When things get tough or scary, it’s easy to forget what we are doing, and even why. It’s pretty simple to say “Why bother? This is just too hard,” and, in my case at least, then go eat something loaded with sugar, butter, flour, and chocolate. It’s easier to turn on the TV, surf the internet, to read a book, or to just goof off than it is to really work at getting past the uncomfortable stuff.
I’ve said it before. When I really need lessons, (ok, so that’s most of the time) all I have to do is look at my kids and their peers.
Last night was the school’s Spring Strings’ Concert. In the Winter Concert, all grades (2-8) perform something. The venue is larger, the focus is dispersed across the student body, and the pieces played are typically familiar and cozy.
Everything grows in the spring: plants, kids, and musicianship. For the Spring Concert, the kids have to step up. Only the strings players in grades 4-8 perform, the venue is smaller, the pieces are eclectic, and the 8th graders perform their solos. And, the audience is a bit more critical; parents and grandparents have learned to expect significant growth between winter and spring, and I think the kids realize it.
Change and development occur under pressure, and it’s illustrative for me to watch how these kids respond to that pressure. As anyone who’s read this blog should know by now, our school is not heavily populated with passive, docile, blindly obedient kids. I don’t think it is a coincidence that a curriculum that emphasizes active, engaged learning is going to wind up with a population of active, curious, and questioning students. While these traits will probably benefit the kids in the long run, they make preparation for any sort of focused activity such as a play, concert, or game nerve-wracking for the adults involved. Rehearsals and practices tend to involve a lot of talking, giggling, forgetting (of everything), and general goofing off. For weeks. You can almost measure the time until performance by the lines beneath the teacher or coach’s eyes and the set of his or her shoulders.
Yet, if you ask the kids how things are going, the response is typically, “Fine.” Though, children who are a bit more sensitive to adult aura will generally add that they wish that their classmates would quit goofing around because it’s upsetting the teacher or coach – not because they think it will impact the performance.
The kids know something that the adults forget. They know the difference between practice and the real thing. They know that practice is for building the skills they need, for getting a little bit better each time, for failing, and doing it over. They don’t express it in words, but I think that they know that when the chips are down: when the curtain pulls back, when the whistle blows, when the conductor lifts her bow – they will be ready.
The kids have learned to play through the pains of learning. While their approach can be maddening to watch, I can’t help but think that they may have it right. They know the difference between the small, daily obstacles and failures, and the big moments where results count. I’ve watched six years of plays, concerts, and games with this school, and I’ve noticed the same thing every time. No matter how wound up and scattered they seem right before the performance starts, regardless of the running, shoving, joking, clowning around, as soon as they take their places on the field of battle, whether it be stage or court, something changes.
The kids put on their game faces. The most distractable, goofy, chatterbox of a class clown will metamorphose as soon as he or she picks up a bow, takes a mark on stage, or gets in position for the tip off. At the beginning of this year, we spent most of our Saturdays in a gymnasium in Fair Oaks, watching basketball. During Friday’s concert, I recognized the expressions on several of the girls’ faces as they took up their instruments. Even though their hands held bows instead of a ball, their expression said the same thing. “Ok, it’s game-on. I’m taking this to the net, and nothing is getting in my way.”
As adults, we sometimes lose track of the fact that one can have fun and even make mistakes while still holding an underlying seriousness of purpose. We get so caught up in our small failures, that we forget how to put on our game faces when it really counts. I wonder sometimes if this is an area where we need to quit trying to teach our children and instead to listen to them. Does giving yourself an ulcer during preparations or berating yourself for moments of weakness or failure to make the right choice (every single time) really contribute to the end result? Do stress and anxiety actually indicate greater meaning and purpose, or do they just prevent us from seeing the fun in the process?
I don’t know the answer, but I wonder. What would happen if we learned to shrug off the smaller failures, to go play, and to come back with our game faces on, saying to ourselves, “This is what I’m going to do. Nothing is going to get in my way.”