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Stage fright

by Barry L. Levy

My daughter’s class is performing later this week.  She’s terrified.  And by terrified, I mean she involuntarily shakes, refusing to perform and unable to discuss.  There isn’t going to be a punch line to this paragraph.  There really is nothing more tragic in life than a parent’s inability to comfort their child.

Yesterday afternoon, upon learning of her stage fright, my wife asked me to talk to my daughter about this.  More specifically, the teacher asked her to ask me to talk to her.  See, my daughter and I have always been especially close.  There is actually an incredibly cute aside with respect to this.  As the teacher attempted to coax a performance out of my girl, the teacher pointed out what a wonderful smile she has.  And what does my girl say…?

“My Daddy always says that.”

Kind of made my day.  I really can’t explain why we’re so close.  I just know that when the “fit-hits-the-shan,” I’m her go-to.  And that feels pretty awesome.  Most of the time.

Yesterday, though I was stumped.

I’ve always been one to believe that I grew up in a different world from her.  I was a boy, whose challenges at age five primarily involved figuring out an effective strategy to the neighborhood game of choice “Kill the Man with the Ball.”  The title is rather ambiguous.  Essentially the game boiled down to throwing a football up into the air.  Trying to catch it.  Then everyone who wasn’t fortunate enough to catch it had to run after the one kid who did until we, well… killed the man with the ball.  Confusing, right?  (In my defense: even at the time, I struggled to understand why I would ever want to catch the ball).

More to the point: I grew up an only child.  I didn’t have an identical twin in my life whose existence essentially creates a neonatal existential crisis.  My girls are the best of friends, quick to the defense of the other… always considering and considerate of the other’s feelings (unless they’re fighting like sibs).

And so when my daughter looks across the rehearsal space and sees her twin confidently performing… I can’t imagine how she reconciles her own fear in the context of some sort of innate expectation that she’s supposed to be okay with this.  Even though she’s not.  She is only five, after all.

My heart bleeds for her.  I want, so desperately, to help.  I want to give her the “Win one for the Gipper!” speech.  I want to read from Seuss’ “Oh! the Places you’ll go!” about how we must all face up to our challenges, whatever they are.  Only, I don’t really think either of these may quite cut it.

And the thing is, I never really struggled with any sort of paralyzing stage fright.  In hindsight, perhaps a little performance anxiety might have done me some good.  Maybe I wouldn’t have agreed to play Rizzo at my all-boys sports camp’s performance of “Grease.”  I was 11.  In wig and mini-skirt.  I really don’t need that memory.

Nor do I need the memory of performing “Antigone” in front of my ninth grade’s “Western Civilization” class.  I had just moved from Boston to Ann Arbor.  I brought with me my pubescent acne, embarrassing ‘80s hair and a thick “Bahstin” accent.

Performing anything shouldn’t have been on my list at all.  Especially in the conformist Yuppie era.  Had I avoided such things, I never would’ve frozen there on stage.  I never would’ve paused, felt the blood rush from my cheeks as I forgot my line.  My character’s name.  Hell, even my own name.

Instead, I turned and walked off stage.  Leaving the other actor slack jawed.  Alone.  Without anyone to improvise with.

Sufficed to say, ninth grade wasn’t the easiest of times and a little more stage fright might’ve done me good.  Except, I can’t exactly explain to my five year old how she should just lay low and hang back.  Sort of goes against the life lesson here.

And telling her of my failings on stage might humanize me, but they likely won’t help her overcome this fear.

So all yesterday afternoon I struggled, unsure of what to say.

My wish for her, and frankly for all of my kids, is that moments such as these help shape their character.  In my mind, there is no greater skill I can help impart than resilience.  Life knocks even the best of us down — whether it’s coming face to face with your worst nightmares or being tasked with dressing up as high school slut and singing in falsetto — how we get back up is all that matters.

Fear is entirely legitimate.  All animals experience it.  There’s nothing to be ashamed of.  But it should never govern our decisions.  The challenge really then is how do I deliver that message without confounding her with other things.

Let’s be honest, how many times did our parents’ delivery of their message trump the message itself?

My mother was the only girl in a family of four kids.  Her father wished that his three boys followed in his footsteps and entered the sciences.  Only as life so often does, it turns such things upside down: My mother became the one scientist of the bunch.

I have no such wishes for my kids, other than for them to live happy, healthy lives.  I realize that no one escapes childhood without a few scars.  This may well become one of hers.  Obviously, I hope she rebounds.  Stands up tall and performs.  But if she can’t, then it would be my wish that she learns that what happens next is all that really matters.  Getting knocked down is only half the story, how we get back up is the rest.

And I know this to be the case because as I sat on the couch last night beside her trying to come up with just the right words… she came to it herself.

Credit Hermann Hesse.  Well, not really.  Credit Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2.  Because last night as she sat and watched the little puppies express their fear and then heard the daddy dog step in and give my own “sage” advice… the light bulb went off.

Would I have rather that she discovered meaning to life from Siddhartha?  Maybe.  But wherever she got it… at this point, if it brings us another step closer to her facing her fear, then so be it.  I’ll take it.

After all, I’m the genius who actually… had nothing to do with this.

Which perhaps is the greatest lesson in all of this.  I am super close to my daughter.  I’m beyond touched that those close to me were counting on me to step in.  I’m also beyond relieved that the message was received without my having to step in.

But now I’m also reminded of the words of John Lennon:  “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Barry L. Levy

About Barry L. Levy

Barry Levy is a husband. A father. A writer. His "credits" include Noa, Jordan, Ben. His writing credits include Vantage Point & Paranoia. Follow him on Twitter @barryllevy

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