Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Ticket to All-State

My youngest son, Skye, is beginning to understand something I learned three decades prior. There’s a system to cracking the system, and it isn’t easy to learn.

One week ago, after yet another long week of waiting, he found out he still has not earned a ticket to All-State Speech. And this time it had felt so close. His group mime coach and fellow performers felt it. We felt it too – his parents, his aunt and his maternal grandparents. (The last three relatives are even seasoned speech judges.)

But on February 12 he learned for certain: He would not go to the 2012 All-State Performances – the apex of accomplishment for a large group speech season that is four months in the making. He has also never made it to All-State as an individual contestant despite having earned his way to state contest in more than one speech category in multiple years.

Unfortunately, All-State Music auditions have not brought such fortune, either. Skye, who has an intriguingly appealing voice, has gained vocal depth and dexterity every year but has not been selected for the All-State Chorus three years running. I hope he gives it one more try this Fall. If he misses then, too, he will have matched my own record of musical misses: 4 years but never picked.

In the face of this most recent speech contest rejection, I offered perspective: He has substantially outpaced my meager number of trips to state contests - two. Skye, in contrast, has always made it through districts and onto state – always – and he achieved resounding success as a freshman while I never knew I had thespian muscles until my junior year.

But I am aware the perspective I offer him also comes with a caveat. I got to All-State my first time out of the gate and even helped bring home the state’s highest honor: a critic’s choice banner for one-act play. Yet I would never have competed if not for Mrs. Diane Johnston, or DJ, as we students called her. DJ was my sophomore English teacher and our school’s drama coach. She had chased All-State honors for many decades, and during my junior year, she invited me and seven other students to perform an unconventional piece called “America Hurrah.” She is the reason I learned what it means to catch lightning in a bottle.

While our group competed in the one-act category, the selection was part choral reading and part mime with our acting abilities holding the thing together. We didn't have a set, and we didn’t wear costumes but color-coded ensembles – either a black top with white pants or white top with black pants. Plus, rather than a story with a beginning, middle and end, the play was a set of individuals scenes that required one of us to take center stage while the other seven served as a supportive ensemble of characters or, in some scenes, furniture and props. All eight of us were on stage at all times, moving from one of our characters or roles into the next without ever dropping one of our assigned personas. My favorite supportive role was being part of a system of telephone wires that was transmitting signals across the stage; my second favorite was being a fish out of water.

As for my turn at center stage, I played a woman lost on 14th Street. Others in our cast were featured in scenes about a political candidate, a physical trainer, a telephone operator, a woman at a party, and three others I no longer remember. I’m not even confident the individual scenes shared a unifying theme. Our one-act play was that unconventional.

The fact that we were named the best in the state of Iowa that year – 1981 – vindicated DJ’s daring choice. Either that or the judge, feeling conflicted about what she had witnessed, had nobly chosen to embrace its bizarre experience. How we attained that title does not matter. It was ours and forever will be.

That was my introduction to the world of high school speech competitions, and nothing ever matched that accomplishment. During my remaining 15-months of high school, I enjoyed a handful of other pinnacle moments, yet that experience was unmatched. It wasn’t better than other experiences in a quantifiable way other than the title and accompanying banner that our school got to hang for one year. Yet it forever will be incomparable.

The eight of us in that one-act play – four juniors and four seniors – had become an ensemble. We had learned to be spatially aware of one another, moving to fill holes as quickly as they were created. We had spoken with precision timing, too, picking up cues like the sweeping minute hand of a fine Swiss timepiece. I remember concluding our piece in Des Moines that day, knowing that we could not have performed it better; we all felt the same.

That’s what I hope for Skye: an experience he regards as incomparable because it lets him know he is capable of more than he suspected. And I hope he gets the chance to work with a team of individuals who others not only point to as outstanding but are awarded for their work with a banner or trophy or trinket that publicly affirms what they have believed all along. They are the best.

Life is not measured in number of awards won. I know that; Skye knows that. Everyone knows that, right? Life doesn’t even ensure that those who are the best will be the ones going home with the awards. Judging is subjective; and when groups are being judged, weak performers can either bring a whole group down or get swept along to victory with the team. That’s just the way awards get awarded.

But I have a feeling that every Golden Globe or Grammy or Emmy or Tony or Academy Award winner agrees that those shiny trinkets can certainly brighten a person’s outlook. I am pretty sure All-State honorees feel the same.

If at the end of his high school career such an honor should continue to elude him, Skye won’t crumble. Neither will the hundreds of thousands of other high schoolers in our fine state who have and will graduate without the boasting rights to such an honor. In fact, maybe they are the more fortunate ones. Perhaps they live with a forward-leaning perspective that fixes their pinnacle moment securely in the future, while early award winners fight the anxiety of what-can-I-do-to-top-myself-now. This is certain: Once the entrapments of adulthood take hold, awards ceremonies and public recognitions of excellence are rare. The manufactured glory of high school is not easily reproduced.

I admire Skye. I admire his creativity, his tenacity, his charity and his ability. In so many ways, he is a coveted award, just not one I did anything to earn. He is incredible, and he is my son; I am certain I could not have done any better.

Skye is the best Skye he can be. Bravo! Encore! Encore!

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