“You must do the things you think you cannot do.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
I think of that quote from time to time when something hard, something really hard presents itself. It’s not an everyday kind of thing.
My sister chose the words to mark her college graduation, an achievement that was not pre-ordained. From cold feet in August before her freshman year (“Can I please stay home and go to Beauty School?”) to the horrible tragedy of her best friend and roommate’s death before her junior year, she earned her diploma through deep strength and perseverance. You must do the things you think you cannot do. How on earth is it even possible? Where do you find the fortitude to overcome your own self-doubt?
We invoked the words last night.
Let me set the stage.
Our children’s fate was to be born to two hams. Showtune singers. Musical-theatre geeks. Not one, but both parents; they have no refuge. For four years at Penn, Christopher performed with Mask & Wig, dressing up like a woman if the show called for it, making great friends and having a ridiculously good time. For my part, I couldn’t walk by an “Audition” flyer without getting giddy. I was ready to sing and dance anytime, anywhere. I never got the lead, but I was good enough for supporting parts. As a kid, I was always dancing and singing all around the house (perhaps this is how my sister developed her inner strength?).
While we have groomed our kids to be appreciative audiences (no bigger fans of “So You Think You Can Dance” exist), they have rejected our efforts to guide them toward the joys of performing. It’s dinosaurs this, and baseball that. And that’s fine. But when I heard that our synagogue was going to put on a performance of The Music Man, and that everyone was welcome to participate, I thought it could be my last, best chance to hook them.
It was with some trepidation that I mentioned the possibility of us—all of us—auditioning. I waited for the shouts of protest. And waited. This was odd—no one screamed, “NO WAY! STOP, MOM!” No one even quietly objected. In my parenting book, that means assent.
We were on.
I scheduled our family audition. Emmett woke up that morning and proclaimed, “Today’s our audition!” It’s becoming obvious who got the ham gene. He is an outgoing little fella, calling out “Hello” to people on the sidewalk, and “Nice umbrella!” to the crossing guard, while Aaron turns to him and scolds, “You don’t have to say hi to everyone.” Aaron does not seek the limelight. But…he does like musicals. He sings along to CDs of Wicked and The Lion King and (god help us) Cats. And his parents and brother were on board. So he was game. In my wildest dreams I never would have believed it: This was going to work!
Until it was time for the audition. That’s when Aaron said, with a panic-infused voice, that he really, really, really didn’t want to stand up and sing in front of people. “Do I have to? he trembled, while Emmett wondered: “Can I go first?”
We four walked into the audition room, the synagogue’s sanctuary. The Director was in front of us, the ark with three sacred Torahs was on one side. Emmett stepped right up to the middle of the room, Aaron asked me to sit on his lap (a human shield), and the audition had begun.
Emmett was all charm. He asked if he could sing anything he wanted. “Of course,” the Director smiled. I was in heaven; here was the performer, here was the hope that we’d continue the tradition.
I had suggested he sing the new song he learned at school, “The Garden Song,” a sweet ditty about planting seeds, watching them grow with the help of the sun and soil and rain, a song that brings every kindergartner’s parents to tears at the annual recital.
Emmett opened his mouth, darling with its missing-tooth space, and sang:
“I wanna be a billionaire, so frickin’ bad!”
The Director’s face expanded in shock to twice its size. I turned bright red, covered my face, then turned to see if the Torahs had combusted.
Emmett continued unperturbed:
“…buy all of the things I never had.
I wanna be on the cover of Forbes magazine
Smilin’ next to Oprah and the Queen.”
He stopped, waited for applause.
“Did you hear that on Sesame Street?” the Director wondered. I wasn’t sure if he was kidding.
“No, KIIS FM. Can I sing another?”
The Director confirmed that while he’d love to hear more, he needed to keep things moving.
“Aaron,” I asked, “Do you want to go? I can go with you, if you like.”
“No!” He dove behind my back to hide.
“Okay,” I said, getting up. “I’ll go.” As I stood in the middle of this vast space, I thought, ‘This is ten times scarier than when I was in college. I can’t believe I used to do this for fun.’ I knew I’d have to shut off my brain and leap. My kids were watching.
“I’m going to sing something from the first musical I ever auditioned for: Annie.”
I turned back to Aaron, “By the way, kiddo, I am nervous.” I wasn’t lying. As I sang, I heard every hoarse flutter, every flat and sharp note. When I finished, I wished I had done better. The Director said how good it was that I’d had the nerve to audition. Um, thanks?
“Aaron,” I asked, “Now?”
“Nope.” Under the bench.
Christopher stood up. Christopher who, when preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, couldn’t convince the Cantor that he was truly tone deaf and not trying to drive the Cantor crazy. Christopher whose singing teacher made him recite “Casey at the Bat” rather than sing at a recital. That Christopher. He started singing…and knocked ‘em dead. “I got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere, and there’s a guy who says when the weather’s clear, Can do, can do, this guy says the horse can do…” He sounded…great! He nailed it! Damn him!
I watched the Director watching him, and I saw the gears turning in his head, making casting decisions. “That was super!” he exclaimed with a huge smile when Christopher ended with a grand flourish. (Not a word about “having the nerve” to audition.)
There was no one left but Aaron. I had no idea what would he do—refuse to sing, run out of the room, hide under the bench, cry? I waited. Anything was possible. It was up to him.
And then it happened. My boy gathered his courage, stood up, walked to the center of the room. He did not ask for me or Christopher or Emmett to come with him. The Director tried to set him at ease with questions: “What’s your name?” “How old are you?” “What school do you go to?” And then, “What would you like to sing?”
I held my breath. I bit my tongue. I prayed.
“I’m going to sing, ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.'”
And then he did.
In the world’s fastest rendition, he finished in 15 seconds.
I thought my heart would burst open with pride, overflow with admiration for the bravery, for the sheer guts he had used to overcome pure dread, to do something he was not at all comfortable doing.
But before I could exhale, the Director wanted him to do it again. He asked him to slow down, to sing. The pianist gave him an intro. Aaron didn’t flinch. He listened to the music, heard its tempo, its key, its starting point…and sang along, nice and slow. I was amazed that he could adapt. I was amazed that he was still standing there and not hiding in the parking lot! My whole body wanted to shout to the heavens, “That’s IT! You DID it!”
You must do the things you think you cannot do.
In the afterglow, in the midst of all the hugging and celebrating, Emmett broke free to ask the Director one last question: “Can I sing again?”
As we walked out of the sanctuary and into the crowd of people waiting to audition, I reveled in the fact that that Emmett wanted more, and in Aaron’s willingness to try and to survive. I wrestled with the mystery of how two brothers can have such unique approaches to the same challenge. I considered that Emmett’s confidence might have pushed Aaron to take a chance, and that Aaron stood up knowing his family sat behind him, rooting for him. It dawned on me then how it is we can do the things we think we cannot do: with the belief our loved ones have in us when our own doubt is too much.