My fifth-grade daughter, Ava, is learning to roar. Back in September, she auditioned for and got the part of Shere Khan in her elementary school's upcoming production of The Jungle Book.
The role of the tiger represents quite a shift from last year, when Ava's art teacher, Deb Lederer, bucked the budget-trimming trend of extracurricular downsizing and directed Carrboro Elementary's first-ever musical, Seussical Junior. The show, a scaled-down version of Broadway's Seussical: The Musical, was a grade-school masterpiece—to me, at least. Ms. L, as her kids call her, channeled the energy of 150 fourth and fifth graders into finely choreographed song and dance.
Ava opted for the anonymity of backstage, receiving her first taste of theater operating the curtain. Still, she caught the bug.
Over the summer, Ms. L rented space from the school and led two weeklong day camps, one with art and one with drama. Ava eagerly signed up for both. She nabbed a main speaking part in the week's production, a short named Bed Bugs, playing the mother of two sisters who discover a miniature city of intelligent parasites under their covers. Each day after camp, she'd do read-throughs with her mom and me. We'd exchanged don't-laugh glances as our soft-spoken daughter transformed into a no-nonsense parent, sternly reprimanding her daughters for jumping on the bed. In the darkened auditorium for the show at week's end, I hid my misty eyes with a video camera as I filmed the girl I no longer completely recognized. In the calm before the preteen tempest, Ava seemed to have found her sea legs.
As she prepared for this year's auditions, Ava memorized a poem and recited it to us over and over, each time adding a bit more inflection and attitude. On the walk home from school after the fateful tryout, she said it went well. She was quieter than usual. I asked what was wrong.
"It's just that Ms. L still calls me 'Mother' from last summer's play," she explained, head down. "I don't know if she can see me as an evil tiger."
I put an arm around her shoulder and stifled a smile, doing my best to calm my young star's fears of being typecast so early in her career: "I have a feeling Ms. L will know what you can do."
Since Ava found out she got the part, our house has become her stage. Her usual late-afternoon "When's dinner?" is now "WHERE'S ... MY ... MEAT!?" We cheerlead her newfound focus, combing YouTube and old National Geographic DVDs for quintessential tiger sounds.
So far, she only manages a throaty rumble. But there are two more months of rigorous rehearsal with a true teacher whose zeal is self-replicating. There are no doubts; we will hear her roar.