The 190 third- and fourth-graders at Mariners School in Newport Beach had gathered in the auditorium for a puppet show. The 8- and 9-year-old students filled the benches, where they wiggled, poked and chittered like monkeys.
They stopped, suddenly spellbound as an almost life-size puppet tapped across the stage with a cane and explained how he plays baseball even though he's blind.
Another rolled out in a wheelchair he called his "cruiser" to demonstrate wheelies.
Before they knew it, the kids were talking to these puppets.
A first for Newport Beach, the show was a special performance of Kids on the Block, a nationally recognized program designed to teach children about disabilities and differences.
Puppet Ronaldo Rodriguez, with his opaque glasses and cane, may be blind; pigtailed Mandy Puccini may be deaf, and "cruiser" Mark Riley may have cerebral palsy. But their message is: "We're just like other kids inside."
The program will open formally in the fall at elementary schools in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. Its local sponsor, the Assistance League of Newport Beach, will send volunteers to operate the puppets, performing skits on the topics of blindness, deafness, learning disability, cerebral palsy and cultural differences.
The 10-year-old puppet program, developed by a Washington, D.C., special education teacher (see box), already operates in 49 states and 14 countries around the world. Last October, Newport League members saw it presented by their Long Beach affiliate chapter at a national Assistance League convention in Los Angeles.
"We were so excited," recalled Judy Bauer, now chairman of Kids on the Block for the Newport group. "We saw it as a way to make the point that kids are kids, whether handicapped or from another culture. Our children go to school with a variety of other kids. They need this so much."
In early 1987, the league approached the local school board for permission to take the program into district classrooms. With the board's OK, the group then raised what Bauer termed "several thousand in start-up costs." Twenty league volunteers now are memorizing lines and learning Japanese bunraku puppetry--in which black-clad puppeteers work their charges unobtrusively from behind--in the hope of taking their show to many thousands of students each year.
The preseason show, performed recently by professional puppeteers Patti Knoll and Suzanne Nosworthy, was part of a daylong training workshop for the volunteers.
While schoolchildren fell under the spell of the chatty puppets, volunteers listened carefully for tone and emphasis in lines that they will speak in skits pairing disabled and non-disabled puppets for frank talk.
In one example, the plucky, bespectacled puppet, Melody, asked wheelchair "cruiser" Mark, "Are you sick or something?"
"No," he replied. "I've got CP. It's something you're born with. I can't walk, and I can't talk so good either. But I can swim and ride a horse."
Between skits, the schoolchildren questioned the puppets.
"How'd you get that way?" they asked repeatedly. "How do you take a shower?" "How does it feel to be retarded?"
The puppets--or rather the puppeteers--didn't hesitate. In childish cadences, they explained Down's syndrome and Braille and physical therapy. They also brought the puppets to life through such small gestures and details as the subtle moan of a cerebral palsic's voice, the cocked hand behind the straining ear of a blind boy and the sputtered description of how it feels to be teased--"Boy, it really frosts my cake!"
"Taking questions--that's the scary part," volunteer Patti Lindsay said before the show. "They're not in the script. You have to know the right answer."
Knoll, the demonstration's non-stop fireball behind puppets Ronaldo, Mandy and Mark, counsels volunteers to imagine their way into their characters and to "always answer as a child."
A former volunteer herself who started with a National Charity League-sponsored Kids program in Palos Verdes nine years ago, Knoll is now the West Coast representative for Kids on the Block Inc. and teaches groups that buy the puppets how to use them.
"If your heart is good, and you're enthusiastic, you'll do fine," she assured the Newport Beach volunteers.
Marilyn Slaughter, a third-grade teacher who watched Knoll perform, expressed wonder at how her students "treated the puppets as if they were real. You could hear it in their questions."
Teacher Sue White added, "The show hit so many things we try to teach. Right afterward, I heard a boy making fun of CP. Three others jumped on him. I didn't have to say a word."
The program's 28 scripts include other topics such as sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, parental divorce and teen pregnancy. But in the beginning, Judy Bauer said, "we're starting low key, with eight puppets and five topics."
As the League learns of student interest in other topics, Bauer said, more puppets will be added.
One limiting factor is the cost of between $500 and $1,000 for each puppet, which may explain the lack of other Kids programs in Orange County and the propensity of charity groups, rather than school districts, to sponsor them. Currently, the Assistance League of San Juan Capistrano is in rehearsal for fall performances of the county's only other Kids program.
In neighboring Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties, however, Kids programs have taken a firm hold. It is not hard to see why.
They portray an upbeat world where black, white and Latino children are cozy chums and non-disabled children reveal their ignorance freely and are set straight without resentment. It is a world in which the message is, "We are one."
This is the world that "could be--if we reach children now," Knoll said. "They'll grow up knowing that everyone deserves respect."