In a new hotel for the first time since my arrival and my sleep patterns are back to their bad old ways. I first wake at 1, then at 3.30; then at 4 and finally for good at 5.
I make coffee, and iron and make preparations for my show this morning. I am performing Mr Dickens is Coming at Perkins School for the Blind, so I need my white cat, a red cloth, a book and the walking cane.
The breakfasts at the Salem Inn were very nice, although there was not a huge choice. Here I can help myself to French toast, bacon, syrup, breakfast potatoes and all of the rest of it. I return to the room feeling rather over-fed.
Looking down upon the Mass Pike (for the hotel seems to hang over it) I can see that traffic is building up quickly so I don’t want to leave too late to get to Perkins for an 8.30 sound check. I get into my costume, collect my props and head down from the eleventh floor. On reaching the lobby level I realise that the one thing I didn’t pick up was the car key. Back in lift: lobby to floor eleven, pick up keys. Back in lift: floor eleven to lobby.
The bright hot sun of the weekend has gone and it is a wet day with low cloud hanging over the buildings and wooded slopes which surround the town. I start to set the Sat Nav system and realise that I don’t actually have the address for Perkins. However, I noticed yesterday as I drove in that there are signs to it all along the route. I set course for the middle of Watertown and hope I can pick up the local signs from there, which is exactly what happens.
I visited Perkins once before in, I think 2002, and loved it then but I am so looking forward to returning.
My fears about the traffic are unfounded and I arrive at 8 o’clock, thirty minutes early. Even so I can’t find a parking space but a Victorian costume does wonders and the security guard lets me leave the car in the ‘STRICTLY 30 MINUTES ONLY’ zone.
Into the building and I find my way to reception where I am met by Marilyn Rea Beyer who is the Director of Media and Public Relations at Perkins and representative of the school’s 185th Anniversary Committee, which has invited me to perform as part of their celebrations.
Marilyn couldn’t be more helpful and takes me into the gorgeous Dwight Hall, where I will be performing. It oozes character with gothic wood carvings at the back and a wonderful stage. Ron is there to assist with lights and sound. He makes the stage look warm and theatrical and makes me sound good in the hall. This is going to be a lovely place to perform.
A chair is put on stage and a lectern is draped with my red cloth to resemble Charles Dickens’s own reading desk. My white cat is hidden, cane put in place and we are all ready to go.
There are still two hours before the show and Marilyn has plenty to do, so I sit in the museum space and read about the history of Perkins.
First incorporated in 1829 the school started life in a private home, which it rapidly outgrew. Thanks to the generosity of one of the school’s trustees, Thomas Perkins, the school ended up in a disused hotel where it was to remain for the next 75 years.
The first director, Samuel Gridley Howe was a visionary, if stubborn, man. He recognised that children who suffered from a physical disability, such as blindness were ostracized and neglected and he wanted to run a school in which the students were taught in such a way as to allow them to be intergrated with the rest of society as much as possible.
There are echoes here of Doctor Marigold’s request when he takes his step daughter to the school for the deaf in London:
‘I want her, sir, to be cut off from the world as little as can be, considering her deprivations, and therefore to be able to read whatever is wrote with perfect ease and pleasure.’
Howe used a system of reading called Boston Line Type in which the letters were raised so that a blind reader could follow them with their fingertips while a sighted reader could read from the same volume. This system meant the blind students would not have to have ‘different’ books and a parent could easily be part of their children’s learning.
When Braille was introduced it was actually much easier for people who were blind to learn and follow, but Howe stuck to his guns and used Boston Line Type long after most others had changed.
In 1842, at the very beginning of his journey described in American Notes, Charles Dickens travelled to South Boston to visit the school. He wanted to see how an enlightened nation was dealing with issues that had become old fashioned and corrupt in England. Over the next few months he would investigate prisons, asylums, mills and factories. Top of his list was education (this was the man who a few short years before had uncovered the horrors of the Yorkshire schools in Nicholas Nickleby).
He arrived on a bright winter’s morning and was able to see the school in action. The first thing that amazed him was the lack of uniforms, unthinkable at home. He was delighted that the students were shown in:
‘…his or her own proper character, with its individuality unimpaired; not lost in a dull, ugly, monotonous repetition of the same unmeaning garb: which is really an important consideration. The wisdom of encouraging a little harmless pride in personal appearance even among the blind, or the whimsical absurdity of considering charity and leather breeches inseparable companions, as we do, requires no comment.’
During his stay he was introduced to Laura Bridgeman who was a remarkable pupil. The only sense she possessed was that of touch and yet she was as industrious as any at the school, reading, writing, sewing and much more. Dickens was so moved by what he saw that he gave over a huge part of the chapter to a description of Laura’s history and progress.
The passage in the book was a huge PR coup for Perkins, and soon the remarkable establishment in Boston would be much more widely known. In the 1880s a family in Alabama read American Notes and realised that their daughter Helen needed the same sort of education as Laura Bridgeman had received. The Keller family began to make enquiries….
Dickens even engaged the print works at the school to produce Boston Line Type editions of The Old Curiosity Shop, one of which is proudly displayed in a case opposite to my table.
The only sad thing about my visit is that Perkins is no longer in the building that Charles visited. The needs of the school grew as a Kindergarten was added and in 1912 the whole establishment moved to its current Watertown location.
As I continue to read the history, suddenly there is a screeching, awful, ear-splitting siren and it appears as if there is a fire drill. Marilyn comes back to find me and escorts me outside where we all stand in the rain as two huge fire trucks and a police car pull up. Nobody quite knows what is going on but it is definitely not a drill.
After fifteen minutes or so, we are told that we cannot go back into the Howe building for the moment. Marilyn walks me to another part of the campus where her office is located and we wait for further news.
Eventually word filters through that there has been a suspected gas leak in the Howe Building and it looks as if it will be out of bounds for quite a while. My show is scheduled to be in there in half an hour so the staff needs to swing into action, and swing they do: desperately trying to find another venue that will hold the expected audience.
No panic, no fuss. Eventually the Lower School auditorium is appropriated. But there is another, more serious matter to be attended to: my white toy cat (a vital part of the show as well as being my travelling companion) is still in the Dwight Hall. In all seriousness Marilyn is speaking to the fire crew to mount a rescue mission. I wish I’d been there when a brave fire-fighter, tears leaving streaks down his grime-covered face, burst out of the door cradling the delicate cat in his arms.
Anyway, my cat, cane, book, red cloth are duly rescued.
An announcement is made over the school’s intercom system that the show is now taking place in the lower school and as I listen to this broadcast I see the fire trucks leaving. The Howe building is open once more, but the logistics of re routing the audience for a second time is too difficult so we stay with plan b.
The new venue is much less impressive; it is a regular modern hall in a regular modern building with no stage lighting or wireless sound equipment. As I set the stage the students and teachers start to arrive. These days Perkins does not only care for visually impaired students but those with multiple and chronic disabilities.
Students take their seats, some are helped, some pushed, some negotiating the crowded room with electric chairs. The hall is noisy and active.
A gentleman, Derm Keohane, introduces himself: he is going to be on stage with me interpreting for the pupils who are hard of hearing.
Just after 11 Dorinda Rife, the Superintendent of the school makes a brief speech of welcome, thanking everyone for their co operation and patience and then hands over to Marilyn who then hands over to me.
I am uncertain how the show will go, but quickly realise we are all going to get along just fine as the audience, students and staff alike, respond superbly. It is an interesting experience for me as I get two waves of reaction to each line or joke: firstly there is the instantaneous response to those in the audience who are listening to my words and then a few seconds later there is the secondary response from those following the interpreter. As I get more used to it and knowing, from experience, which lines will get a reaction, I begin to change the timing to allow for the delay.
The show ends and I get a loud, foot stamping, hand clapping reception. Marilyn thanks me and presents me with a Perkins goody-bag, before opening the floor up to questions. As in any school the initial request is greeted with silence as nobody wants to be the first, but then one student way at the back puts his hand up, I say ‘Yes’, relieved, but he doesn’t ask a question. Stupidly I haven’t realised that he can’t see me. As far as he knows the whole audience have their hands up and the ‘yes’ could be meant for anyone. I walk closer to him and speak directly to him and a teacher taps him on the shoulder at the same time. He politely introduces himself, tells me that he is in the secondary section of the school and then asks: ‘In A Christmas Carol, what is he describing?’
It is a good question and a good start.
Hands are now going up all round the room and the questions come in thick and fast. Of course the students love it when I tell them that at school I hated Oliver Twist and never even finished reading it, but used the Lionel Bart musical as reference. English teachers hang their heads in horror.
The Q&A session continues for a while until Marilyn wraps up proceedings and another long round of applause rings out.
One of the last questions is ‘do you feel proud to be carrying on the history of Charles Dickens by continuing to travel and perform and do you feel it is important that you carry on his legacy’, to which I answer that yes I am immensely proud and unbelievably privileged to do what I do but I certainly don’t feel that it is vital that I carry on his legacy because Charles Dickens will do just fine whether I am performing or not!
In much the same way I do not need to say what a remarkable place Perkins is because, like any school, it will stand or fall on its results and it is doing very very well.
But this is a more than a school; it is a community, and a very vibrant, exciting, energetic and positive one at that. I feel very honoured to have been invited back here and to have played an infinitesimal part in its history, just as Charles Dickens has. In a strange way I feel closer to him here than in any of the buildings, that I have visited in the past, in which he lived or performed.
And now the hall is empty with the exception of a local cable TV cameraman who conducts a short interview with me. When that is finished I get back to my car and drive through the rain to the hotel, where I have bite of lunch and a shower, not forgetting to check-in for my flight tomorrow.
I have a nice relaxing afternoon ahead of me and an old friend from Nashua, Sandy Belknap, has arranged to meet up and take me for an early dinner.
I spend a little bit of time going over the lines for The Signalman and have a bonus thirty minutes, as Sandy is caught in traffic. When she arrives we drive to a nearby town to an Asian fusion restaurant, Blue Ginger. Dining at 5.30 is strange, but perfect for me as I have an early start in the morning.
We chat about the tour, the blog, life at home, our poor cat Kip. The food is delicious and it is a lovely to way to finish the New England leg of the trip.
Sandy drops me back to the hotel at 8.00 and I am alarmed to discover that my bag full of laundry is not back yet. I call to reception and the girl at the desk says she’s sure it is back, and she will put me on hold while she has a look. I am then left dangling listening to muzak. I give up and hang up, hoping that there will soon be a timid knock on the door: ‘We are so sorry, Mr Dickens, here is your laundry.’ But no knock is forthcoming.
In the end I go down to the lobby and wait while seemingly impossible problems are sorted out for other guests. Eventually I can step forward and ask about my laundry. The girl disappears. A long wait; this isn’t good, as I am leaving the hotel at 6.30 in the morning and need those shirts. I am preparing my complaint (I’m British and we have to work up to complaining, it doesn’t come naturally), when she appears holding all of my laundry.
Back to my room and start to pack before heading to bed and hopefully a good night’s sleep.