Friday, April 15, 2011

The Bravery of Kids

As someone who has stood in boardrooms and conferences and spoken on topics where my expertise ranged from extensive to non-existent, I can sympathize with those who fear public speaking. I've often thought that it takes a certain level of distain for the audience in order to calm those fears. How wrong I was in that notion. While that attitude may work for some, I've discovered what really makes for a good public presentation.

Bravery... where you acknowledge your fear and do your job anyway... is what it takes. Preparation, confidence, being able to read an audience, all of these things are important and necessary, but bravery will get you through like nothing else.

I had the opportunity to videotape an elementary school talent show recently, and as with all events of this caliber, one can see them in a variety of ways. You can view it as a "celebration of mediocrity", or you can find the beauty in the simplicity of it. I’ve run a few of these shows when my kids were in those school years, and I can say, first hand, that it’s a ton of work for the adults. You manage time and schedules for 30+ acts, arrange for the performance space, sound crew, programs, get teachers involved, deal with parents and school administrators… the list is endless. But, for the kids, the event begins and ends with their three minutes on stage.

I’ve seen kids who can sing like birds, dance with talent far beyond their years, and work a room like a Catskill veteran, alongside kids who couldn’t carry a tune if it had a handle. I’ve seen kids perform who obviously never made the connection between success and rehearsal, who felt that their parents’ praise would be universal, and who viewed their slot as a way to justify all of those extra after-school dance classes. The single, unifying point among them, though, is that no matter their talent level, their comfort level, or what brought them to this point, they performed. They go out there and do it. To see an eight year old stand on a stage in front of 600 people and belt out an a cappella version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is a stirring sight. It transcends their individual ability. It goes far beyond self-consciousness and youthful embarrassment. You gotta give it to them… they did it.

In my opening remarks of one show I helmed a few years ago, I reminded the audience that these are kids who were braver than many of the adults present. “How many of you, “ I asked, “would like to get up here and sing a song just because you like it? Stand up here and belt one out without fear of embarrassment, your only preparation being singing in the car or around the house?” Not a hand went up.

Later, one mom offered an aside about a kid’s ability to do such a thing. “They don’t know enough to be scared yet.” Not true, I thought. Kids live between two worlds… one populated with knees and elbows at eye-level, where they are always the smallest person in the discussion… if they are even included in the discussion. The other world is one of peers, who always have more, or less than they do… both in material things and in ideas. And they aren’t always shy about expressing their point of view. Fear of not “fitting in” or “being weird” starts early. What adults might view as “little fears” are shadows that follow many kids around each day. They know what fear is.

And yet, they do it. They get out there on the stage and dance and sing their hearts out, letting the chips fall where they may. That, to me, is a life lesson and a life skill that will serve them well for years to come. I wish more of us could carry that into adulthood, where life tends to beat the snot out of that particular brand of bravery.