauren shared some challenges associated with the role of Sarah. One was that it required her to use her voice, which she decided not to use when she was 13-years-old. There were both physical and emotional considerations surrounding this stipulation, but in time she found power in reclaiming her voice on the stage.
Josh also shared his challenge with learning a new language, ASL. Their supportive relationship showed the children that difficulties can be overcome with a little help from your friends - an important message for the little ones to embrace.
The visit concluded with Josh and Lauren hunkering down into preschool-sized chairs and autographing 30 books and chatting briefly with each student. It was also the time that many teachers swept into the room to say hello to their former coworker, Lauren, and catch a glimpse of Joshua Jackson.
It is a very special thing that amidst all the hubbub, the demands for their time, an exhausting schedule, and just a little more than a week before the Tony Awards, Lauren and Josh made visiting a class of young children a priority. That, to me, speaks of character worthy of Charlie Conway and tells the children in no uncertain terms that they are dreamers worthy of attention. It's a beautiful message. Thank you both for making me a Happy Dreamer!
You can watch some highlights from Josh and Lauren's visit in this short clip created by Jamie Kirkpatrick (with additional footage from Eileen Lograno).
A Visit with Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff
Broadway Books First Class