"Your daughter is upset." A few months back, my wife greeted me with these words as I came home from work. "She didn't get the part she wanted in the school play."
Oh man. All too often as parents we don't get a chance to recognize the opportunities to help our children build character. They become lost in the mundane clutter of life, or we simply impart our lessons through the power of example, not necessarily realizing it at the time.
But here it was right in front of me. A chance to impart an important life lesson. A fastball right down the middle. I needed to hit this one out of the park.
It wouldn't be enough to simply preach, "There are no small parts, only small actors." I would have to build the case in a way that resonated.
She was sullen as I came in the room and even less inclined toward small talk than usual. We danced around the subject for a bit until I cut to the chase. "Your mom says you're upset because of the play." My daughter, with less anguish than I expected, explained it all to me. In a play about witches, she had to play the old witch. It was not the part she wanted. Not because she was old, but because she didn't have many lines.
I tried a few different tacts. I began with a discussion of "earning your stripes." The bigger parts, with more lines, were given to the older students, who had more experience being in plays. If she kept a positive attitude and did well at the parts given to her, in another year or two the director would see she's ready for the bigger parts. I got a blank stare on this one.
Maybe I needed make it more personal and relate a story from my own life. I told her about the time in high school I wanted the lead role in "The War on Tatem." Instead, I had to play Murray Moskowitz, the annoying, wimpy kid with glasses. She giggled at this, and I explained that one reason I didn't want to play the part was that the nerdy-looking glasses kept making my co-stars laugh and break character. I ultimately refused to wear them. But since it was an ensemble cast and we all worked hard to make our characters memorable, we ultimately won an award at the annual drama competition. And although the "old witch" might not have many lines, it was probably one of the more challenging parts, since my daughter would have to totally change her voice and her mannerisms. It would require no-kidding acting, and maybe that's why the director wanted her to have that part, because she had faith in my daughter's ability. By the look on her face, I could tell I was making progress now.
I attempted to follow-up with another story, from when I was adult, about when I found myself side-lined during a deployment just as major combat operations were starting. It was one of those defining moments that I ultimately learned incredible lessons from, but I could tell that I wasn't making a connection. (Who knew that a combat story wouldn't resonate with a nine year old?)
So instead I shifted to the story that helped get me through that time in my life: Apollo 11. She was already familiar with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and how they walked on the moon. But I reminded her of all the supporting cast members, in mission control and on the launch pad, in the classroom and on the factory floor, all of whom played an integral part to get them there. If any one of them had given less than their very best, it could have meant failure for the crew. And even Michael Collins, though one of only 24 human beings to have flown to the moon, didn't get the lead part he probably wanted on that mission. But he made sure he performed his role flawlessly.
Boom. I made the connection. Her face brightened as she began to see her "old witch" role in a new light. Certainly she'll face many similar challenges in her life, when she is given a supporting role and must decide how she'll approach it. I hope some of what we talked about sank it, and manages to resurface when she needs it.
Some may protest here, and say, "Wait, aren't you trying to raise a strong, confident woman? But didn't you just teach her to settle for a lesser role? A supporting one?" To be sure, there will be times when she and the rest of my children will need to stand up for themselves, demand to be taken seriously and given an opportunity to succeed, and ensure they are rewarded equitably for it. This was not that lesson. This was the pre-requisite lesson, teaching her that opportunities must first be earned: by showing up prepared, with a positive attitude, and demonstrating a willingness to work hard and learn.
I know that at least part of the talk resonated with her. A few days later, my wife said she spoke to the director. Our daughter was doing really well and responding well to instruction. But she was being stubborn about one thing: the director asked her to wear a pair of prop glasses to make her look older, but my daughter refused. "Hmm," I murmured pensively in reply. "I wonder where she got that idea..."