Friday, February 6, 2009

Is an Opportunity an Opportunity? The Hell of High School Politics

While this is non-fiction, it is also fiction. Everything is fiction. Read with caution.

How much of where we end up and who we are has to do with ability and skill, and how much has to do with encouragement and opportunity? It sort of all, somehow, goes back to (and with a strange twist on) the age-old question nature v. nurture. I wonder whether it was a gift that I ended up growing up in a wealthy suburb like East Amherst or if it was just a mixed bag of privileges and hindrances. In one respect, receiving a lot of encouragement and praise (for talent or skill in any area)is healthy and beneficial. But, in another respect - perhaps if it goes too far, praise can lead to a distorted self-image. It's so hard to be balanced. You want to encourage kids to build their self-confidence, but you don't want them to become so confident that they think they are superior to others by virtue of their ability (or, goddesses forbid, that they think that their self-worth is tied up in their talents, looks, abilities). Praise is helpful. Better to err on the side of too much praise than not enough, I suppose. Consider, however, that hundreds of thousands of people show up to audition for American Idol thinking that they are talented singers. Many of the not-so-talented people who show up are seriously deluded into thinking that they are tremendously talented; it is not their fault, entirely, but rather the faults of those who either create or keep alive the delusions. Then, you can also run into the moderately (or even extremely) talented person who thinks they are God by virtue of their ability and status. That pisses me off so much more than the poor delusions held by the non-talented.

My poor mother was born with moderately talented and somewhat shy kids; luckily her praise of us (which was endless and over-arching) didn't go to our heads to the point of deluding us. She still insists I sound exactly like Judy Garland, even though any sane and non-related person would recognize that I do not sound, at all, like the Great Judy Garland. How can anyone stay sane growing up with all the messages that others put out there about what we are and what we should be. I become "Jessica, the singer" and my sister becomes "Melissa, the athlete." And with those identifications, we might have a hard time finding out that we are MORE than that.

I, for instance, had a hard time. I grew up being the one in the family who performed - singing, acting, dancing - and who wasn't very good in school (a c+/b- average student until my Junior year, when my sexual awakening was also my intellectual awakening). My sister was the one in the family who excelled in athletics and academics. As I grew older, I struggled with that identification. I liked some aspects of it, but then felt limited. If I wasn't the BEST (in the world, or in my school) at my assigned talent, then what? What was I good for? During my junior year of high school, I became seriously interested in reading and writing for the first time. The English teacher I had at the time did not know me or my "talents," and I had a blank slate to work with. I could "be" whoever or whatever I wanted. I wasn't the "best" at it, but I enjoyed it. She (the English teacher) noted that interest and encouraged me. So, with her encouragement, I was able to and was brave enough to take an AP level English course (it was an after school program, ending with the AP exam). Before then, I never thought I was smart enough to take an AP class. It was the start of my liberation to become whatever I wanted and it was also the start of my advanced learning process. It was a very tumultuous time in my life, because I was re-vamping and expanding my self-image. I wasn't confident and I wasn't prepared, but it was a starting point. I struggled with the material despite working hard, and I failed the AP exam at the end of the year. But it was still a monumental experience because it was the first time anyone ever saw something other than musical and theatrical talent in me. My sister passed through her AP classes with ease, not necessarily because she was smarter but because her learning process had begun so much earlier (mine had been stunted by a lack of self-confidence). I think I gave up on school from the start. When I didn't do well from the start (I had to go to special reading classes at Heritage Heights Elementary School in Amherst, NY), I interpreted it as a flaw in me that I would never be able to overcome. It was WHO I was. So I turned to areas where I felt more confident - singing and dancing (I was never totally confident with those either, but certainly more than with anything else). A love and talent with musical theatre was part of me, but not all of me. I think that's something my mother has had a hard time coming to terms with. I'm sure she has her roles that she struggles with, especially having had her mother, Mel, confine her to the familial roles of "the pretty one" and "the most loving one."

I grew up hearing, "you can become whatever you want to be" in school. That's nice to believe, but it isn't always true. It depends on opportunity and encouragement, as well as on other factors. When I moved to Williamsville in third grade, I gained opportunities that I wouldn't have had had we lived in Buffalo. The point is that money and prestige matter. If every student had the same opportunity to take private musical or athletic (or academic) lessons the playing field would be more -but not totally- equal. Whenever I think of the "most talented" kids in school, I also think about all of the opportunities to fine tune their skill that they likely had to earn that status. It's so important that teachers encourage all of their students, especially those who are showing a sincere interest in a given area. That is not to say that they will excel in their area of interest; it will just mean that they had a chance to do so.

I started thinking about this after talking to my mother on the phone today. She was fuming over some drama (life drama, not theater drama) that she is embroiled in at Williamsville East High School. My brother Joey is a drummer. He enjoys drumming. And my parents have been very happy to assign him the role as "drummer" and "musician." I think Joey does have a sincere interest in drumming, but I know that drumming is not all there is to Joey. He's said he enjoys playing the guitar better than playing the drums but that he is good at the drums. He is a sophomore at East and plays in the Concert Band. He was not asked to be in the infamous "Wind Ensemble," led by Stuart Shoo Win, and he felt bad about that (apparently fifty students are selected privately - based on Shoo Win's "expert" opinion - and receive the "whisper" in their ears if they are chosen). Joey has felt like Shoo Win doesn't like him from the start. I felt that way with Maura Hallen when I was a high school student (she's not Hallen anymore, but I'll just stick with that name - it's fake anyway). I was a very talented singer and performer but I had a difficult time reading music. In the end, the inability (which may have been due to a true disability?) to read music didn't hurt my performance...I learned it by ear and memorized it. I did the best I could with what I had and with my interests. I'm sure there are lots of people who can read music but whose voices and performances aren't on par with their reading abilities.

So, Joey wasn't invited to be in Wind Ensemble. He felt bad about it. He felt angry. He felt like Shoo Win just chose his favorites - the ones he values and the ones who fit in with his image. He didn't give Joey a chance to be in the Wind Ensemble. Joey not only felt bad, but also felt angry because he thinks he is talented enough to be in the band (even if he has not yet mastered reading music and does not compose jazz and classical pieces...he's a rocker and writes punk-rock songs when he plays with his friends in the basement). So, after talking to my parents, Joey decided to ask Shoo Win to allow him to audition. Shoo Win allowed him to audition. And then Joey did not make it. (I am still wondering why a general audition was not held and why the Wind Ensemble is privately selected - elitism, err.)

My parents are so mad. They are ready to have a meeting with Stuart Shoo Win and the principal of the school. They are ready to make tapes of Joey playing to present at the meeting - in order to say "you are telling me this kid is not talented enough to be in the Wind Ensemble???" - and they are ready to tear his face off. Oh, I hope they don't do that. They tend to get a bit (just a bit, a wee bit) over-protective and go overboard when an injustice is done to one of their children. Wayyyy overboard. My mother said, "I feel like telling Stuart that we all know he is gay and want him to come out." I said, "No, Mom. No, no, no. You are missing the point. Stick to the injustice at hand." Oh my mother. She's intense, what can I say. How funny that she wants to use homosexuality as a misplaced violent insult, and she tells her LESBIAN daughter this.

I got all worked up this afternoon, when my mother divulged something surprising to me. When I was a senior and about to graduate, she found out that some music students (Shoo Win's favorites) were chosen to perform at graduation. She got pissed and called Stuart to ask why I hadn't been invited to sing. I don't know the nature of their conversation, but she told me, today, that he said: "Well, Mrs. Mason, Jessica does not have the caliber of talent of someone like Dave DeCarlo." His name isn't Dave DeCarlo, but I changed it - like I changed the others - out of, err, sensitivity (coercion by my father, ahem). Dave was (and is) a tremendously talented saxophonist. He was in love with me during high school. I think he even confided in Shoo Win after I had come out of the closet as a lesbian (he was dealing with accepting that we wouldn't be together AND that I loved a woman). I don't think Shoo Win had very nice things to say about me then - and that was separate from his insult to my talent. So the message to my mother was that only the extraordinarily talented students (chosen by him) would be chosen to perform at graduation. Well, to my mother (and maybe others?), I was an extraordinary performer - for a high school kid, anyway. What is most disturbing, though, is that one person can have so much power over things. No division of power. Or, if there is a division, it is limited to people who are "alike."

I did get to sing with a group of other students. I'm glad we got to sing. But then what about the Science Olympiads and all the other sects at school--will they get to be represented at graduation? Maybe an audition should have been held for graduation "performances" in which a panel of randomly selected judges would serve. It's hard to be fair. Okay, it's impossible. But when you are made aware of how you have been a part of something unfair that has hurt someone else, I think it's important to (a.) acknowledge the unfairness and (b.) try to make it right, if possible (or at least try to change the situation so that in in the future it will be less unfair). Focus on what the other party is feeling, and try to connect with those feelings. Now forgive me, but I must go preachy for a moment: If you made someone feel rejected or overlooked, why not try to be sensitive to her or his feelings and try to see what the limits of your perception may have prevented you from seeing. If Joey is really not good enough for Wind Ensemble, then he will probably want to quit, anyway. Would giving him a chance be such a bad thing? If my high school English teacher hadn't given me a chance to take the AP course, maybe I wouldn't have been Departmental Scholar of the English Department at Western Illinois University four years later. Then again, maybe I would have found my way regardless of whether or not I received outside encouragement. Having some encouragement made it a heck of a lot easier, though.

Now Joey is going to quit Concert Band. He feels embarrassed and disenfranchised. After having the courage to ask Stuart Shoo Win for an audition, he was still rejected. I hope that, in the long run, what he takes away from the situation is not the rejection itself (people will love you or hate you - to hell with them if they don't see in you what you see in yourself) but rather the strength of character and courage to speak up and to move forward. Joey has lots of options. If he wants to be a punk rocker who occasionally plays jazz, then more power to him. If he wants to play in grungy bars in the city instead of in uptight jazz clubs and glorified high school auditoriums for the rich kids of suburbia, then more power to him.

I just hope that he can see that what makes him special is not what Shoo Win or my parents or anybody else thinks; what makes him special is that he is Joey. It's in his essence and his character. Joey is one of the most sincere, gentle and loving people I know (I am trying to describe him with adjectives). If he works in a garbage dump and he's happy, I'm still going to think he's amazing. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what the Shoo Wins of America think. We're all going to the same place, anyway - the ground. Although, based on the guy's lyrics, he believes he and a few other Chosen Ones will be floating up to see God in The Heavens. So, to Joey -and to you- I say: use your experiences for good, let them empower you, get mad if you have to, but - ultimately - focus on being you and appreciating you. Some of us can afford to buy opportunities, others of us can't. Some of us will succeed (in being happy) despite our lack of opportunities and others of us will fail (at being happy) despite our many opportunities. Some of us will be victims. And some of us will survive through our strength of character. Like my little brother.

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