Respecting wrong notes on the way to success

by Kristin on April 26, 2012

in Love, family & community

Photo by J. Berg

“Today was sort of depressing,” S, my sixth grader said while settling herself in the car after school.

She and about 40 other students, who had for months been working on a production of the musical Oklahoma!, had given their final performances—at two school assemblies.

“The sixth and seventh graders were mostly respectful, but the eighth graders laughed at us,” S said.

Can I just pause, here, and say that parenting middle schoolers is at once amazingly fun and horribly heart-wrenching? And my middle schoolers have experienced relatively few incidents like this. They are generally happy, have good friends, and even look about 20 times better than I did at their age. But that doesn’t change the fact that 12-14-year-olds are inwardly awkward, uncomfortable, and unsure, which has a way of translating to behaviors like rudeness, cruelty, and “group think.”

As S talked about how hard she and the other cast members had worked, and how it felt to be disrespected, I got the feeling I was in an after-school special, but someone had forgotten to give me the right mom-lines to speak into her frustration. I listened, hugged her, and pulled out the bag of Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips. “It’s hard—but so very important—to be who you are,” I told her.

All greatness has to start somewhere

Later, as I was sharing with Jason what had happened, he pointed out how all those “cool kids” who were laughing—I’m guessing mostly tough boys and jocks—worship movies and music, and the actors and singers who have “made it.” And it occurred to me that nearly every one of those famous performers started in amateur school productions of Oklahoma! or The Music Man. We all have to start somewhere.

Thankfully this experience won’t dissuade my daughter, who loves acting and singing, and has dreams of “making it” that aren’t completely far-fetched. But I’m sure some of her fellow cast members won’t be in another play, even if they really enjoyed the community and the process.

I felt a deep sense of sadness and loss in that. How often are passions squelched and possibilities cut short? How often do we end up abandoning deep-seeded dreams and instead take the safe route—the one that doesn’t draw attention or cruel laughter?

As a culture, we love the stars—their talent, their expressiveness, their ability to step outside of ourselves and invite us to do the same. We love the fame and success, but we don’t love the journey that gets people there. We don’t respect the wrong notes, the rejection letters, the awkward forays out onto the wrong limbs. Most of all, as a culture, we don’t admire people who are different—the ones who get up on stage at the school musical and sing their hearts out, not because it’s cool but because it’s the only thing that feels close to right in their 13-year-old hearts.

How can we begin to change this harmful perspective? When will we recognize and respect the less-than-picturesque journey that leads to innovation, creative genius, and success? And most importantly, when, as a culture, will we admire people who are in the journey—in the process of striving for something big and grand, even if it seems absurd, highly unlikely? We owe this to one another, to our kids, and to our culture.

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  • Paul VanderKlay

    The idea of the reflected self has been a major pondering stone for me for the last number of months. It’s a nice avenue into understanding person, maturity, self, which I think is the best correction to the gnostic “soul” which is disconnected from our real stories. We can’t see ourselves except through others and in Jr. High the shirt starts of less reliance on parents as mirrors and more on peers. poor kids.

    Nothing like a stage at that age to create a powerful mirroring environment. Those on the stage trying out a voice, others learning the cruel power of mockery, the power invited all of us hungry to view a favorable reflection.

    Thanks for sharing the episode. pvk

  • Paul VanderKlay

    “the shift starts”

  • Kristy

    Good thoughts! I’ve been mulling over this quote lately – which seems related:

    “Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.” (Henry Van Dyke)

  • The Modern Gal

    Oh, I just want to hug S. As adults, we know that those who are laugh are also the ones who inevitably grow so little over time, but how can you tell a middle schooler that? The world is way more black and white to them.

    I think the lack of respect always comes back to insecurity. We are all insecure. We belittle others to make ourselves feel better. Deep down we know that people who put themselves out there are doing something that many of us are too fearful to do. I think simple acts of support for people who put themselves out there tend to inspire other acts of support. Bravery can eventually catch on.

  • Jen

    Dear and lovely S. we are so proud of her and her tenacity and for following her self. I love that kid. I wrote some pretty terrible poems as a teen. I an thanking my stars no one has to experience the torture that was, “Deat March on the City of Love.” That said, haters gonna hate. Some parts of society elevate homogeneity above all. (sports/ cheer). Sadly, they are missing out on so much. I think that the more types of things our kids can try, the more they know who they are. There are many levels here, so I will shut it now.

  • sarah louise

    But if not for the journey, no one would get to be Clark Gable. I felt like you were of two minds in this post…one saying, BE NICE TO MY KID, and the other saying, hard stuff is part of how we get to where we are going. Both are important messages.

    Thanks for this post. And give S. a cupcake from me.


  • ed cyzewski

    This is such an important lesson, even if it’s really hard to learn. Worthwhile creative work comes with so many moments like this. The good part is that the struggles usually come one at a time, so we have time to deal with each new challenge as it comes, and then we’ll start to build on our successes, even if they are hard won. The “hard” part never changes.

  • suzannah {so much shouting, so much laughter}

    you are so right–we laud results and dishonor the process. we prefer to think of success as lucky or overnight, and we don’t value hard work–or acknowledge that failure, too, is part of learning and eventual success.

    you always make me think. thanks for asking good questions.

  • Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams

    Oh, I want to hug that girl. So proud of her and the other cast members for getting up there and acting/singing anyway. (And Ghirardelli chocolate chips are a good antidote to pain.) :)

    Seriously – you are so right. We ignore, dishonor or minimize the process, while exalting the results. Somehow, this has to change. But how?

  • Heather

    Such good thoughts for me to think about, even as a thirty-something, in my journey of experimentation and writing and art.

  • Angie Mabry-Nauta

    Ugh, Kristen…my heart ached as I read. I just wanna hug your beautiful child. Instead, I’ll give huge kudos to you for your huge heart for your middle schooler and the angst that she experiences. Hang in there, Mama!

  • Kristin T.

    Paul, the “reflected self”—yes, that’s what this is about! I love it when someone else can see the even bigger picture in my stories. This gives me much to ponder, too: “It’s a nice avenue into understanding person, maturity, self, which I think is the best correction to the gnostic ‘soul’ which is disconnected from our real stories.” Thank you.

    Kristy, that’s a good way to look at talent. To take that bird-song metaphor a bit further, who is to even say which bird sings “the best?” It’s the rich variety, the uniqueness, and the true expression of the “songs” we were created to share that matters.

    The Modern Gal, I suspect this is very true (but now I’m stuck trying to figure out exactly *why*): “…those who are laugh are also the ones who inevitably grow so little over time.” I’m beginning to realize how important it is to support people who “put themselves out there” in various ways, and I love the idea of bravery “catching on.”

    Jen, yeah, it’s easier to hide those horrible middle school poems from the laughter than it is to hide when you’re on stage in front of the whole school, isn’t it? But I also didn’t really start growing as a writer until I got brave enough to start sharing what I wrote with others. Anyway, you’re exactly right about parts of society valuing homogeneity above all else. Raising kids who don’t want the world to be that way is one of our greatest, most important challenges as parents.

    sarah louise, I was going to say I didn’t feel like I was of two minds in this post—that I landed clearly on the “we need to respect one another’s journeys” message—but then I realized that I’m probably *always* of two minds when I write/think about these things related to my kids. One mind is always going to be the mama-mind that finds it impossible to look at anything objectively.

  • Shawn Smucker

    Beautiful post, Kristin. Reminds me to respect my own writing journey as well: the successes and the wrong notes.

  • Kristin T.

    ed, you sure got that “good part” right! Little by little we grow, realizing that things like embarrassment don’t kill us along the way. Those are important fork-in-the-road moments, forcing us to step back and consider/commit to who we really are and want to be.

    suzannah, I wonder how we can start to shift the focus of these stories? Our culture seems hungry for information about how much money a star makes, or how big their house is, but we hear so much less about the failures and doubts along the road to success (at least when it comes to actors and musicians—I feel like writers often talk about how many rejection letters they received before getting one that said YES).

    Katie, it seems like we all need to somehow become more comfortable with difference and imperfection, in general. I do worry that our kids, especially, expect life to be as photo-shopped, edited and perfected as their digital images and YouTube videos. They are always in the process of curating what is worthy of putting out there into the world.

    Heather, yes! Once again, I’m learning something important via my kids. I definitely don’t take as many creative risks as I should.

    Angie, thank you. It’s good to hear from other mamas-of-adolescents—we need all the moral support we can get, right? :)

    Shawn, as I was thinking more about the “wrong notes,” I thought of my daughter’s voice lessons as an extension of the analogy. Her teacher has her work on some songs that are a bit out of her ideal range. It’s tempting, for sure, to only sing in the range where we know we sound best, but if we do that we’ll never grow. (This also makes me think of something Ann Voskamp said at the Festival of Faith & Writing: “Do something every day that terrifies you.”)