third grade choke artist

When I was in third grade, I was asked to sing Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings” at a school pep rally. First of all, why they asked me to sing that song at a pep rally is bewildering, but that’s not what this story is about. What really makes this a story worth telling is how I forgot the words.

And I didn’t just forget the words. I messed it up so bad, you couldn’t even tell what song I was singing anymore before I got to the first refrain. They had to start the whole song over, but I was so rattled I still couldn’t remember the lyrics the second time around. So there I was, a lonely nine-year-old gaping at an entire school of almost 3,000 peers from first grade to senior high, drowning in my own panic while the ballad played mercilessly in the background. At some point, I gave up trying to remember the words, took a few deep breaths, and just listened to the music. Only then did I finally catch my wind (pun intended) and get on with the song. It’s a wonder that I had enough presence of mind to hold on to the mic.

That was the first disappointing performance of my life. As with our most important human moments – first kiss, first love, first home – you never quite forget your first publicly humiliating mental block.

Some people have assumed that I’m confident because I never make mistakes or have bad performance experiences. There are two errors in this assumption. First of all, I’m not nearly as confident as people might think. The weeks, days, and hours before a performance are filled with excruciating, nausea-inducing, appetite-reducing anxiety. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fashion show at the Olympics or a grandparent’s birthday party – the stage fright is awful. Also, I fumble and embarrass myself more often than people seem to notice or remember. I almost fell off a stage once. There was a time when I completely missed a cue for a scene and the whole number went on without me. The more you get onstage, the more mistakes you’re bound to make and the more reason you have to be afraid. And then the fear gets under your skin and causes even more mistakes, and the cycle keeps going. It has less to do with talent than with mathematics. Practice improves your odds, but unless you can find a cure to being human, you can pretty much count on having a bad day here and there.

So why do it at all? Because no matter what I choose to do, whether I love it or hate it, mistakes will always be made. Failure is a universal and inescapable human experience. It always hurts, especially when you’re doing something that matters to you. It might be tempting to quit when things are looking bleak and the cuts are still fresh and deep, but what exactly does that accomplish? Quitting guarantees that I never experience another heartache, but it also guarantees that I never experience the thrill, the joy, the connection, the sense of being exactly where I’m meant to be, or the opportunity to leave my unique thumbprint on the collective consciousness. It would be like pouring concrete over a rose garden to avoid having to deal with weeds. Our life pursuits – in fact, our lives as a whole – are simply too beautiful to throw away in exchange for a false sense of security. 

What I learned from choking onstage in the third grade, and what I’m still learning now more than two decades later, is the song doesn’t stop playing when I forget the words. However, if I had given up on singing just because of that one moment, I would have missed out on just about my whole life as I know it today. In the face of failure, I could panic and cry and run off the stage; I could freeze and resolve never to try again; or I could take a breath, get out of my own way, and just listen to the music. Failure will be with me whether I fear it or not. Might as well make friends with failure and live the kind of life that makes the risk worthwhile. And as my third grade choke artist self would say, you catch your wind eventually anyway. Just remember to hold on to the mic.

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