No One Will Be Turned Away For Lack of Talent
The joy in watching children perform
A little girl with her hair in braided ponytails walks on stage from behind the curtain. She is wearing a very colorful dress with equally colorful leggings, and her sneakers look a couple sizes too big. She is cartoonishly skinny, like she might snap in pieces if she’s jostled too hard. But she steps up to the microphone with confidence beyond her size and looks at the teacher in charge of the show who then presses play on the boombox. The young performer starts out slowly and softly and then, pow-wee! She finds her voice.
“THIS GIRL IS ON FIIII-IIIIIRE!” she belts out and my breath catches in my chest. The audience in the small auditorium goes crazy, whooping and clapping right in the middle of her song. She isn’t on pitch for every note, but she is close, people. She is close! And her confidence and passion fill the elementary school auditorium.
Most people enjoy a great concert, watching professionals display talent they have honed for years. This little girl is reminding me how much I love watching children perform random skills they’ve only recently started practicing. I don’t care if it’s the hand jive or a backflip dismount, when a child performs what they’ve been working on for months, I am moved. When the stage is full of children in pieced together, almost-but-not-quite matching outfits, I’m a goner. My cheeks are going to be sore from smiling and my voice is going to be hoarse from cheering.
Even if you’ve never been to a live children’s performance, you’ve seen highlights on America’s Funniest Home Videos or viral videos online. Those hilarious mishaps and breakthroughs of secret talent are a big draw. But, like a live concert or event, there are plenty of emotional moments which don’t translate to film. These moments are hidden in between microphone feedback, off-key singing, and lackluster choreography and perhaps this treasure hunt aspect of the experiences is what endears me to them.
I love the emotional roller coaster of wincing through an off-key rendition of Adele karaoke and then sitting up straight in surprise as a wisp of a boy nails a round-off back handspring. The grab bag of defeats and victories is dizzying. With every new child walking on stage you wonder, is it going to be horrible? Is it going to be incredible? No one knows. What a time to be alive!
There’s also something about the children’s innocence that moves me, their lack of awareness around how they compare to other performers. I’m so envious of how they perform without remotely caring what anyone thinks.
I’ve seen my own kids in hundreds of sports competitions, performances, and shows and I get emotional every time. Just last night, at my son’s high school variety theater show, I was moved by a few of the acts. It got me wondering why. One thing’s for sure, I’m not moved by the students’ mastery of the material! Last night we saw a wide, wide range of talent on display. Let me put it this way: I don’t think any cuts were made during auditions. Ahem.
Soon my children will be too old to perform in public — a tragedy! As adults they’ll be successful at many things, I have no doubt. When my daughter got her first job at the hardware store I was so excited and proud that I stopped by to film her working. Once she realized what I was doing she growled at me through clenched teeth,
“This isn’t a show! It’s a job!”
Well, yes. I thought. But I am your biggest fan and this is a major accomplishment. I want to capture this experience and sell t-shirts! To regular people, she is just another minimum wage worker in a red vest. But to me, she’s just leveled up in the game of life. It’s a huge moment for her, selling hardware to these strangers. So, please excuse my goofy smile as I stalk her in the aisles for a minute.
She was right about my filming her, of course, so I left the store swiftly, camera off. Most jobs aren’t performed for public consumption. There’s something about sliding down the slope of life into adulthood that changes the trajectory of a person’s public performance life. We all eventually find ourselves grown and out in the real world where a large portion of our time is spent earning money in the relative privacy of an office; and where the next thing we know, we have lost the drive to practice our hobbies at all. Instead of playing softball with our friends, all we want to do after work is have a drink and watch Jeopardy.
Maybe I’m moved watching children, and not only my own, perform because their motivation is so pure. They are just tap dancing, telling jokes, and doing flips as best they can without a thought to how much money they are (not) earning or what feedback their boss will give. They don’t look around comparing themselves to one another. What a revelation!
The children look out to the crowd and see us smiling and clapping, and they feel encouraged and proud. Even if they don’t exactly understand why, they have made the adults in the audience happy. It’s a perfect trade.
Entertain us, children! Dance and sing! Even if you have no talent, we want to see you try. Take us to a place where you are the brightest star in your own sky; where no one is judging your performance because we are enjoying it too much. Take us away from our relentless inner critics for a while. Wear fun costumes and sing like it’s your job!