In the last week of term, I wrote to the headmistress of my daughters school to thank staff and pupils for a wonderful Christmas Carol Concert we had attended the previous evening. It was a spontaneous action and I can only hope I wasn’t too effusive or came across as sycophantic. I have not seen such a well rehearsed, well put together, beautifully delivered school event for some twelve years, since my eldest was at Junior School in fact.
Throughout these twelve years I have sat through mumbled, un-ambitious, shambling, rambling, sometimes chaotic carol concerts, assemblies, awards, and performances experiencing a growing despair, disappointment, even horror that the art of presentation seemed to have become so unimportant, of so little value or interest. I offered and offered to help at my daughters primary school being of the opinion that it’s no use complaining if you’re not prepared to help with the solution, but it seemed no-one understood why my help might be needed. In fact by the time my daughter left her Primary School I had decided that I must be really disliked by the staff and that they simply didn’t want me anywhere near their performances. The closest I came was helping to costume nearly the entire cast of my daughters first full length performance in her final year (I love costumes but I hate sewing clothes, it was an act of love**).
I did also discuss it with a teacher at the school, who got very prickly about it and said it was a matter of time, which was too valuable to be wasted on rehearsals and that I should be grateful for the considerable efforts staff put in to make such events happen in the first place. I assured her I was but that I had considerable experience in working with young people in delivering performances and presentations and knew that a little well planned rehearsal, where simple things such as confidence, breathing, smiling and learning the material well enough to enjoy presenting it (anything from a song to a speech to a non verbal presence in front of an audience) could reap huge benefits for the children. Rehearsal time does impact on the timetable but impacts positively in developing engagement and confidence in public performance/presentation, a beneficial skill for everyone throughout life. I was thinking about the children, the emotional investment, the improved self-esteem – children are not stupid they know very well when they are doing something worthwhile and especially if they’ve never experienced it before, doing something ‘to be proud of’ is a feeling that can last a lifetime. The teacher was thinking of the teaching staff and the timetable.
I never did actually stand up in the school hall or the local church and shout ‘STOP!” but I came very close to it on a few occasions. After one particularly dreadful school church service, I was so shocked that when the vicar smiled at me and said “Didn’t the children do well” as I was leaving, I replied “I’d like to see the school be more ambitious for its pupils, it was a little too under-prepared for my liking, if a thing’s worth doing it’s worth doing well“ I added hastily as he frowned. He shook his head, replying “Oh I think ambition can be very harmful’. What he thought I meant by ambition, I still contemplate. I think he meant that if something doesn’t work well it’s because it was obviously too difficult, too challenging for the children but that’s why we rehearse, why we prepare our material, make sure the children know it, understand its message or story, ensure they enjoy it by giving them the skills to deliver it with confidence: like showing them how and when to breathe properly, how to open their mouths fully, use the lips, the teeth, the tip of the tongue when speaking and to use their eyes – where to look. There’s a long list, for example, a smile is infectious and people will smile back and that will help settle their nerves and give them time to take a deeper breath. I thought perhaps I had become such a negative person that a symptom of this was my inability to appreciate the positives in all the mumbling thrown-away lines, the shouting choir – enthusiastic but out of harmony due to learning the songs via you-tube and therefore not all singing in the same key (not that the teacher knew which key they should be singing in).
There were the odd chinks of light, and the school encouraged lots of outside artists to come in for art, opera and music workshops, so it wasn’t all doom and gloom but the constant trickle of in-house events took its toll. I questioned in fact, the worth of my whole experience of delivering youth theatre, drama workshops, story telling, training creatives. I questioned the sense of joy that people get when they discover they can communicate effectively, find their voice; the empowerment that being confident brings. I lost my self-belief, my own confidence and my sense of self in those seven long years my daughter was at her primary school. A life-time in and around theatre has developed a very keen ‘critical eye’, people can easily mistake my comments on how something I’ve seen or experienced could be improved, have more or less impact, be quicker, smoother etc., as a sign of negativity and not as a result of many years putting on/being involved in performances, projects and events and evaluating them. It’s taken me far too long to realize that. Although other parents might have indicated they were as horrified as I was by the lack of presentation skills it wasn’t enough to stop me feeling like the worst kind of dinosaur – on the brink of extinction.
You can imagine how my letter last week was a relief to write, so it was an interesting twist of fate that on the last day of term I collected my daughter in a quiet and downcast mood. What is it? I asked, why aren’t you celebrating? It turned out there had been an Award Ceremony in the morning and all of her close friends had been nominated, some more than once and all of them had won awards. “My name wasn’t even mentioned” she said “and it made me feel sad, separate from them, as if I’m not good enough”. Here perhaps was the negative feeling that the Vicar was referring to, the harmful effect of ambition? I hugged her, checked she had congratulated her friends on their achievements and assured her that she was a star in my eyes and worthy of awards for her kindness and her compassion alone and whilst we, her parents couldn’t possibly know why she hadn’t been nominated for an award, if it still mattered to her, she should talk to her teacher about it next term and tell her teacher about how she felt on the last day of term and ask her what she needed to do to be nominated in the future – if that’s what she wanted. After all I mused, once you start out on a path it takes commitment and hard work to see it through to the end – nothing ‘worth having’ is easily come by. The school tracks everything from special praise and commended work and homework, to attendance via an online system – it could all come down to cold analytical algorithms and points.
So now comes the gentle conversations about striving to be a winner when we can’t all win; about taking part being as important and how in a school of 800+ pupils not everyone can be a winner (can they?). About having the confidence in your own ability and best traits, to know that you will be recognized for them eventually. In developing a sense of personal and shared ambition. How to avoid becoming the needy girl who seeks constant affirmation and therefore is burnt across every teachers front brain when considering names for nominees but whom irritates everyone around them in their constant attention seeking – gaining only hollow victories. How to have integrity, being true to yourself. Sounds like social media, eh?
I am not individually competitive but I am also not afraid to speak out if I believe in something. Generally I am much better in giving praise than receiving it, so can you imagine my ‘panic’ that my youngest may have inherited all my worst traits and failings. For a moment I wondered if that letter I had written had been perceived as very sycophantic indeed and ill-timed in terms of the Awards – after all the Headmistress doesn’t know me at all. I will certainly think twice before I write again and do what I nearly always do, write it and then sit on it and re-write it again after a day or two. After eight years on Twitter I should know that people can misinterpret even the simplest of phrases without context. Delivering context in 140 characters is the eternal challenge. Life is a far bigger challenge and at the close of the year what better time to consider new approaches and effecting positive change either in your external life, your headspace or just your attitude.
Merry Christmas everyone, seasons greetings to you.
** and I should thank all those passionate sewing folk on pinterest who took time to record articles like ‘how to sew harem pants in 3 easy steps’ for helping me make it through!