The fear. It’s inside us. It infiltrates into our hearts, our minds and our bodies. It quashes our creativity and it extinguishes our fire. Sometimes, we never reignite that fire. The fear can develop over tens of years, or it can sneak into our minds in a matter of seconds. The fear can get out of control; it can run away with our very being and threaten our entire purpose and existence. But where does the fear come from? Are we in a perpetuating circle of the fear? Does the fear come from within, and yet to get beyond the fear we need to fight from within? The fear is real. The fear is an illness. The fear leaks into everything we do, and everywhere we go. The fear is in the unknown and yet also in the familiar. ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’.
I’m 11 years old. I’m crowded into a classroom in my secondary school’s music department. The auditions for the school musical are taking place. I’m auditioning to be in the show choir. I’m not outgoing or extrovert at school. In fact I am quite the opposite. Yet I am compelled to sing, to write music and to play instruments. I’m passionate about music, writing and performing. That’s all I want to do – I want to write stories, write songs, sing my songs and let the world hear my music. So that’s what brought me to this dingy, grey, threating space of a classroom with a big bunch of teenagers, mostly older than myself. I have several friends with me, who also decided to audition too.
As an 11 year old, I’m not very confident. When I sing, I feel nervous but I feel free, liberated and excited, because I know it’s something that not just anybody can do. I love that I have the gift to sing. I want to sing all the time. The few people who have heard me sing tell me I am good at it, and that strengthens my confidence that I can actually do something of worth. Something where the bullies can’t tell me I’m rubbish. Something where it doesn’t matter that I can’t catch a ball very well, or read out loud without shaking. Something that doesn’t make me a ‘goody two shoes’ or a ‘swat’. Something just a little bit cool.
The teacher tells us we are going to sing the song all together as a group. He will come round the room, listening closely to us and give us a tap on the shoulder if we need to go into the next group. The next group is the next round of auditions. I really want to be in that group. I know I’m good enough to be in that group. I don’t think the music teacher likes me very much. He doesn’t say much to me, and I don’t say much to him. I’m not sure why. The other music teacher, the one I like isn’t running the auditions. She is creative, and she pays attention to the quiet students who might be hiding their talents somewhere. She is one in a million. And later, she will come to be the reason that I begin to sing again in front of people, the reason I stop feeling like such a nobody for a while.
The music starts. I inhale a shaky breath and let it out slowly. My confidence jumps out of somewhere and I join in with the other singers in the opening few bars. I am strong, I am loud and I sing with pride. I feel my voice forming the phrases and relish in the fact that I can do this. I am strong! I can’t feel the fear that I had several minutes ago. The teacher approaches us, shoving his ear into the face of every student, tapping some on the shoulder and walking past others with a slight look of disgust. I look across at my friend. She’s been tapped on the shoulder! I watch as the teacher taps my other friend on the shoulder too. I catch their eyes, mid song and smile through my words.
He approaches the person next to me. He walks on by. He’s standing right in front of me. I make sure I open my mouth a bit wider while I sing, and I project my voice a little more. ‘Pick me, pick me!’ I scream inside. He catches my eye. He walks along to the next person, who gets a tap on the shoulder too. I keep singing until the end of the song. Perhaps he will walk round again. Though the ‘next round’ group is looking quite full.
The song ends. I’m still in the first group. The failure group. The bunch of fifteen of us who have just become nobodies again. We are told to go sit at the back of the room and watch the next round or to quietly leave because we have unfortunately not been chosen this time. I sit outside the room and wait for my friends, watching through the windows while they do the next round. The next round turns out to be singing the same song, while the teacher bashes out a different tune on the piano. I could have done that. He smiles at them all and tells them how great they are, and how much fun they’ll have doing the show in a few months time. A few months where I’m going to be left out of it all, all the excitement of putting a show together, rehearsing and learning songs and lines. As usual, I’ll just get to watch from the sidelines. I wonder why I ever thought it would be any different.
This isn’t like not being chosen for the hockey team in PE. I’m the last one to be chosen there, through necessity rather than favour. That hurts, and the bullies sneer at me when I miss the ball, and hit me in the legs with their sticks when the teacher isn’t looking. But I don’t like sport so much. Not those sports. I’m an individual, I like a sport where I can push myself and make my own mistakes. But this, this is what I do. This is what I love, what I live for. This is where I’m meant to be, creating and enjoying the feeling of not being the worst. Not being bullied because I’m rubbish but being praised because I’m good. And now, I’m a failure. I failed this. And it doesn’t feel good. Like all the other days at school, this one has ended with me feeling like a pathetic nobody. They’ll love this, the bullies. My friends won’t be able to help saying that they got in and I didn’t. I don’t like the competition. Music isn’t a sport. That’s why I like it.
I rush home that evening and once in the sanctuary of my house, where no one can hurt me, I cry as though the tears will never stop. I cry for my failings, I cry because I am angry, and I cry because tomorrow, I have to face everybody at school, and they’ll all know that I didn’t make it. I’m not in the show. My parents are sympathetic and I can see they feel helpless for me. ‘You’ll do better next time’, ‘it doesn’t matter, really’, ‘We still think you’re brilliant’ they say. But I didn’t want next time, I wanted this time, this chance. I let go of the fear, just for this one time, and I tried. I tried so hard, and I didn’t feel the fear.
I’m 11. I shouldn’t feel any fear. But from this day, I will always feel it. I will always have the fear in my mind.
Eight years following this, I was singing live on television to eight million people.
Ten years following this, I was singing on a cruise ship in the Caribbean.
Eleven years following this, I began teaching music lessons.
Nineteen years following this, I released my first album of original songs. Not for profit, or for fame or for performances. For myself.
Did that particular knock-back strengthen my resolve to do it? Did that teacher, that day do me a favour? Contrary to popular belief, no.
‘Trust children’ says John Holt. We need to give them chances, not create battles of the fittest in every subject. Why can’t the shortest kid in school be in the basketball team? Why can’t the child with the lisp have the lead role in the school play? I’m not saying that children should think they can have whatever they want in life, all the time. But why can’t all the battling just start a little bit later? Why cant, while they are young, they be able to find their love of something. Passions. We need to find our passions, and we need to hold on to them.
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
He tread on my dreams. He doesn’t know it, and he probably didn’t give it a second thought. As a teacher myself, I anguish about treading on the dreams of young people. I know I’ve done it, I know I’ve had to say ‘no’ in auditions. And it hurts. It really hurts. I don’t want to do it anymore – I don’t want to walk all over their ambitions.
Today, I look at my beautiful three-year-old son and I know I don’t want him to be hurt the way I was. I don’t want his childhood to taken away. I want him to know when he has done well, and when he hasn’t, through his own independent thinking. He will fail, of course. But I want him to feel that sometimes, it’s ok to get things wrong.
Today, we are a home educating, unschooling family. We’re breaking all the rules. And you know what? I’m not even scared.