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.