My Fair Lesson

Fail, fail again, fail better.
— Pema Chodron

I'm just back from a high school reunion where you get to see people you haven't seen in years--people who have struggled and people who have succeeded. People who have had a great year and people who are in a tough year.  People who love their kids and their families. But in addition to seeing old friends at a reunion, you also get to see yourself, your high school self--and wonder at the things that high school self did and the things she didn't do. The things she said and didn't say. And the the kindnesses she shared or held back. And on the four hour ride home from the reunion I had the time to reflect on the things I tried to do and failed at, and the things that I persevered at and succeeded--all of which I can see as the seeds of competence or perseverance across my life. But the seeds of courage were different. They seem to rest in the things that I didn't do then or couldn't risk. I can see that my adult courage began as fear. 

In the fall of 1981 I was not the star of the high school musical. The star was a young woman named Stacy Jarvis. She played Eliza Doolittle to Joe Scorese’s Henry Higgins in what I remember as one of the great New Jersey high school renditions of My Fair Lady. The real reason I was not the star was because Stacy was a gifted singer with a beautiful voice. She had been singing the national anthem and starring in high school shows since grade school.

But the important reason I wasn’t the star or even in the play at all was because on the afternoon of the audition I walked out of the auditorium.  After weeks of practicing the songs at home with the album from the library, I took one look at the crowd of kids gathered by the seats and walked out the door and sat under the stairs that led to the second floor.  From underneath the stairs I could hear everyone else, and I imagined that at some point I would regain my nerve and actually go and audition. But I didn’t. I waited until everyone finished and then I walked home.

I don’t remember now exactly what sent me hiding under the stairs, but I think it was fear of failing. But I do remember exactly how I felt on the walk home. I felt like I had lost the opportunity to do something amazing—as if I had been asked to suddenly go to Hawaii, and instead I had said “no” and walked home. I felt a huge sense of loss at the possibilities and the adventure I had left behind. I think most of all I was shocked that the mistake of not trying something –of protecting myself from failing, felt so much worse than failing itself.

I would never have gotten the role of Eliza. But I didn’t trust myself enough to survive the fall- or risk failing. Over the last 35 years I can’t say that I have grown to love making mistakes any more than I did then. I am not a personality that likes being a beginner—I like being able to already ‘do it.’ But the mistake of not making a mistake has propelled me into more experiences than any other. Whenever I feel fear of a new project, new conversation or new situation there is still a part of me that wants to pull back, that wishes for some protection from the anticipated mistakes, that is looking for the 2017 version of the stairs. But the other part of me is sitting at opening night in 1981.

On opening night Stacy wore a white dress and gloves in the scene at the Ball. Joe wore a tuxedo. I don’t remember what I wore, but if I had to guess it was jeans and my favorite Penn sweatshirt. When I am unsure about doing something new or risky I can see that sixteen year old girl in the audience looking at me. I see her watching a show that she wanted to be singing in. And she sees me and says, “whatever you are afraid of, it’s not as hard as this is. Go do it.” I know now that the risk of singing off key is not nearly as dangerous to the psyche as seeking safety under the stairs.  And with each passing year I remain committed to singing off key, to trying it anyway, knowing that I can as Pema Chodron says, fail, fail again, fail better. 

© Gretchen Schmelzer, PhD 2017