I believe in talent shows. I believe in the process of scotch-taping a piece of notebook paper to a wall and seeing how it fills up.
A friend of mine is a high school drama teacher. During the intermission of one of her plays, I wandered the halls and came across such a sheet. As I scanned the list of scrawled names, I imagined groupings of likely acts. There would be the kids taking some kind of lessons – probably piano and guitar, but I’d like to think an earnest saxophone or perhaps an old-school accordion solo might surface. Then there would be the dance routines, the singers and lip-synchers, and the comedy acts (corny summer camp skits, maybe puppets, girls dressed as babies, or boys dressed as the drill team.)
The following night, I went to a dinner party and found myself in a philosophical discussion about American Idol. The most vocal were the parents, who felt obligated to act as a buffer between their children and the celebrated “be the best or be severely ridiculed” culture.
As I stood there listening, reluctantly getting their point, I was reminded of the Gong Show, the wildly inappropriate amateur talent competition show from the late 1970’s. My parents hated that show, and I doubt that my brother and I were allowed to watch it. But we didn’t need to. The high concept philosophy was instantly digestible – regular people with highly diverse levels of talent dare to perform in front of inappropriate but predictable B-level celebrities. The dramatic climax of both shows was the inevitable confrontation with the voice of judgment – Simon Cowell of the former, and the Gong of the latter. You can’t be on the show without facing the big clanging noise. What seems to matter as much as your talent is the way you handle the big clanging noise.
The best part of any talent show is that, amidst the predictability, something unexpected and wonderful almost always happens. In 7th grade, it was the teachers who legitimately stole that year’s talent show. The distinctive organ chords of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” buzzed from the crackly auditorium loudspeaker. We squinted and strained our necks toward the wings of the darkened stage. Finally, the double doors at the back auditorium burst open and we all turned our heads. Four young, black teachers of my predominately white, middle-class alternative school emerged, dressed in black turtlenecks and linked together by a brown and green construction-paper grapevine. They slithered and grooved down the aisle, across the stage, and back up the other aisle, and back out the door in a single fluid motion. I learned a lesson in passionate understatement that day that I have not forgotten.
I believe there is tremendous power in being a participant among other participants. But it takes courage, it takes practice. And it starts with the writing of your name on that piece of notebook paper.
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