Published: April 25, 2012
"Because it shows students that have disabilities can still do things," says Moore-Patton, 42. "They can see that children who are different can do the same things as quote-unquote normal children."
So those wordless rehearsals began again.
The crowd streams into a west side auditorium on an April morning, and the sight of them has got the butterflies going in the actors' stomachs.
"They're nervous," Shepherd whispers of the kids about to perform, who are fidgeting backstage, signing to each other. "They're not saying that, but you can tell."
The room darkens but for the lights bathing the stage, and the actors step out. Just like in all those rehearsals, they pretend to be in a village, they break into dances, they rejoice in freedom. At the end, 11-year-old Davine Lowe steps to the middle and begins a solo dance. She sweeps in arcs, she jumps like a ballerina, she tumbles over in graceful somersaults.
But her song has no beat for her to feel through her bare feet. It's a sweeping orchestral piece, carried only by melody, and yet she's somehow moving in time with the music. She practiced so much, focused so hard on memorizing her timing precisely, that her dance is miraculously perfect.
"She doesn't hear the music!" Shepherd marvels from the front row. The girl's performance draws gasps from a few kids in the seats.
Before the play had begun, Shepherd grabbed the microphone and spoke softly to the hundred or so kids in the auditorium. "If any mistakes are made, take all our mistakes for love," she implored the audience. It was a protective gesture. There are always some kids out there who make fun of disabled students.
But there were no wisecracks today, no snickers, no mockery from this audience. Some of them sit in wheelchairs, some have braces on their legs, most have disabilities not so easy to see. Each of these kids in the room has been made fun of at some point, or stared at, or laughed at for being different. And each of them instinctively gives the kids on stage the same kindness and courtesy they've craved themselves.
At the end of the play, they break into genuine, unprompted applause for what they'd seen — dances set to music the actors can't hear, a story told by kids who can't speak, a public performance by children whose deafness left many of them shy and withdrawn before this. To be up on this stage means something not only for the actors, but for the kids in the audience too, who understand what they overcame to accomplish this.
That mutual kindness, the shared knowledge of what life is like with a disability, is why a program like this is important, Shepherd says. She wishes these kids could somehow be kept together for those reasons, and worries what will happen to them next year.
"We have parents that are hard-of-hearing," she notes. "And they say, 'I want my child to be here, not in a hearing school, because I grew up in a hearing school, and I was so lonely.'"
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