Until he met a puppet his own size who seemed to understand the pain and confusion of having divorced parents, a third-grader in a Pasadena school was so withdrawn that he couldn't talk.
When he finally spoke, it was to the puppet. "My parents are divorced," he confided.
"That was his breakthrough," puppeteer Jean Gunnell said. "He finally could say it. Some things bring tears to your eyes."
The puppet is one of the life-size "Kids on the Block" who discuss such difficult issues as divorce and child abuse in skits performed for third- and fourth-graders throughout the Pasadena, Arcadia, La Canada and San Marino school districts.
Introduced 3 Years Ago
Gunnell is on a team of nine Pasadena Junior League members presenting the shows as one of the league's community projects.
When "The Kids on the Block" was first introduced in schools three years ago, the puppets talked about children's physical disabilities. When they reappeared this year to bring the issues of divorce and abuse into classrooms, project chairman Brooke Garlock said the troupe was immediately booked for the rest of the school year.
"The most impressive thing about them was that children forgot they were puppets and really talked to them," William Robertson, principal of Camino Grove Elementary School in Arcadia, said after performances there last week.
"An adult standing there talking about divorce and abuse would not have come across in the same way."
Garlock said: "We know we've touched children. We can tell from their questions that we've made them aware. The scripts are not to frighten children but to let them know there is a way out and if they tell someone, things could get better."
The puppets, with cartoon-like faces and representing several races, are styled after a Japanese form called bunraku. The puppeteers who stand behind them wear black clothes and synchronize mouth and hand movements to give the illusion that the puppets are speaking.
At a performance last week in Camino Grove School, puppet "Brenda" told "Melody" about her parents' divorce. "For a while, I thought if I could be a better kid, they would get back together," Brenda said.
Next, "Stephen," with cuts and a bruised eye, told "Nam" that he was "just sitting around, not doing anything," when his mother hit him. It happened so often, and for no apparent reason, that "I figured I should tell someone about it, so I told my teacher," the puppet said.
The third-graders responded with questions: "Do you love your mother?" (Stephen said yes.) "Why did she hurt you?" (Stephen said his mother was really angry at something else, not at him.) A boy whose father had died asked if fathers ever beat children. (Sometimes they do, Stephen said.)
Filing out to recess, a student, visibly moved, said: "That was awesome." Another, smiling, simply said: "Whew!"
Garlock said the children's reactions indicated that "they were really listening, and some of them had a very good grasp" of the message that it helps children who have problems to tell a caring adult about them.
Sometimes, Gunnell said, students ask so many questions that the puppeteers' arms ache from holding up the puppets. They answer everything, no matter how long it takes.
"Luckily, we've been able to handle everything that has come up," Garlock said. "We memorize the scripts and do quite a bit of background reading on each subject."
"The Kids on the Block" is the creation of Barbara Aiello, a former teacher in Alexandria, Va. She first used puppets to help children discuss disabilities and then used them to promote discussion of other subjects the children would not otherwise talk about.
The Pasadena Junior League bought its current set of eight puppets, used by two teams of four league members, for $6,000. The league's first set of puppets, used for programs on disabilities, was turned over to two area agencies that will continue those programs.