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Third graders perform play created by their teacher

Claremont history has never been so cute, or comprehensive for that matter, as it is in Letters Home, a musical play performed this week by third graders from Chaparral Elementary School.

The play was created by Chaparral third grade teacher and creative director, Jean Merrill, who was glowing after the early show Tuesday. “I consider this my magnum opus,” she said. “This was everything I wanted it to be. I can’t tell you how proud I am of the kids, and what an outstanding job they did. It just told the story in so many different ways. That’s the glory of theater, y’know?”

Letters Home aligns with Claremont Unified School District’s third grade unit on Claremont heritage, tracing the growth of the city through the lens of imagined letters sent home by college students throughout the years. It was written three years ago by Ms. Merrill and a small team of International Baccalaureate students from Claremont High School. “A past student, Shea Seery, who I knew was an exceptional writer, recruited a handful of fellow IB students to help write the letters,” Ms. Merrill said.

Before Tuesday’s performance for all of Claremont’s third-graders, the cast was, as one would expect, full of energy. It translated well to the show, as the kids sang, danced and emoted in admirable fashion. There were clearly some future performers among the cast of about 100. They played various roles from Native Americans, to Mexican Players, and from citrus workers to regular citizens. The letters they read shed light on the early days of the burgeoning city, its schools and architecture, as well as the citrus industry, the Padua Hills Theatre, Bridges Auditorium and the 20th century expansion of the Colleges, among other subjects.

Claremont Heritage provided the imagery for the show, including vintage photographs, books and newspapers, and some quite dramatic footage of the flood of 1938. “Many people were surprised to see that,” Ms. Merrill said. “From what I understand, some family in Claremont discovered it in one of their grandparent’s attic and donated it to Claremont Heritage.” She said parents and grandparents were coming up to her after the show and telling her they’d lived in Claremont all their lives and had learned new tidbits about their city.

Ms. Merrill is a near perfect candidate to memorialize Claremont theatrically. She is an El Roble Intermediate and 1975 Claremont High School graduate, her three grown children all went through Claremont schools, and her 91-year-old mother still lives in the house she grew up in not far from CHS. She’s been teaching for 38 years, 22 at Chaparral, and the past 16 as a third-grade instructor.

“I love doing history through drama,” she said. “I created a California history play years ago in the fourth grade, and they’re still doing it here at Chaparral. I think they learn so much by singing, dancing and movement, instead of just reading it in a book.”

It costs about $1,700 to put on the show, which Claremont Educational Foundation underwrites through a grant, with the lion’s share going toward bus rental; Claremont Heritage provided research assistance and archival materials; Pitzer College helped out with the venue, Benson Auditorium, thanks to Nancy Treser-Osgood, the college’s Senior Director of Alumni Relations, CUSD school board member, and a past parent from Ms. Merrill’s class. As if that weren’t enough City of Trees synergy, another past parent from her class donated the costumes used for the Mexican Players’ dance number. “I mean, how much more Claremont can you get?” Ms. Merrill said.

Another valuable source was Judy Wright’s 1980 book, Claremont: a Pictorial History.  “It was a treasure hunt for me, because I love history,” Ms. Merrill said. Through the research, “You just realize the Colleges have been the anchor for our city. The citrus industry came and went, but it’s the Colleges that have kept us going as a community. That’s what keeps people employed, what keeps people coming to Claremont, and what keeps the businesses going downtown. I mean, they’re our rock and our foundation.”

You’d be hard pressed to find a more committed Claremont cheerleader than Ms. Merrill. But, like a lot of young folks looking to make their mark, she was looking for something new after college, and lived elsewhere for a while. She returned not long after though, to raise her own children. “It’s not until you move away that you realize what a good place this is to have a family. There’s some things that just don’t change. We have new restaurants and things, but there’s still that intimate, hometown feeling that’s really special. I’m very thankful for my childhood in Claremont, and I was thrilled that my kids could have that same experience.”

We’re all looking to leave our mark, to have a legacy. For Ms. Merrill, Letters Home might just be one of those things that keeps going on, long after she’s done teaching. “That would be wonderful,” Ms. Merrill said.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com