Monday, June 6, 2011

Lessons from Season 10

Joan T. Hocky
Expectation: The act or state of looking forward or anticipating

Surprise:  To strike or occur to with a sudden feeling of wonder or astonishment
Two stories:

1. A girl grows up in Port Arthur, Texas. On the surface, she has a nice, middle class life: dad is an engineer, mom is a registrar at the local college and she has two protective older sisters. But life is anything but easy. She’s overweight with acne and long stringy hair and the kids in school all tease her for being ugly and weird. She spends hours every night holed up in her room, listening to Bessie Smith sing the blues and imagining life as an artist or musician, somewhere far away from where she lives.

She finishes high school, goes off to college (UT Austin, the flagship school), but things are no better—even in a big university town. Lonely and miserable, still dreaming of life as a musician,she escapes to California, where she falls in with a group of rockers, lives on a houseboat in Sausalito, starts singing with a band.

The fact is, the dream has legs: incredibly talented and impassioned in performance, she headlines a band that plays to growing audiences, eventually appearing at a big music festival. She sings her heart out, and people listen; all sorts of people. Even well-known performers are riveted by her raw talent. The girl, now woman, becomes famous.

Ten years later, now a seasoned performer, she decides to go back to Port Arthur for her 10th high school reunion. The great return, she imagines. Acclaimed singer and recording artist goes back home and is celebrated for who she is, who she has become. They will see the weirdness now shaped into a fine eccentricity, her former ugliness, now just unusual, will be interesting, attractive even. They’ll be so proud to say she was one of their’s.

But the homecoming is a major disappointment. She is not embraced or welcomed; she is shunned, still misunderstood by her small town peers. Dejected, she goes back to California...and months later, while recording what will be her final album, she is found comatose in her hotel room, dead from a drug overdose.

2. A boy grows up in Santa Cruz, California with his parents and two older sisters. His dad, a talented bass player and jazz musician, dies of a drug overdose when the boy is only nine. He struggles socially and academically, and in middle school is diagnosed with both Tourette's and Asperger's syndromes by doctors at Stanford Medical Center. The facial tics and social uneasiness are so discomfiting, and the teasing of other children so relentless, that sometimes he escapes school and disappears to a nearby park, where he sways on the swings, soothed by the motion.

Amidst his struggles, there is one saving grace: he loves to sing. Through all the teasing and loneliness, he has his voice. He joins a music theatre group. It’s hard for him to be part of the group socially, but when on the stage—a place that makes most people uneasy— all the awkwardness and tension melts away and he stands radiant and comfortable in his body.

School is still hard, and he drops out in 11th grade. But he keeps performing. He stars in plays, becomes the lead singer in a band, tours the region. Then he tries out for a national singing competition. Suddenly the boy— now young man— is on TV. The judges praise him. The audience loves him. He has fans, complete strangers all over the country, who cheer him on every week.

Buoyant and confident, he eventually places 4th among thousands of contestants.

A big celebration is planned in Santa Cruz to welcome him home. He visits the theatre groups where he got his start, and then is taken through town on afloat in a parade to the boardwalk where 30,000 people have gathered to hear him perform. The painfully awkward, once bullied boy is now a hometown hero.

There are so many common threads in these stories, similar hardships and passions; a trajectory of triumph and disappointment, talent discovered, dreams played out. Stages, where both found peace they knew nowhere else.

“There is a oneness with the audience,” the girl says.

“The awkwardness dissolves,” the boy explains.

And yet such different endings. What does it tell us? The most solid foundation can’t save some of us, and the harshest challenges can’t stop others. Grace, and timing, and luck, matter. Life can exceed our expectations. Or never reach them.

Janis Joplin died of a drug overdose at age 28. The album she was recording, Pearl, was released posthumously, becoming the best selling album of her career and one of the most acclaimed of all time. James Durbin, a 22 year old contestant on American Idol, is very much alive, still adjusting to life after the homecoming.

Stories. Everyone has one, my older son tells me. He means the brief narratives—captions really— of all the contestants: the Italian girl from Queens who always wanted to perform, the boy from the rough streets of Compton who sings like an angel, and the country cowboy who loves his mama, horses, and music. There is more to their stories than that, I try to explain, it’s just manufactured copy, a way to make each contestant a sort of character. But I stop myself – the critique: of the competition’s premise, with its improbably older, non judgemental judges and the tween and adolescent voters, the played out contests and results - is endless, and completely valid. But none of it matters, none of it except for the fact that we are sitting here together.

I could say that I only watch as a way of bonding with him, the 12-year-old going on 17 who lives in my house. And that is true, up to a point, but once I meet Tthe heavy metal rocker who has overcome hardship, I’m a goner. Bullied and teased throughout his childhood. “I have Tourette's and Asperger's,” he says, “they don’t have me”.

As the mother of a 10-year-old boy with autism, my response is visceral. I don’t for a moment even imagine that my son will some day be up on a stage singing Judas Priest songs to a roomful of screaming adolescents. He has limited language, communicating with the simplest of words and phrases, light years away from his peers in any measurable way. But he has perfect pitch and perfect memory for songs, and the sweetest voice I’ve ever heard. If we lived in some other culture, some African tribe or rural community with its own customs and folk rituals, his deficits might not define him. They’d see him for the beautiful brilliant boy he is, they’d know the man he could become. But I holdout hope that even here, in our language-laden, fast-paced technological world, he can still transcend his labels.

“He’s incredibly talented, but never in my wildest dreams could I imagine him doing this,” they say. ‘They’ are the music teacher, the theatre director, the family friend, the band mate. Astonishment. That is the common thread— to quash expectations and leave people’s mouths open. “I never thought he could do that,” they’ll say, whatever “that” is— the thing with feathers, the thing that defies assumptions, that leaves people speechless.

Because it’s hard being underestimated, or so I imagine. It’s hard being a parent to the underestimated. It’s hard having dreams that aren’t shared, like a secret locked away in your room. You know, you feel the potential, but can you convince anyone else?

And so I, along with my older son— the 12-year-old I sit and watch with— like to hear this story, the whole arc of it. To see the culmination of a dream manifested. The rest of them can be characters, or caricatures, the product of an overwrought TV drama. But just let this one story be real: that life is full of wonder, and everyone— anyone —can surprise you.