One of my all-time favorite moments in school life is watching student performances, especially when the performers are little and new to the stage. And at these performances, I never really know whom to watch: the children themselves or the parents watching the children. Both perspectives are equally wonderful. Like insistent referees, the parents are waving, trying to let their child know where they are, and the students are waving back, sometimes with exuberance, high and hard, and sometimes quietly with a low, little wave and a small, head-looking-down smile to go with it. To tell the truth, most of the time, I’m watching the parents and thinking about that privilege of witnessing and that all-important thing called “being there.”
But there’s another reason I love these school performances, and that has to do with the sheer architecture of the moment. There’s a boundary and a separation—both figuratively and literally—in performances: a stage and an audience, and rarely can these two be one. Even if I watch you as parents mouthing every line from every part your child plays, you can’t be up on that stage delivering those words. You can’t dance across the stage next to them, and you can’t sing harmony alongside them. This is theirs, all theirs, and that certain ownership gives integrity to their own learning. I think about this when I talk to parents about the risk of a child’s academic dependency on you for either motivation or performance, a dangerous relationship that ultimately can lead to a kind of scholastic paralysis in which they are perpetually muddled without you. It’s good to remember that our jobs are to provide the opportunities, that stage, and their job is to make a life of that opportunity, a life of one’s own. And that’s exactly what they are doing on that stage.
I also love these moments because sometimes things can go off track, right there in front of us, for all to see. And, most important, while mistakes are made, everyone lives to tell the tale: everyone. In a dance routine, someone turns right as everyone else pivots left. Someone does a knee bend, deep down, when all others are reaching high up for the sky. Someone else swishes onstage with authority when not actually cued for, and many, many lines are forgotten or uttered backward, making them sound more like Yoda than actor. Mistakes are part of life, and making them and then making something out of them is perhaps the most important part of learning and growing up. And even if you can’t see them when they happen off the stage, these moments also live in our classrooms, on our spelling tests, our papers, our lab reports and our examinations. It’s part of the plan; it’s part of the learning. As parents, our best stance is as witnesses, equally firm in empathic acknowledgement and strategic distance.
And don’t forget that this stage is also a field, a court and a track. Athletics, too, offers that stage for witnessing. Playing on a team or competing at a meet holds those same dimensions as performances do. It’s all about the learning, and we, as parents, get to watch. And as with drama or dance, the variables are legion, and mistakes are nothing but opportunities. I remember once hearing a parent wonder aloud why his daughter wasn’t more “consistent.” While she couldn’t miss a layup at the last game, at this one, she couldn’t nail one. It made me think about the last meeting I led during which I wasn’t so sharp, or the last talk I gave that wasn’t my best or the class I taught that was just OK.
But the best part of this witnessing is the witnessing itself. You get to be there. You get to see your child at work, even as they wear their metaphoric “work in progress” sign around their neck. And yes, at each witnessing there is that push-pull that parents know like nobody else: that stay-where-you-are-little-one-and-don’t-get-a-minute-older thought living simultaneously with the wow-look-at-their-amazing-growth one.
In my first headship, my son went to a different high school from mine. When his basketball team was to play my school’s team, we made a deal. I would call out his name three times in loud cheer while sitting on my school’s side, and he, when making his first shot, would find me in the stands, point and “give” me that basket. Unexpectedly, it took him forever to get that first basket, and I had long ago and three times hollered out his name. But, after the half, his usually strong outside shot finally went in, and he turned, searching the stands for me. When he found me, he smiled and pointed. He had a look on his face that I will never forget, ever. And that’s what I mean about witnessing.