When I was 17 years old I was given a job that I did not want to do, because I did not feel I was capable of it. By the time that job ended, I had learned firsthand about the sweet thrill of unexpected triumph. More than that, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
In the early 1990s, my mother produced a summer stock theater company in central Maine, and in addition to putting on musicals, she offered a theatrical camp for local kids, one that she’d hire a professional actor to run. That summer, just a few days before the camp was to begin, the professional actor she’d hired bailed on the job. Twenty-two kids between the ages of eight and 12 were signed up, eager to take part in a musical version of “Charlotte’s Web.”
“I guess you’ll have to cancel,” I said. My mother looked at me and grinned. “I won’t have to cancel, because you will teach the camp, Jen.” Me? Was my mom nuts? I had only just finished my junior year of high school, and apart from some sporadic babysitting gigs, I had zero experience with teaching little kids.
“You’ve been in plays all your life, you know everything you need to know,” Mom reassured me.
I was in a panic. “But what if something happens and I don’t know what to do?”
Mom’s reply was one that would become the go-to mantra of my life: “You’ll figure it out.”
As I dipped my toes into an uncharted sea of theater direction, the learning curve was steep, but exhilarating. Fresh from the oppressive high school world of answering to bells and the demands of teachers, I found the autonomy and freedom of my director’s role completely intoxicating. I could make decisions on my own and if something wasn’t working, I could change it. I made huge, sweeping changes to the script, I cut scenes that I found boring, I added animal characters because more kids wanted those roles and why not please them? I also put a rather arbitrary dance break into the show because, well, because I was 17 years old and felt strongly that random dance breaks were essential components of quality theater.
My students were funny and trusting and kind. I learned how to sort out their interpersonal squabbles, ease their disappointments about roles and dismantle their arguments about snacks. Screwing up was also a giant part of this learning. As a director, I tended to be disorganized and messy; I let the kids paint without a drop cloth and ruined a wooden floor. I let them run through the building, screaming at the tops of their lungs and got thoroughly scolded by a custodian. I learned that failure and mistakes were embarrassing, but not soul crushing, and so I didn’t fear them quite so much. I realized that I could always fix something that wasn’t working, and I learned that if I needed it I could always ask for help. Having all of that responsibility thrust upon me was a new sensation, and the realization that I was indeed capable of that responsibility was a huge leap in my understanding of self. I hadn’t thought that I could do a decent job, but I had been wrong. And, if I could be a good theater director, then what else could I be good at? The world had opened up to me and it was larger, grander, more ripe and delicious than before.
If it sounds like my mom just threw me to the wolves with that job assignment, rest assured, she stayed nearby as I plunged into the work, but she also gave me a wide berth and never hovered. She trusted that I had the skills to accomplish the task, and she also trusted me to make mistakes, to troubleshoot along the way and to learn by doing. Apart from giving me life and loving me, I believe that giving me that job was the best thing my mother ever could have done for me. She taught me that no challenge, however daunting or unfamiliar or scary, was beyond my reach if I was open to trying. By taking that leap of parental faith, my mother gave me the ultimate gift: an understanding of the depth and breadth of my potential as a learner. Eight years after that initial leap into directing, I earned my master’s degree in drama education and founded the Sheridan Arts Foundation Young People’s Theater in Telluride.
What can our children accomplish, what heights will they hit and what people will they become if we are only brave enough to stand back and allow them to try, and better yet, allow them to fail? It’s not always easy to be that kind of parent but Trav and I try to be. I was terrified when we first lived aboard our sailboat, and Trav taught the kids to start and drive the dinghy when they were six and nine years old. My what-if brain threatened to put the kibosh on the whole thing, and then I remembered — do not ever underestimate children. They are capable of far more than we realize. The result was that Hud and Viv learned to drive that outboard with ease far before I did, and when I told my mother the story, her face glowed with satisfaction. I had paid attention to her example. I was letting my own children figure it out.