Peek into any school on any day, and chances are you will see a little magic. Or a lot. I peeked into PS 347 on E. 23rd Street in Manhattan last week and who should be there but Gregory Jbara, star of stage (Billy Elliott’s dad) and screen (he is on “Blue Bloods”), reading out loud about some very scary carrots.
Next to him stood an interpreter signing every word, because this is the American Sign Language and English Lower School.
“Jasper knew his parents were wrong. Creepy Carrots were real!” Jbara intoned as a group of about a dozen first graders sat at his feet on the rug, wriggling a bit, of course, but wide-eyed with interest.
“Where are the carrots?” Jbara asked the kids, pointing to a page of tombstones.
“In the deadness!” yelped a little boy.
“In the graveyard, yes,” Jbara nodded.
So what brought a Tony Award winner to a school where all the kids are deaf, hard of hearing, or “deaf-allied” (that means children of deaf adults)?
Facebook and fandom. Gary Wellbrock, the kids’ teacher, has always been a Broadway fanatic. He was a performing arts major back in the day. Now he has a doctorate in deaf education. But if you’re a theater fan and you work in New York City and you’re active on Facebook, after a while, your worlds merge. So on July 3, just to see what would happen, Wellbrock posted about an idea he’d been percolating. He called it “Broadway Books First Class.”
His idea was to invite Broadway performers to come to his first-grade class and read aloud a book. Why not? The city’s budget for arts education had been dwindling. So here was a way to give the kids a glimpse of the theater world, and a hint of the gift that belongs to all New Yorkers: We live in the capital of the arts. Drink it in!
“I just posted, ‘Is anybody interested?’ And within hours, he was like, ‘Yes. I’m in,’ ” Welbrock recalled, nodding at Jbara. “I typed back, ‘That would be cool,’ but I was really running around like, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’ ” The two had never met, but here was Broadway royalty saying, “See you soon!”
By the Fourth of July, Wellbrock had four stars signed up. And now his growing list includes drag legend Charles Busch (should be a great class!), actress Alison Fraser (the stripper “Tessie Tura” in “Gypsy”), as well as Brooklynite Eden Duncan-Smith, age 15, who starred in “The Lion King” on Broadway. She’s also in the movie “Meadowland” with Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson. And she also happens to be a former student of Wellbrock’s.
Like I said, if you’re in New York and love Broadway, your worlds will eventually merge.
“Let’s thank Mr. Jbara,” said Wellbrock, as the actor closed his book. In addition to a chorus of audible thank yous, many hands waved in the air — the deaf equivilant of clapping.
“Some of the kids want to grow up and become actors too,” Wellbrook told him.
“I want to be a doctor!” shouted one boy.
“I want to be a slapper of things!” shouted another, proceeding to slap himself in the face until everyone told him to cut it out.
“Do we have any questions for Mr. Ibara?” Wellbrock jumped in.
“Have you danced on TV?” one kid asked.
“How do you make movies?” asked another, to which Mr. Jbara gave a kid-friendly description of a typical filming day.
“Did you always want to be an actor?”
Bingo! That question sent Jbara back to the time he was exactly the same age as these kids. “We learned a song called ‘Frosty the Snowman,’ and the teacher decided she wanted one of the students to dress as Frosty,” he told them. “Everybody wanted to be Frosty, but the teacher decided it was actually going to be me.”
He looked a little misty, recalling his first gig. After all, it set the stage — as it were — for the rest of his life.
The kids seemed to understand, and one came over wearing a bunny puppet on his hand which he hopped up and down Jbara’s arm.
“What’s this?” Jbara asked.
“A lion,” the boy replied.
First grade can be a magical time. Especially if there’s a teacher who makes sure of it.
Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and author and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.