Bargell: Tears of a (middle school) clown |

Bargell: Tears of a (middle school) clown

Junior high (err, middle school), whew. The mere thought conjures up memories of impossible hair, even more impossible parents, and the total, unequivocal disaster of not actually having a real pair of Nike tennis shoes. And these are only a few of the atrocities thrust upon me when I first stepped foot into junior high, a few years back.

Just last week, the Summit Middle School choir staged an opera that whisked me right back to seventh grade. Titled “Just a Clown,” the kids introduced the opera with a brief narrative about the Salem Witch Trials, and what happened to those accused in 1692 when no one was brave enough to stand up for them. The opera then opened with a scene from a modern-day middle school cafeteria. That place where kids go to socialize and sometimes eat, where the unwritten seating chart that divides the terminally cool from the rest of the crowd is sacrosanct.

The lunchroom scene progressed through some catchy tunes that captured the essence of the groups, with the lyrics written and performed by the students. The banter abruptly stopped, however, when a new student entered the scene. Not just another run-of-the-mill middle schooler, but instead a middle school clown – literally, complete with a rainbow-colored wig, red ball nose and suitably bright, mismatched attire (and talk about the wrong shoes). The underlying premise was clear, the middle school space had been invaded by an outsider, one the kids had not before encountered, an alien from California no less.

Her entry onto the stage prompted a not unexpected barrage of clown persecution. The clown, who started out smiling and joking around was quickly reduced to a lamenting teenager, bemoaning her origins (even Uncle Bozo) and shunning her mom’s attempt to comfort her. She stomped away repeating a line I seem to recall from my middle school years: “I wish I’d never been born.” The main ringleader of the bullying effort cajoled and embarrassed the other students into going along. And, the kids in the opera did, either by actively participating in the cruelty, or more often by standing by mutely while the attacks occurred. Alas, I thought, middle school hasn’t changed one darned bit in 40 years, and my heart sank as I realized our oldest was on the brink of stepping into that fray.

I took a step back from the scene to get my bearings, and wondered first how opera and our middle school choir had made such an unlikely connection. Turns out, the kids had been learning from artists in residence from the Central City Opera, who facilitated while the kids created a script and lyrics all on their own, about issues of their own. The students found a grim connection between modern day bullying and the absurdity of the Salem Witch Trials, and used the clown as a brilliant theme to link the two times. They then managed to put it all to music. I was fascinated with the students’ ability to translate their daily lives to a musical affair.

And, just when things looked pretty dire for the clown, one brave student took a stand, and demanded a stop to the bullying. One good example was all the others needed to find the backbone to do the same. In the end, the bully was called out on her behavior, and confessed that her actions resulted, at least in part, from similar poor treatment she received in her younger years. Then something special happened: The bully apologized, and the clown forgave her – an ending far more satisfactory than that of the historic trials.

An ending, too, that made me realize maybe things have changed after all. It’s not just recognizing that my classmates and I would not have had a clue what an opera was, much less how to compose one in eighth grade. Nor is it the fact these kids had the insight to recognize the sad parallel between ostracism and persecution circa 1692 and the present day (albeit admittedly on a different scale). Instead, it was their ability to tackle a familiar and difficult story, one so many have lived through, and to craft a new ending. Or, rather a new beginning, where standing up for someone is more important than being popular, and where a heartfelt apology can garner forgiveness, and even a hug. When I left, my heart had lightened a bit as I realized this group of kids, though imagination and creativity had rejected some of the accepted norms of their society, and had chosen instead to sing a song of hope.

Cindy Bargell lives outside of Silverthorne with her husband and two daughters. She is a card-carrying PTSA member, real estate and natural resources lawyer and part-time gymnastics coach. She welcomes your comments at

The program for “Just a Clown” credits the Breckenridge Music Festival for sponsoring the artist in residence Program, and the Summit Foundation for grants to the Breckenridge Music Festival for school outreach programs as well as the SMS teachers, staff and administration that supported the program.

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