I have a vivid memory of something that happened following the very successful opening performance of one of my plays. The performance had been quite good--one of our best at the time. There was a feeling of celebration in the air as people congratulated the cast, each other, and of course, me. I was talking to the parent of one of my students, but our conversation kept getting interrupted by kids running up to give me a hug or adults complimenting me as they walked past.
The parent to whom I was speaking looked at me with some apparent envy and said, "You have the best job in the world."
What he didn't know was that earlier, I'd taken my ten-year old car to the mechanic and was now looking at a $500 repair bill that was going on my credit card--joining a long, sad history of similar car repairs.
Why do I drive an old car that needs so many repairs? Because I'm a school teacher and it's what I can afford.
In that moment, it did appear that I had a wonderful job. And I do. But he was seeing something that happens literally twice a year, and he wasn't seeing the other parts of the job. He didn't see the students talking when I wanted their attention. He didn't see the sleepless nights as I worried the play wouldn't come together. He didn't see the hours and hours of rehearsals, the hundreds of emails managing the most mundane details and logistics. He didn't see the conversations with disappointed students or with angry parents when the cast list came out. He didn't see the fact that teaching, while rewarding, does not include large compensation. Please understand, I'm not complaining. Teaching brings many rewards and my school treats me generously. But everyone knows that you will not make a great deal of money as a teacher. It's a fact of life.
I am amazed at the number of people who do not realize that choices have consequences. Some are good and some are bad. I chose to become a teacher. It has brought a lot of wonderful things into my life. It has also brought some difficult, stressful, and even heart-breaking things as well. I imagine that if I'd been a surgeon or a lawyer, I would say the same thing.
I know this seems glaringly obvious. However, as obvious as it may seem, I'd say the majority of people in my experience do not act, or live, as if it is obvious (I'll admit that I include myself in that group sometimes). To the contrary. So I think we can all use a reminder.
You can't choose to be a teacher and then complain about driving an old car. You can't choose to be a heart surgeon or CEO and then complain that you don't have time with your family. You can't choose to spend time with your family and then complain that you don't have a high-powered career.
During my high school years and early twenties, I dreamed of performing. If not on Broadway, at least in regional theatres and summer stock. I was pretty good. Objectively speaking, I think I could have probably made it. Perhaps not big, but I think I could have done well enough to make a living.
But I wanted a family. I wanted a wife and children. I didn't think I could do both. And when I got married, my wife and I decided we wanted children right away, and that she would stay home with the children and be a full-time mom. That meant I need to work regular hours to support the family. Which meant I couldn't pursue my dream of doing musical theatre on Broadway. (Incidentally, I am glad I made that choice. For me, it was the right one).
The reality is that life is full of trade-offs. Contra popular wisdom, you really can't have it all. Every choice will bring consequences that we'll love, and some we won't. When we encounter the consequences we don't like, we tend to start thinking we should have made a different decision.
There are some decisions that are clear-cut choices between good and bad, wisdom and foolishness, right and wrong. But many, I think most, choices are not so clear-cut. They will have advantages and disadvantages. Wisdom teaches us to think about this and make an informed decision, understanding that we will need to accept the consequences we don't like along with those we do.
Middle school students really struggle with understanding this. So much of what we teach them is phrased in right/wrong terms. And that's appropriate when we are talking about whether to experiment with some behaviors and substances. But it's important, I think, to help them learn to be a little more nuanced in their thinking.
Every year I'm surprised by people who are surprised that participation in a school play means that there are some late nights when homework doesn't get done. Or that learning lines requires giving up some other activities in the evening. And so on.
I've found some success in this regard by asking lots of questions: "If you choose x, what are the the positive outcomes likely to be?" "What are the negative outcomes likely to be?" "What sacrifices might you have to make?" "Will those sacrifices be worth it?" And so on.
Middle school students are coming up on some major decisions that will impact the rest of their lives. Learning now to understand trade-offs and consequences is an important skill that we can't teach too soon, in my opinion.
We can go this pro-actively by walking kids through a series of questions before a decision is made. We can also do it retroactively by discussing consequences with them. "Why did you get a B-?" "Because the teacher hates me." "What did you do to earn a B-?" "Well, I talk a lot in class." "Was it fun to talk with your friends?" "Yeah." "Is it fun to get a B-?" "No." You're going to have to figure out which you want. You can't have fun in class and still get an A+." And so on. In my opinion, teaching retroactively is extremely important, and a step many parents fail to do because they are often working actively on helping the student avoid the consequences of their actions.
Every spring, I see an interesting phenomenon. Spring, of course, is the time when schools have auditions for show choirs and ensembles and fall musicals.
At this time, I almost always get a few requests to work with a student to help them prepare for their auditions. Some of these are students with whom I've worked for years, or who have taken lessons with someone else. In this case, it's a matter of helping them refine the technique they've developed for the purposes of a specific song, or helping them choose material that showcases their strengths. This is relatively simple.
However, usually, these are people who've never had a voice lesson, or who have gone years without one. They are often people with some talent, but very little training. They, or their parents, hope that within 3 or 4 lessons, I can help them become amazing.
In the past, I've taken all comes and done my best to help them because I genuinely want them to succeed, and frankly, I'm not in a financial position to turn away most work. I think I will not be doing this anymore, though, because something interesting happens.
These students generally don't do all that well. In three or four times, of course, it is very difficult to help someone advance to the point when they can compete with someone who has been studying and practicing for years.
No one thinks they can overeat for years and then spend a few days not eating and get to the same weight as someone who's been cautious for years. No one thinks they can take four or five dance lessons and then compete with prima ballerinas, or work out four times and run a marathon.
And yet, many people really believe that a few lessons will make a difference for an audition. Again--they can be useful for tweaking what's there, but they can't build a solid foundation and a beautiful castle on that foundation in a short time.
And when that happens, guess who's fault it is? Instead of them saying, "Hey, thanks for your time. The audition probably was better than it would have been otherwise, and I appreciate doing all you could for me," I usually get anything from icy silence to passive agressive smack-downs. Yeah. That's right. Your kid had three sessions with me and it's my fault you didn't get into show choir/the musical? I don't think so. One of the most dissatisfied former clients was someone who had spent literally ten years or more pursuing a particular athletic activity for about 40 hours a week outside of school. I almost laughed when they were surprised that 5 lessons didn't make them as good a singer as they were at this other activity. I wanted to ask if they could give me 5 lessons and turn me into a champion in this activity. But I didn't.
I think that our society does a lot of things wrong, and one of those things is that we require kids to start activities earlier and earlier. If you want to play basketball in high school, you better start when you are three. I don't like that, and I try to push back against it. I don't think young children should generally take voice lessons. I don't expect an 8th grader to sing like a pro. It's not natural or healthy, in my opinion.
But, at the same time, on the other end of the spectrum, some people think there is a quick fix--that time and effort, preparation and habits aren't important, that everything can be instant in this world. And that's a real problem, too. If something is important, you have to prepare. That doesn't mean going crazy and losing balance. It doesn't mean neglecting other things in your life. And I think it's totally fine to discover a new hobby in middle or high school. That's great! But you can't expect to compete at the same level as those who have been seriously pursuing it for years. A degree of common sense and good judgement is called for here.
The lesson I think we are forgetting--quickly--across our entire society is that choices have consequences. Some are good, some are bad, some (most) are mixed. There is no perfect path. There are, instead, a series of trade-offs and pay-offs. You reap what you sow. You simply can't have it all, and especially not on your own terms, whenever you want it, just because you want it!
So, if your child wants to participate seriously in the performing arts (or other activities), you need to think about this. How much time and money do you want to spend on training and practice? How big a priority do you want to make it? What are the objectives in mind? You can choose. But realize that your choice is going to have some natural consequences with it. My wife and I don't want our kids to do travel sports because it would take up our lives and cut in to precious family time. That's fine. It's our choice. What's not our choice, though, is then to expect that our kids will be able to compete at the same level as those who have done travel sports since they were in Kindergarten. And if I expect to hire a coach to give my kid private lessons over a three week period to help him suddenly get to that level, then I am not thinking through things very clearly. Singing, acting, dancing--these things are all the same.
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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