Backstage Lake County: Minnie Cannon Elementary Hosts Virtual Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

During a time when everything has been uncertain, a group of students at Minnie Cannon Elementary School have managed to hold on to a little bit of normalcy.  In January of 2020 Sharon Huggins, the fifth grade teacher and the 2019-2020 Minnie Cannon Teacher of the Year, decided she wanted to start a book club to share her love of reading with some of her students.  She chose The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy even though it was above grade level because it “appealed to her sense of humor, love of science, and goofy nature.”

She approached some of her students she thought most likely to be interested. She proposed they read a certain number of pages ahead of time and then come to her room with their lunch on Fridays prepared to discuss what they had read. Jose Martinez, when asked how he felt when asked to join, said he gave it some thought before agreeing. He wasn’t sure he wanted to spend his lunch in the classroom. Jimmy Reynolds relayed how he was working when she came up to him and said she had a cool idea, and then, in typical book club fashion, he changed gears and said, “Please say I just stuck out my thumb and here I am.” Whereupon the rest of the book club members giggled. It’s a reference from the book and it doesn’t take much to get this group laughing.

The two boys asked if Ren Ueno could join.  Ueno said he was surprised, but “just went with the flow.”  When Valery Roldan found out about the book club she asked if she could join, too.  Once the group actually started reading the book, though, she said she thought the story was just about a man whose house got destroyed and found the story “boring until it got interesting.  Once they got to space, it got interesting.” Reynolds said he didn’t get a lot of the jokes, but when he read about a two-headed freak in space trying to go to Magrathea he thought, “This is cool!”

Some days Huggins would read to them and often she would have to explain the humour to the group.  To her delight they got it and even better enjoyed it.   Once they were done reading the book they didn’t want things to end so they decided to watch the movie. Next, they watched the BBC TV Series which led to them comparing and contrasting the two.  They also had fun answering trivia questions and various other book related activities; and, along the way had some great discussions.

When school shut down due to COVID, the group moved their meetings to Sundays online.  Says Huggins, “Some days we just met for social reasons, but it was okay because we were on lockdown and the class was not required.  But, then the next time I would say we needed to get some work done.”  What  started as a lunchtime book club morphed into a way to maintain social connections.  Eventually, they developed a radio play and just so happened to find the movie script online. They borrowed from the dialogue, deleted scenes, and then started looking for music and sound effects to round out the presentation.

Both Huggins and Reynolds record onto their computers to make sure there’s always a back-up.  Reynolds was taped as director and volunteered to be editor.  He also was cast as the protagonist, and earthling, Arthur Dent.  Ueno plays Ford Prefect who is an experienced galactic hitch-hiker.  They are the only two who only play one character throughout.  The rest of the book club members juggle multiple roles.  Roldan plays the Narrator, Eddie the Computer, and the Petunias.  Martinez voices Zaphod the two-headed President of the galaxy and Arthur’s rival, Prosser, and Frankie Mouse.  Once the meetings became virtual, Martinez’s younger brother Jonathan started hanging out in the same room as Martinez.  He was volunteered to read the parts of Benjy Mouse and the Online Reporter.

Huggins took on the roles of the Guide; the Door; Marvin a, depressed robot; Jeltz; a Vogan; and the Vogan Captain, lover and creator of bad poetry.  When it came time to fill out the rest of the cast, Several teachers and administrators from the district were invited as guest actors and at least one of them was actually hoping to be a part of the project.  Aram Osterlye, Principal of Cobb Elementary School, heard about the radio show from his co-workers and “didn’t want them to get all the glory.”  He was very excited to be invited by Ms. Huggins.  His only regret is that he wishes he had a bigger part.  Lisa Guerrero, the 3rd grade teacher at Minnie Cannon, said she always loved reading to her kids and using voices so she had no reservations about joining in.  However, the same was not true for her husband, Airic, Principal of the Middletown High School.  He was hesitant at first because he’s “not good at that type of stuff.”  He put off looking at the script until the same day he was supposed to record and thought to himself, “Two sentences?  I can do that!”

In the end, Principals from Cobb, Coyote Valley, Minnie Cannon, the middle and high schools, the District Superintendent, Chief Business Officer of the District, the second through sixth grade teachers from Minnie Cannon, and two parents were convinced to take part.  

Ueno said it was exciting during COVID when “guests started coming in from their jobs on their own time to record.”  During one session, after Nikki Sabatier, the middle school Principal finished recording her part, the kids took the opportunity to ask her what they could expect next year when they advance to the 7th grade.  The group had fun with all the guests.  They even elicited a promise from Mr. Lee, the Principal of Cobb Elementary, to come back for their next project. 

My husband and I also had guest parts.  And, some of the funniest moments I’ve witnessed have come from the embarrassment and good natured teasing brought on by the fact that I play Trillian, the love interest to my son’s Arthur Dent.  The opening notes to the 80’s song Careless Whispers, which is the sound effect that comes on when Arthur describes meeting Trillian for the first time, reduces the group to a fit of giggles every time it is played.  I also have to say that it was really wonderful to be able to watch the group interact with and support each other.

Huggins, who is also the President of the Middletown Teachers Association, managed to balance all of the duties that come with the many hats she wears, and the new and ever changing requirements facing teachers right now, while simultaneously uplifting the members of the book club during a very challenging time.

“I got to see not only their enthusiasm, but also their personal growth over this year. It’s been great.  The entire year-long experience has been based in joy. It has been a positive experience with lots of long-term, real enthusiasm for a hobby or interest, and true camaraderie. That might sound normal or pedestrian, but I think it is actually fairly extraordinary. I think it is even more extraordinary in the COVID era. So much joy in our little Book Club.”

And, speaking of personal growth, last month I discovered that all four of the original members are on the Principal’s List, which means, Martinez, Reynolds, Roldan, and Ueno each have a 4.0 grade point average.  I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Recently, Huggins was talking to her current 5th grade class about the Book Club.  Several students asked if they could join, including Esteban Muniz.  What set Muniz apart is that he asked her multiple times over the next FOUR weeks.  His perseverance was rewarded and a few weeks ago he became the newest member of the club.  While the rest of the book club members have moved on to sixth grade and are no longer officially in her class, they are already looking forward to their next project as a group, Sour Ones!, based on the TV show, The Hot Ones. 

Sunday the group finished recording the song from the movie, So Long And Thanks For All The Fish.  They, like so many adult performers, had to figure out how to record a group song and deal with the lag of Zoom.  In the end, it was decided to have each performer listen to the music with headphones and record each voice separately.  Reynolds will then edit the voices to make it sound as if they were all singing together.

Currently, the group is focused on editing and some rerecording of dialogue.  They plan to post their production to YouTube for all to enjoy.  Watch this column for the viewing particulars.

Charise Reynolds

Charise Reynolds has over 30 years experience performing in musical theater in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Lake County. She produced last year's production of "Oklahoma!" Most recently she has turned her endeavors toward producing. She also serves on the board of directors for the Lake County Theatre Company.

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