Contributed photo — Young magicians from JR Russell’s summer program work their magic to make someone levitate.

Whidbey magician pulls life lessons out of the hat

When school lets out on Wednesday afternoons this fall, some South Whidbey students will swap their pencils and textbooks for wands and magic props.

If you ask magician JR Russell, the kids won’t simply be picking up their next potential hobby. They’ll be using magic as a learning tool, picking up valuable life lessons while they learn to baffle audiences with card tricks and mind games.

“We try to teach life skills by disguising it as magic,” Russell said. “Basically, kids nowadays are so tied into their iPads and TVs, they’ve become ‘screenagers.’ This is a chance for kids to step out of that, communicate with others and build the confidence it takes to perform in front of people.”

Russell, an Oak Harbor-based magician and Seattle Magician of the Year in 2012, will unleash his spells on the next crop of Whidbey magicians next Wednesday through the Become a Magician! after school program. Hosted by South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District, the club aims to use magic as a learning tool to foster self-belief and respect for others while teaching kids tricks and illusions.

The program, geared toward beginners aged eight to 12, meets from 3:45 to 5:15 p.m. every Wednesday from Sept. 27 to Nov. 29, except Nov. 22. Russell meets with his pupils in room 125 at the parks district’s office on Maxwelton Road. Registration costs $110, with an additional $50 fee for custom magic props, “secret files” for young magicians, a t-shirt and secret video links to magic tricks.

Although a magician never reveals his secrets, Russell says kids can expect to pick up skills such as coin magic, card magic and mind reading.

“It’s always all about the magic tricks for the kids, and they go home with a lot to show their parents and friends,” Carrie Monforte, program coordinator for the parks district, said. “But through the process of teaching those tricks, he’s also teaching other attributes like poise and confidence. Those are, naturally, a side effect of his teaching.”

Russell, a retired U.S. Navy captain who turned to his childhood passion after hanging up his fighter pilot helmet, says magic is an ideal medium through which to teach children valuable life skills. Russell designed an eight-lesson course that spans multiple magic tricks to keep the kids enthusiastic, but in the process he manages to slip in coinciding lessons on people skills. As a performance art, magic requires confidence to stand in front of a crowd, as well as manners and respect from the audience perspective, he says.

Russell covers traits such as humility, creativity, preparedness, respect, enthusiasm and more. The club lessons are designed so each young magician performs in front of a group of about 10 classmates, that way they can comfortably go home and try their tricks on their parents. It also provides an opportune time to learn about being a respectful audience, Russell says.

“The classic thing kids will say is ‘I know how to do that,’” Russell said. “So I teach them that’s not respectful, and ask them how they feel when someone says they know how to do their trick. It doesn’t make them feel good, of course.”

Most important for Russell is to make sure the young magicians overcome their fear of performing publicly. He encourages his pupils to try impromptu tricks outside of the club at local cafes and parks once they feel they’re ready.

Through the process of shouting “abracadabra,” kids can grow into their own. It’s part of the reason why his favorite to work with are the young magicians.

“My favorite shows and lessons are with the kids, because they’re always genuine,” Russell said. “They always teach me a thing or two by adding a kid element to what we’re doing. I always walk away thinking, ‘Wow, look what this 7-year-old showed me.’ And I just love that.”

Contributed photo — Oak Harbor-based magician JR Russell, front left, teaches his pupils entry level tricks and illusions while coaching them on valuable life skills.

Contributed photo — Russell, the Seattle Musician of the Year in 2012, performs in front of Hillcrest Elementary School students.