The Pirate King

The Pirates of Penzance was set to be the biggest production in the history of Clearstream Avenue Elementary School.

At least that’s what our teachers told us.

Never before had a cohort of fifth graders attempted a performance that involved such a large cast, such detailed sets, the sheer quantity of musical numbers and this level of acting.

It was going to take a herculean effort. Our eleven-year-old-selves were very excited.

Extra rehearsal time was set aside. Our art classes were converted into scenery workshops. Our music teacher, Mrs. Pratt could be heard practicing her various parts; the echo of her piano ringing through the halls before the morning bell.

The cast try-outs were a hotly contested battle with the main role of Pirate King surprisingly going to a classmate named Ralph.

Ralph was a pale, freckled red-headed boy who was fairly popular. At least as popular as one can be in a class of eighteen children.

Ralph and I weren’t really friends. We didn’t have beef or anything like that. He was just loud and a bit of a troublemaker while I was an extremely shy do-gooder which was appreciated by my teachers and accepted by my classmates.

With no musical talent, no acting ability and no desire to ever have a spotlight on me, I didn’t even try out for the main cast. I was more than happy to paint the sets and hide in the chorus, mouthing the words without actually singing.

Considering the scope of the undertaking, things were going relatively well. We were learning our lines, coming in on cue and getting over our stage fright. We were on our way.

And then the unthinkable happened.

Actually, considering the circumstances – elementary school filled with kids transitioning from the Winter to Spring seasons – someone should have seen this coming from a mile away. But I digress.

Three days before our debut, Ralph, our Pirate King, got sick with the flu. He missed final walk-throughs on Wednesday. On Thursday, Mr. Cooper, the sixth grade math teacher, holding a script in his left hand, stood in during dress rehearsal. We had no understudy. The biggest production in the history of Clearstream Avenue Elementary was cast in doubt.

The morning of opening night, Ralph was not at his desk for the attendance bell. As we tried to concentrate on Math and English and Social Studies as the day went on, dread and disappointment filled the spaces between the chalkboards and pencil sharpeners.

Gossip was not a big part of my childhood but by the time lunch recess came around all that anyone could talk about was the performance that evening. What would we do? Would it continue? Would Mr. Cooper have to fill in and embarrass us all?

Just as things were reaching a fever pitch, the rear school yard gates opened and in walked Ralph as if he was Maximus Decimus Meridius strutting onto the killing floor of the Roman Colosseum. I was half expecting him to yell out “Are you not entertained!?!” as he crossed the baseball infield.

Almost instantly a group of kids encircled him. Patting him on the back. High fiving. Cheering. I realize that this is a false memory but I can clearly picture Ralph being carried on the shoulders of students into the lunch room as if he were Rudy at the end of the game. Ralph didn’t look great, but he showed up when we needed him.

The 6PM performance went off without a hitch. You’d never have known that Ralph had been sick as he danced across the stage and belted out “I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General” from the bow of the prop ship that filled the stage of our gym-turned-auditorium.

As I stood on my riser with the rest of the chorus, pretending to sing the response to his call, I looked up at Ralph with 80% envy and 20% awe. Without realizing it at all at the time, I had just received one of my earliest lessons on resilience and leadership.

And as basic as it was – that regardless of what you’ve been through or how you feel, sometimes you just have to make it happen for the sake of your team – it remains one of the most important. Particularly if you are facing challenging times.

It’s been nearly 40 years since that fifth grade memory and I haven’t seen or spoken to Ralph in nearly as long. My family moved to another town just a couple of years later. I’m sure if you mentioned my name, he probably wouldn’t even remember me at all.

But all it took was that one small act – showing up – for me to remember him.