Teaching With Dummies

Hometown Heroes, People
on March 18, 2007
The way children respond to his puppet performances is "magic," Daniels says.

Educator Dennis Daniels delivers some of his most inspiring lessons to children without ever seeming to open his mouth—as a ventriloquist.

When he’s not working as the dean of students at Hope Academy Charter School in Asbury Park, N.J. (pop. 16,930), Daniels performs at fairs, festivals and other schools, playfully encouraging kids to believe in themselves and respect others.

“I want them to smile and laugh, but I also want them to learn something,” says Daniels, 46, whose entertainment always presents a positive message.

Daniels and his cast of “dummy” characters lightheartedly help kids understand and appreciate people’s racial, cultural and age-based differences. Old Mac, a puppet resembling a very old man, habitually falls asleep in mid-sentence, and kids delight in waking him up. But Mac also can become an unexpected font of wisdom.

Daniels recalls a little boy asking the character, “Why are my grandparents always touching me, grabbing my cheeks and hair? It makes me feel weird.” Old Mac replied, “It’s because they love you and they aren’t going to see you very long, so they want to touch you as much as they can.”

“The kid hesitated for a moment, then said, ‘You know what? I’m going to go home and hug my grandma.’”

“What Dennis does with kids is magic,” says Colleen DeGeorge, a licensed social worker from Middleton, N.J., who’s worked with Daniels in psychiatric facilities for children and adolescents. “I’ve seen tough teens downplay his act as silly, but then get caught up in it. One little boy was mute and extremely withdrawn until he started interacting with the puppets.”

Daniels became captivated by the art as a teenager watching legendary ventriloquist Paul Winchell on television. Seven years ago, he custom-ordered his first dummy and began working ventriloquism into his teaching.

When he introduces his 42-inch-tall characters, he quickly tells children that he’s the one doing the talking and then explains his vocal sleight of hand, since many kids aren’t familiar with ventriloquism.

“Some of them freak out a little bit,” he says. “The first thing I tell them is that I’m not trying to trick them. The dolls are not alive. It’s me doing all the talking. Once I do that, they just relax and enjoy the puppets.”

If a rambunctious kid tries to grab, poke or taunt one of this puppet troupe, he lets the character handle it and finds the kids often correct themselves. Daniels recalls one little girl who kept calling his puppet Carmen “ugly” and “a dummy.”

“Carmen said to her, ‘I just met you. Why would you want to do that to me?’ and the girl stopped, regrouped and began apologizing,” he says.

A former counselor who has worked extensively with handicapped students, Daniels believes his talent is God-given and enables him to touch children’s hearts. It’s a gift that he calls on every day on the job at Hope Academy, a public kindergarten through eighth-grade school that emphasizes mentoring and character education.

“He is a very special person, and we feel very privileged to have him on our staff,” says Peter Cheney, the school’s co-director.

Four years ago during Daniels’ job interview, Cheney invited him to demonstrate his ventriloquism skills. “He did a 10-minute presentation to our fifth-grade class on understanding older people,” Cheney recalls. “Old Mac talked about what it was like to get old. When he finished, most of them were in tears.”

Seeing the children absorb such life lessons is humbling for Daniels. “I’m always amazed at how kids respond to puppets,” he says. “It’s a magic that surprises me to this day.”