Life Notes: Jonah and Shakespeare
Coming of age on stage

At first, I didn’t recognize him. It seemed he had grown a foot since the last time I saw him, just a month before.

But when I looked again, it was indeed Jonah, our 14-year-old grandson. And he nodded shyly as his grandfather and I took our seats in the auditorium of the school in Montclair that Jonah has attended since pre-kindergarten.

It’s a small, loving place where parents are part of the landscape. While classroom teachers do the rigorous academics, moms and dads and yes, grandparents too, are expected to offer whatever they can – our careers, special interests and pasts – to enrich the kids’ lives. And yes, we also clean the lunch tables when needed.

But on this late winter day, Jonah’s granddad and I were there to see him and his eighth grade classmates perform in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a complicated comedic play by a gent named William Shakespeare.

Frankly, I was dubious. “I think this may be a mistake,” I said to my husband on the familiar trip up the New Jersey Turnpike.
Fourteen is an uneasy, self-conscious age, an age when the leap into adolescence is still so tentative. So Shakespeare? Maybe not.

So there was Jonah, done up as Oberon, the forest sprite/King of the Fairies, with his mop of curls lassoed into some whimsical headgear and his costume a collection of eclectic bits and pieces. Was he cringing? I couldn’t tell.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. From the moment he stepped on the stage, Jonah was not the lad I thought I knew. In Shakespearean English, no less, he spoke his lines with more clarity and resonance than I’d ever heard from him. He never missed a cue – or a chance to milk a laugh. Once, he seemed to momentarily forget a line, and I went into panic mode. If you’ve ever watched a child you love in a play, you know just what I was feeling. Would he recover? Would he be too mortified to collect himself?

A thousand images flashed of my own three daughters on various auditorium stages as each of them experienced that mix of anxiety, pride, grace, tension and, we parents prayed, a triumph in a school play.

Jonah’s mother – our youngest daughter Nancy – had one of those moments in her class’ third-grade play about the nations of the world. A perfectionist, she suffered so, and I died a thousand deaths on her behalf until she got her groove (and composure) back. And there was Jonah, repeating history.

But in a blink, he was back on track, composure regained, line retrieved so quickly that probably only his mom and grandparents even realized he was stuck.
I was so enormously proud of him, as much for that composure and recovery as for his mastery of Shakespearean English.

As I watched Jonah and his classmates, some of whom I’ve known for 10 years now, I was aware of how remarkable is the growth and change of these years.

Maggie, the little redhead with the easy charm, has grown into a beautiful, poised young woman. Sam, Jonah’s best friend, stole every scene he was in; he’s a natural actor. And Aaron, the 14-year-old car fanatic who knows every make and model, nailed his character, his lines and then some.

The curtain calls were bittersweet. These youngsters were performing in their last middle-school play, and somehow, that realization hung in the air and climbed the walls. We audience members felt it too.

In so many ways, we had come to be part of this school. This is the place where our Jonah grew taller and stronger and more sure. Next year, he’s off to another universe called high school. But for one afternoon in the 14th year of his life, Jonah Benjamin Friedman Zinn had his safe landing with Shakespeare.

March 2013
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