Chicago and The Song of Hiawatha

I have done several posts in the past about working at Hiawatha Park. It was the experience of a lifetime and it amazes me that it is still the gift that keeps on giving. The highlight of this last trip to Chicago was getting together with some of my former students from Hiawatha Park. When I left them they were adolescents. Now they are all very accomplished women with diverse backgrounds and interests.

The wonderful part about this reunion was that the group of women who came to tip a few at Bar Louie (and those who couldn’t but met me for breakfast or lunch) represented the two “generations” of students that I had at Hiawatha Park. I was only there for fourteen years, but the program was very different when I first got there than it was when I left. Initially the program was a traditional theatre program but some time into my tenure I incorporated dance into it and that element took off like gangbusters. Instead of just doing stage productions, we evolved into doing musicals and dance recitals and even developed the Hiawatha Park Dance Company, the “in-crowd” dance troupe into which all students aspired to be.  We went from small appreciative audiences to packing the house for all of our shows. It was a phenomenal experience and one which, at this point in time, I question whether we could ever replicate.

Some of the "girls" and me

There were several very special things about this get together. First of all, just seeing everyone again after so many years was such a joy. I am grateful to a medium such as Facebook which has connected me with former students that I never thought I would ever see or speak to again. I was amazed at how we instantly were comfortable with one another just as if we had seen each other yesterday. For me it was such a joy to be able to relate to them as women and to hear about their lives and interests and to have adult conversations with them. We were no longer teacher and student (although we recognized just how precious those memories were) but now we were friends.  I felt so blessed that that evening gave me a whole new group of women friends who I love and admire.

The second was the bond that was evident by the two generations of students. Some had been involved earlier in the program and others later, but there was a bond of how important that program was to them and how now, as adults, they recognized the extreme value of having day-to-day contact with a caring adult in an after school setting. One of them told me that she had very vivid memories of feeling safe and how important that feeling was to her. Others spoke of sharing personal things with me knowing that I would handle them with sensitivity. Others spoke of the discipline and rigor that I expected from them and how that taught them life lessons. They spoke of the antics that went on backstage and how I would reprimand them (in ways I would never do now). Others spoke of how important it was to have someone who was an adult but not their parent be there to listen to them. And although the program had its value, the message was clear – it was about the relationship of teacher and student and how powerful that relationship can be. And as we talked about that, both generations of students saw that although the medium was different, what they got out of the program was the same. And it was so powerful that the effects of it have lasted a lifetime. Now how can you ever put a dollar value on that? You simply can’t. And although some had only met each other for the first time, they bonded that evening as well. And the new Facebook friendships were forged the very next day. That was fun to see.

Shelly, Janet and Jane

The night flew by, we closed the place. We talked about a myriad of things – we ate, we drank, we laughed. At times I just sat back and watched them as they shared details about their lives today. They were witty, funny and the atmosphere was filled with joy. And as I think about it now I wonder how the heck I got so lucky. It dawned on me that this get-together was not about living in the past but moving forward with our relationships. It was about reinforcing that we have a strong group of loving and caring friends who may not get the chance to see each other with the frequency that we’d like but who will always be there for each other for the rest of their lives – we have a special place in each other’s hearts and there we will each stay.

So, to Jenny, Janine, Janet, Gina, Jane, Dee, Shelly, Sandy, Camille, Denise, Amy (had breakfast and lunch with them) Brett and Nick (who bravely made appearances) and to all of the others from Hiawatha Park present or not – I love you, I always will, thank you – and here’s to the future!

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5 thoughts on “Chicago and The Song of Hiawatha

  1. “tell me…would we? Could we?” So true! We were lucky that we had the opportunity in a time when forging bonds and relationships with teachers were accepted and not feared.
    I wouldn’t be the person I am today without those hours spent after school at Hiawatha. I know that for a fact. Coming from a large family, I always had an “image” to uphold for the next generation. I always had Aunts, Uncles, and cousins looking out for me and ready with advice if I needed it. I know that some people from Hiawatha weren’t as lucky as I was to have that back up system in place. Their big family was Hiawatha. Jan was our advice giver, the older kids were our cousins that we could bounce things off of. the older kids were there to set an example for the younger ones, and the younger ones emulated the older ones. I don’t know of ANYWHERE where this goes on now. It is impossible to explain to people if they weren’t part of it. It was a drama class at a park district…big deal.
    It was a HUGE deal. And meeting with the “first generation” proved to me that I hadn’t built this experience up into something bigger than it was. Although it was a little odd to realize that “we” weren’t the only ones! What a childhood…I am so grateful for all of you.

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