13 March 2015
22 Adar 5775
Last night I saw our school musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. It was a true ensemble performance in which our students inspired us with both their extraordinary talent and their tremendous hard work and preparation, especially in light of so many missed rehearsals due to snow days this winter. No amount of talent alone produces a final product as we saw last night. Kol hakavod (way to go) to all of our drama students, both on and off the stage!
The show is a hilarious comedy about a middle school spelling bee. Yet, amidst the laughter and light-hearted mockery, there were many moments when I found myself with tears of sadness in my eyes. While we do see the resiliency of children and their abilities to, ultimately, overcome the pressures of the spelling bee and the existential pains of adolescence, the show portrays the weighty, deeply upsetting realities of the pressures and loneliness children feel as they desperately strive for their parents’ and society’s love and approval. In director Jason Slavick’s words: “As we began working on the show, I realized how deeply human it is—how empathic and moving. And underneath the absurd, comic, awkward characters of the show are all the things that make growing up so challenging . . .”
Who could not feel the pain of the character who longed for her absent parents’ unlikely arrival at the competition and for whom the sadness about their absence trumped the potential joy of winning? Or the little girl-spelling prodigy who really believed that her fathers loved her because she was a winner and who desperately feared that they would no longer love her if she lost?
One of the most humorous yet profound moments in the show was when the joyless, win-at-all-costs competitor conjured up a Jesus character who told her: “I will love you if you lose, and I will love you if you win. I don’t care much about these things anyway.” Only when she found the courage to intentionally misspell a word and throw the competition was she relieved of the emotional and psychological weight of expectations and did she smile for the first time in the show and maybe her life.
The show brings us back to Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset.” We see child-competitors whose entire identities and senses of self are completely dependent on winning or losing. They fear their parents, hate each other, and live in fear of losing because to lose would mean to be a loser. And “nobody loves a loser.” Of course, it’s not really losing a spelling bee or failing a test that children are afraid of, but rather the consequence that might come as a result, namely the loss of parental love and the unraveling of personal identity.
This means that if children are going to develop the intellectual and emotional courage to take risks, to lose and to fail, all of which are necessary if they are going to learn, grow, and develop, they need to have a deep trust and faith in themselves and in their relationships with the people for whose approval they so desperately long. They need to see, feel, and know that their parents and teachers will love them when they win and when they lose, that we care most about the human beings they are and the effort they put in, not about the grade they earn, the championship they win, or the college they get into.
We need to internalize and live out the ethos of the great basketball coach John Wooden, who, incidentally, won 10 national championships in a period of 12 years, and whom Dweck describes in her book Mindset:
“He didn’t demand that his players never lose. He asked for full preparation and full effort from them. ‘Did I win? Did I lose? Those are the wrong questions. The correct question is: Did I make my best effort? If so, he says, you may be outscored, but you will never lose.’”
What would it take for our children to really believe this?
Rabbi Marc Baker