My 7-year-old daughter loves being the center of attention.
But she can’t stand being laughed at. The very thought of making a mistake or inciting laughter by doing something she didn’t mean to be funny is enough to shake her confidence, shut her down and send her to the back of a crowd.
SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, she auditioned to be in her first play at the local community theater, “Beauty and the Beast.” The director called each of the 60 or so children, aged 4 to 16, to the stage in groups of 10. He first asked them to say their names, sing a few lines and sent each group back to their seats. Then he called the groups back up to the stage again, demonstrated a dance to a song from the play and asked each to do the same.
Kalista did great with the singing. I sat in the audience with the other parents, impressed by her ability to follow directions, remember the lyrics and produce a pleasant sound. I knew she had it in her, but wasn’t sure she’d be able to show it to a crowd of strangers.
When it came time to strut her stuff, though, she failed. Not because she wasn’t confident or capable, but because she hadn’t paid attention when the director was demonstrating. I saw this as it happened and wished I could run up to the stage and tell her to listen instead of chat with her new-found cohorts.
On the way home, she told me she hoped she’d get the part of Belle, who is, of course, the main character.
I figured it was a good time to be honest: she wasn’t getting that part. Not only was that likely going to one of the older actresses, but Kalista hadn’t done anything to make the director think she could follow instructions or memorize lines. I figured she’d end up a dancing broom or maybe a tree in the spooky forest around the beast’s castle.
I had to be delicate.
“We’ll see, Kalista,” I said, watching her expression in the rear-view mirror. “But don’t be surprised if you don’t get that part.
“I don’t think you did your best at the audition.”
She was disappointed and a little confused as to where I got such an idea.
“When the director is talking, you need to listen. I saw you talking to those other children while you were waiting to go onstage. You didn’t know the dance he wanted you to do because you weren’t watching when he was demonstrating.”
She ended up a piece of cheese for the play.
THE OTHER NIGHT, KALISTA auditioned for “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” On the way to the theater, I reminded her of the “Beauty and the Beast” letdown.
“Do you remember how disappointed you were when you didn’t get a big part in that play?” I asked in the car, watching her expression in the mirror. “Tonight’s your chance to get a bigger part in this one. The director’s going to ask you to do specific things – and one of the things he or she’s going to want to know is how well you can follow directions.
“Listen, do your best, but remember – have fun with it. If you are yourself, you cannot fail.”
I kept the pep talk up as we waited in the audience for her group of 10 to be called to the front. The last thing I told her as she left her seat was to have fun. She smiled.
First, the director – a woman, this time – asked each child to state his or her full name, age and what they were going to be for Halloween. Kalista – No. 40 – was the last in her group to go.
“My name is Kalista Beverly Schoenberger. I am 7 years old. I am going to be a Vampiress for Christmas.”
Everyone started laughing. Technically, the director had asked for a full name. That wasn’t technically a mistake.
“You mean for Halloween?” the director said with a smile.
Kalista gave her arms a couple of quick flaps in a brief fit of frustration and embarrassment, covered and uncovered her mouth, then corrected herself.
I thought for sure it was over. She’d paid attention, done everything right and even possibly earned herself a spot in the category of one of those “cute” children, but laughter from the audience might have broken her spirit for the next task, I thought.
The director then asked the children to sing a few lines from “Deck the Halls.” Kalista went first …
… and nailed it. She was even animated. I smiled with pride.
Next was a request for a Santa Clause “Ho, ho, ho – Merry Christmas,” followed by one for an evil laugh. Kalista also nailed both of these, showing the same spirit, charisma and charm she had from the start.
Afterward, she met me at my seat and didn’t even have to ask what I thought of her effort. I immediately said how proud I was that she listened and did her best. I didn’t say it, but I was even more proud of her ability to shake off the audience.
“I am sure you’ll get a good part,” I told her.
THE NEXT DAY AT WORK I had a significant presentation to make to a crowd of suit-wearing executives who were, collectively, about 4,342 positions higher than me on the business ladder. It would appear I’m a strong public speaker these days, but facing these men and women was more than slightly intimidating.
Although I try not to, I always recall prior to any speaking event one of my first experiences with a crowd of suit-wearing executive types, when I was a junior in high school.
I was the primary photographer for our school’s yearbook and needed a picture of the school board. So, I attended a very formal school board meeting. At the end, after spending the entire meeting sitting in the corner of this stuffy board room with a glossy table, the school superintendent told the board why I was there and asked them to get in formation.
This was before I had a wide-angle lens – before it was simple to take shots of large groups in close quarters. As I directed the board members (who were all obviously focused on me), looked through my camera, squatted a bit and backed up, my foot hit a chair, so I decided to sit in it.
Trouble was, the chair was actually a couple of feet away from where I’d thought. And I fell straight to the carpet, dropping my camera in the process of flinging my arms in a pathetic attempt to break my fall and – most of all – feeling like an idiot. It was humiliating.
I CARRIED THIS EXPERIENCE with me through college. I passed various public speaking courses, but only because I’d achieved a level of comfort with other students by the time it was my turn to present. As college and my career progressed, I began struggling with presenting to strangers – and nearly clammed up around those who were at all powerful. Sometimes, when I really let the effects of that fateful night in high school get to me, I couldn’t even read something I’d written out loud without my hands shaking or my voice quivering.
The worst, though, was my interview with a woman running for U.S. Senate in North Carolina – my first time chatting with anyone I’d seen on TV. She actually asked me if I had any questions after accompanying her on a tour of a health care facility – and, despite knowing already knowing exactly what I should ask, I gave her what I believed to be the best answer at the time: no.
In fact, if I hadn’t already made friends with her campaign manager, who got me a second chance, I would have returned to the office with the world’s first quote-free political story.
(This was the only time this happened to me as a reporter. I ended up being really good at asking tough questions.)
THE PRESENTATION I had to make at work the day after Kalista’s audition wouldn’t afford a second chance. I had to do well on the first try. Making it through without shaky hands or a quivering voice – merely surviving the experience – wouldn’t be good enough. I had to be the same presenter I was in the car or in the shower, when no one was watching.
I had done my homework and was well prepared. I was armed with well-written, thorough, informative material. I even knew a great way to present it, when and what jokes to use and how to wrap it up. There was no excuse for failure.
I just had to do it.
As I walked into the board room the next day and looked at all the suits, glossy chairs and flashy ink pens, I remembered something: my daughter had just gone through this the night before. To her, that collection of gabbing mothers and cell phone-watching fathers in the seats was no different from the men and women I faced that day. They’d even committed what traditionally crushes her confidence (laughing), yet she got over it and put on a good show.
And I did, too, the next day. I was everything I knew I could be for my presentation: insightful, tenacious and engaging – exceeding my expectations by a long shot. I did my best, had fun and did not fail because I was, for perhaps the first time, myself.
My daughter’s strength, courage and perseverance had given me the power to overcome.
Kalista earned a significant role in “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and will be the oldest child in the family upon whom the play is based.
I, meanwhile, will be the proud dad in the audience.