The first step is to take a final shaky breath. Then uncross your feet. Slide your hands out of your pockets, wiping the little beads of sweat on your jeans. Finally, stand and hold the back of the bench in front of you as you try your hardest not to black out.
“I was thinking about a conversation I had with Teacher Will a couple weeks ago,” I began, my voice coming much easier than expected despite the blood throbbing in my ears. It was the first time I had spoken in Meeting for Worship in the entire time I’ve been in the Upper School at Westtown. I continued speaking.
“We were talking about an upcoming show, speculating about opening night. Every show is the same. The nausea, the deep and stirring excitement clouded with nerves. Most kids throw themselves into the plays with fervent energy and vigor, some show up out of neglect for the sports requirement. Some attempt to juggle both, to pile on activities on their applications or appear as the perpetual perfectionist. But we also started talking about something he noticed in so many students, which is this intrinsic fear of failure.”
A sea of bodies turned to face me as I spoke, some slumped over the benches, some unblinking and attentive, some entirely unconscious. I continued speaking once again.
“This fear of doing something wrong is so prevalent with kids my age, whether that be from pressure about grades, athletics, or getting into college.” I paused, eyes sweeping the wide room. “Sometimes we pursue things entirely with the motive of success, and failure isn’t even in the picture.”
By now I had captured most people’s attention, so I carried on. “But I think that’s one of the things I love the most about theater—not only are you going to make mistakes, but you have to figure out how to deal with them in that moment. It’s inevitable—someone’s going to miss a cue, or fumble a line, or tech will get messed up. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced mishaps on stage, or caused them myself. Mistakes are expected going into the performance, yet the show continues.”
I closed my eyes for a second and drew in another breath, rolling the words around in my head before I spoke the message I really stood up to share. Clusters of memories from the past few years, previous performances, conversations with my parents and friends, all came tumbling back in that fraction of a second as my pulse jolted upward. I realize why the stage has seemingly called to me. The internal wilderness of performing is both an experience and a destination, daunting yet familiar, and the most uncomfortable comforting hobby. However it’s also taught me to be able to laugh at myself, not worry about the judgements of others, and never to hold my chin too high. Sometimes this only takes a head-to-toe, electric blue zoot suit.
Finally I reached the point I was trying to make and said, “I don’t think we realize how important failure is. I don’t know that we understand how the instances of failure are often more important than instances of success, that we learn and grow infinitely more. Had I not tried out for countless roles I didn’t end up getting, I would never have discovered something I love to do in the first place. This year, as the last of my 13 years at Westtown, I’m trying to…” I paused again, thinking. “I’m trying to adopt this ideology of living without a fear of failure, and just let things come and be as they are. It’s so much more freeing.”
This newfound burst of self-assurance did not happen suddenly, nor was it easy. It’s taken repeated times of failure to learn how to pick myself back up and continue. It's in the little things that I realize how much I've grown, how even last year I never would've had the courage to stand in Meeting in front of all my peers and speak openly about the ways in which I've let myself, and others, down.
I paused one last and time and said, “I think I’d so much rather have tried and failed miserably at something, than not have tried it at all.”
I took a shaky seat back on the bench, breathing out a gulp of air I didn’t realize I was holding in. I crossed my feet and jammed my hands into my pockets. Silently, I thanked myself for not blacking out.