Setting the Stage

By Phuong Ly
Friday, August 5, 2005; 1:02 PM

His classmates are pointing and giggling, but Charlie Benitez sits still. A white sheet swaddles his shoulders, and his clean, buzz-cut head sticks through like a mannequin's.

Charlie B., as he's called by his teachers and classmates to distinguish him from another boy named Charlie F., usually wells up with tears when it is time for reading or writing. Today, he is beaming.

This October morning, the 25 kids of Mary Ruth McGinn and Ellen Levine's second-grade class at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School in Silver Spring are learning about stage makeup. They are about to start on a year-long project that their teachers believe has the power to change the way they see themselves and the world around them. They will write, produce and perform an opera.

Eyes closed, Charlie B. hears a girl wishing she had been chosen to demonstrate why actors need makeup. Cool cream is smeared onto his face. The flat edge of a pencil presses his brows. A brush tickles his cheeks. Soon, another Charlie B. emerges. This 7-year-old boy is ruddier and more defined. The makeup itches, but he keeps his hands folded on his lap.

 "He doesn't look all that different," explains music teacher Emily Hines, as she brushes off runaway smudges, "but now everybody will be able to see him under the lights."

McGinn flips on a spotlight. Charlie B. turns his head from side to side, admiring himself in an imaginary mirror. He says nothing  he just grins. He is still smiling when it is time to leave the music room and go to reading.

Charlie B. and his fellow students do not call themselves a class. Regular second-graders do not learn about makeup and costumes and Mozart, and visit the Kennedy Center. These second-graders call themselves a company. That, they will inform you, is the proper name for a group of people who are making an opera.

In this company, nearly everyone is an immigrant or a child of an immigrant, from Latin America, Africa or Asia. There's Charlie B., whose parents came from El Salvador and are struggling to get by on one income. There's Tigist Tadesse, who cries when another student moves away because she remembers having to leave her grandmother and other relatives behind in Ethiopia. And there's Kathleen Pham, whose Vietnamese father and Salvadoran mother recently divorced and have married new spouses.

Most of the kids at New Hampshire Estates come from poor families, with nearly 80 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price government lunches. About a third, including Charlie B., who speaks Spanish at home, have to be pulled aside every day for extra help with English. But everyone knows how to say "opera" correctly. It was the first word on their spelling list.

This is the fourth year that New Hampshire Estates has had an opera company. The program was the brainchild of Levine, 50, who has taught at New Hampshire Estates for 14 years, except for one year when she was transferred temporarily to Farmland Elementary in Rockville, a school with middle-class kids, high test scores  and an opera program.

Levine didn't teach opera there, but she watched the performances by the fourth-graders and saw how excited the kids got when they learned about acting and music. When she returned to New Hampshire Estates as a reading teacher, she couldn't get the opera out of her mind. She took McGinn, her longtime friend and colleague, to see the year-end performances at Farmland. Both women became convinced that opera could be a way of engaging children who struggle not only with reading and math, but with low self-esteem and limited horizons.

"We're giving them a purpose for learning," says McGinn, 40. "We're helping them see beyond the classroom, that they can do anything."

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