At every school talent show ever held, you will find three categories of human beings.
The first group consists of those fearless little souls who love the energy of the crowd. At my children’s school last month, it was a grinning pipsqueak of a 2nd grader I’ll call Ferris, his entire body vibrating to the music from the moment he grabbed the mic. After about 15 seconds, his electric stage presence had all 250 kids, parents, and teachers singing and clapping along to “I’m Still Standing.”
The second group of students is the silent majority sitting there in the audience, feeling a baffled combination of relief and envy at these performers who must surely be insane. The kids in this second group would never—not for $100 million or a working hoverboard—get up there in front of hundreds of people to sing, dance, and bare the embarrassing tapestry of their souls to an unpredictable crowd that could conceivably respond with cruelty or derision.
I understand these two groups of students. The kids in each group are acting logically, given their natures, either seeking or shunning the limelight. It’s the children in the third group who fascinate me: those brave kids who are terrified, yet get up there anyway. The girl in a duet who abandoned her partner out of stage fright, then ran back onto the stage halfway through the song, her face still streaked with tears, to a tidal wave of applause. Kindergartner James in his little suit, tears streaming down his face from the moment he began the song, his piping voice quavering with restrained sobs as he stood his ground and sang the entire song through to the end.
This third group—the truly courageous, who voluntarily do what is hardest for them—will always have my heart. Courage, in Army commercials or superhero movies, invariably looks reckless and fundamentally male: the mutants charging the giant robot alien against a backdrop of explosions and tough-guy banter.
The deeper courage I witness in my students has always been quieter and more private. An 8-year-old boy whose disability makes the process of reading excruciating, who keeps giving his full-hearted effort to decipher those dots and squiggles on the page anyway. A painfully shy 6-year-old girl, her voice rarely registering above a whisper, who suddenly stands up to a teacher in the lunchroom who unfairly punishes her best friend.
That’s the kind of bravery I see in the third group: these blushing, mortified, barely-holding-it-together kids. They would rather be anywhere else, doing anything else, but they have chosen to be here. What fascinates me is why they have made that choice.
I get the first group’s motivation. They crave the adoration of the crowd. Singing and dancing their hearts out before hundreds of people lights up their senses like a disco ball. I understand the second group’s decision to remain anonymously seated in the crowd, too. Why put yourself out there, knowing you’d just dread the countdown to the event and then hate it when the brutal moment arrived? But that’s exactly what the children in the third group have done. Why, despite their knowledge that getting up on that stage will be certain agony, do they nevertheless choose to do it?
For some of these inexplicably dauntless kids, maybe it sounded like a good idea back when they signed up. Reality sank in when they woke up the morning of the show with pterodactyl-sized butterflies in their stomachs, or when they walked that long gauntlet of squirming kindergartners and too-cool 5th graders, then turned to face the crowd.
For a few of those valiant children, though, I wonder if the explanation lies a little deeper. If they know what it takes most of us a long time to learn. That the true dragons we must slay never approach from distant skies, but roar and blaze raw terror from within ourselves. Maybe these children, even the youngest among them, know a hard truth: If they don’t step out onto that bleak and stony battleground, vulnerable and outmatched before the suffocating flame of devastating dragons, they’ll suffer a fate far worse than tears or embarrassment. They’ll end up huddled in some internal cave for however long it takes to summon the courage required when no one, with the lone exception of yourself, is coming to save you.
If they get up on that stage, it might all go wrong. The music could cut out halfway through their performance. Their voice might falter or break. The kids in the audience might laugh at them or, worse, look bored and applaud half-heartedly at the end. But if those catastrophes come to pass, they will have happened because of factors outside the kids’ control. The failure can be placed at the feet of the fates. Blame destiny, or bad luck.
But if these small souls prove too afraid to ever risk that humiliation, the failure will be their own. They may lose the ability to distinguish between what is truly terrifying and what is merely frightening. They might end up cowering before not only dragons, but dragonflies.
What group would you place yourself in? The natural performers, the meekly seated, or the scared yet courageous? Whatever your answer, we adults should follow the example of that third group of kids. Whether teachers or parents, we have witnessed firsthand the courage it takes to be fully yourself when all eyes are watching. To confront our own dragons, knowing the burns are real and victory is in no way assured. We can all be a little braver—as teachers, citizens, or moms and dads—because of the truth evident to anyone who has watched a school talent show: Fear is not the enemy of bravery, but the doorway through it.
The quavering songs and awkward gymnastic routines performed by this third group of brave, scared children are rarely the highlight, from a technical perspective, of the day’s performances. But when it comes to the imperfect courage of the human heart, their daunted yet unwavering valor will sing to us all for a long time to come.