It was January when my third-grade son, Jack, came home in a funk.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, full of concern. He was a sensitive boy, so full of feelings.
“Our class is doing Annie in front of the whole school at the end of the year. Mr. Ellon had us sing and stuff. He said I’m going to be Daddy Warbucks.”
“Wow!” I exclaimed, shrieky with terror. “That’s amazing!”
“I don’t want to,” he said glumly. “I want to be in charge of the lights.”
Of course. Behind the scenes.
I went for the short pep talk. “Well, if Mr. Ellon thinks you would be the best Daddy Warbucks, I’m sure he’s right. Maybe give it a shot? It’s months till June. Don’t worry about it now.”
I followed it up with a reassuring mom look and an offer of a cookie, a tactic widely known as ‘changing the subject.’ “Come on,” I led him to the kitchen. “Let’s get started on your homework.”
“I don’t have any homework,” he said.
It wasn’t all that unusual. One of the many reasons the kids loved Mr. Ellon – besides an ice cream party at the end of every week and playing class kickball outside at the beginning and end of class each day – was the lack of homework. “Mr. Ellon said our homework from now till the end of the year was to practice for the play.”
Oh my God – for multiple reasons.
“Well, then, how ’bout we call a friend to come over?”
He nodded, slowly moving past his unhappiness, at least for the moment.
Jack did not have a great track record with public appearances. Throughout nursery ‘productions,’ he was the child crying on stage, or hiding behind the other kids, and that was if he was up there at all.
At kindergarten graduation, he was the only one out of 100 children who refused to get up on stage to sing. He knew every song backwards and forwards, but no matter how much I encouraged, he wouldn’t budge. In the end, he sat on my lap in the audience, both of us singing the songs with tears streaming down our faces as we watched his classmates up on stage.
In first and second grades, we experienced the same building anxiety and uncertainty about whether he would actually stand with his class for the end-of-year ceremony, but he managed. We were definitely taking baby steps.
But a lead in a play in front of the whole school? That’s not a baby step. That’s a giant leap of faith. It wasn’t just standing with a group mouthing words – it was the spotlight. It was so not going to happen. Oh my God!!
Yet somehow, we managed to push it to the side. Jack did his rehearsals at school, and I read lines with him occasionally until he knew his part by heart. Repeatedly, he voiced his opposition to performing, but they were low murmurs, coming out on random late nights. So we kept moving forward, both of us struggling, until it seemed too late to turn back.
By April, his fears consumed me, and I went to see Mr. Ellon. He was an affable man who, like Columbo, tended to ramble and seemed easily distracted. The kids loved him.
“So,” I began, as always a little disarmed by his spacey, wide-eyed stare. “I’m a little worried about Jack playing Daddy Warbucks. He says he really doesn’t want to.”
“What?” He seemed amazed, like I had just told him the Red Sox could take the Yankees. “Don’t worry, he’s going to be fine.”
I reiterated Jack’s poor track record and building anxiety.
Mr. Ellon looked away, seeming to take in my words. Finally he said, “Hey, Jack’s really a great athlete, huh?”
Okay. Maybe not.
“Uh, yeah. But I’m thinking maybe you should have an understudy. You know, just in case?”
He waved me off, “Nah. He’s fine. Kid can really catch a ball, huh.”
Right. I really hoped, like Columbo, that Mr. Ellon knew what he was doing.
April turned into May, and May became June. The play was nearing, and each night was now an exercise in anxiety control.
“I don’t want to do it,” Jack would cry. “I mean, I want to, but I don’t want to!”
I used every tactic known to man to try and calm him. I told him about the Gregg Brady method, where you pretend everyone in the audience is in their underwear. I reminded him that he knew his part inside and out. He knew everyone’s parts by heart.
I told him it wasn’t that serious, just to relax. I told him it was okay to mess up. That everyone messed up. I lied through my teeth and told him that, no matter what happened, it would be okay.
I told him that the only thing he couldn’t do was fall off the stage, because that wouldn’t be okay. We laughed. We breathed, we hugged, we cried. We kept going, day by day.
But of course, it wouldn’t be okay if he didn’t go through with it. It would always be there, hanging over him – his fear, holding him back. And everyone would know it. He was a huge part of the show. The show couldn’t go on without him. He would beat himself up for years.
This was a nightmare.
Closer and closer it came.
Every night, I sat with my husband, stressing out.
“I don’t think he’s going to do it!”
“We should have pulled the plug in the beginning! How did I allow this to happen?”
“He can barely make a phone call to ask a friend to come over. He doesn’t even speak to adults!”
“I say it’s 50/50,” my husband concluded. “But there’s no turning back now.”
I was completely on edge. Jack’s stress mostly seeped out at night, but I worried all day long. I worried what would happen if he broke down and didn’t do it. I worried for the rest of the class who had worked so hard, and how that would affect him. I worried that he was worrying every day.
Controlling and conquering his fear and getting up there and doing it would be incredible. Was this pressure good or bad? I was losing my mind.
Finally, it was D-day, or more accurately, P-Day. I dressed Jack in his Daddy Warbucks suit and sent him to school with a hug and a hopefully encouraging smile. Before he got on the bus, I told him, “It’ll be okay, no matter what happens. You’re great, you know it, and everyone messes up.”
“I know,” he smiled. “Just don’t fall of the stage.”
“Right.” I hugged him hard, already emotionally leaky.
Opening curtain time was 10 a.m.
We arrived at the packed auditorium and found our seats. It was a full house. I couldn’t speak to anyone. I was so agitated I thought I might throw up. I heard through the elementary school whispers that Jack was having a breakdown back stage.
I couldn’t do anything but wait and pray. And freak out. A lot.
The lights dimmed. The show was starting. I thought I might combust with nerves.
There were three seemingly never-ending scenes until Jack’s big entrance in the fourth act. I couldn’t appreciate anything the other kids were doing. I barely saw them. I watched and waited, hardly breathing, my heart threatening cardiac arrest. Would he do it? I couldn’t take it.
And then the moment came. I held my breath, my eyes welled, prepared for whatever may come.
He strode on the stage, the picture of confidence. He delivered his first line. Perfectly. Tears of sheer joy, pride, and happiness flowed from an unending well of emotion. He did it. He controlled all his anxiety and stress, he took that stage, and he was beautiful.
His scene ended with a solo performance of him singing “NYC”. If I wasn’t already a basket case just seeing him appear and deliver his lines, when Jack sang that song, alone and as sweetly as an angel who had just gotten his voice, I literally sobbed. It was too much. He was too perfect. Puh puh.
The sun wasn’t coming out tomorrow, it was here and now.
Because that’s what it is to be a mother. Their fears, their accomplishments…somehow, they’re your own, only even more exquisitely wonderful or disastrous.
Jack’s amazing accomplishment will forever be one of the proudest moments of my life. My son nailed it – the play, and his fears.
And he didn’t fall off the stage.