When I was in middle school… oh, that’s a terrible place to start a story. But I can’t think of a better one.
I was in middle school right when all the critical thinking learning standards started to change. My class was the first class to have those Data-Based Questions, and a few years later a very self-guided “Inquiry Paper,” and in-between a lot of projects and tests for which we were expected to research and synthesize information. I can say phrases like “synthesize information” now, and see how this kind of reading analysis was a precursor to the SAT, but when I was twelve I mostly had no idea what was going on. The teachers had clearly been in some workshops on how to teach this, and while they had the Big Picture in their heads they were not communicating it to us. There were a lot of parent-teacher conferences that year.
But, I digress. A few weeks into seventh grade we did this project with the Buffalo Zoo. They came in and talked about animal habitats, then we were assigned a group, the group was assigned an animal, and we went to the zoo to see the animal in its habitat. Eventually, we were told, we would draw new habitats for our animal that were improvements on what the zoo already had. My group got this little squat-faced, red-assed monkey. I had really wanted to get the tiger.
On the zoo field trip I spent a lot of time looking at the tiger. On the bus ride back I spent a lot of time thinking about the tiger. And when I got back to my desk I had the new tiger habitat all figured out. It would have a passageway through it that looked the same on the inside as it did on the outside, and visitors could walk through as though they were inside the tiger habitat, see exactly the same floor surface and fake rock formations that the tiger was seeing. It was a fabulous idea for a majestic beast like the tiger. The only problem was that my group didn’t have the tiger. We had the red-assed monkey.
So on the day our group was to draw the new habitat I pulled together all of my twelve-year-old courage (which was not very much) and walked over to the tiger group and told them my fabulous idea about the tiger habitat I had imagined with as much panache as I could muster. They nodded, and looked at me a little funny, and went back to drawing (because, of course, they had imagined their own tiger habitat). Then I went back to my group and sulked and didn’t say anything about the tiger habitat. The rest of my group drew a new monkey habitat, and it was basically a little cement box with a tire swing.
Through the rest of middle and into high school I thought back to this story a lot. The day of the drawing was burned into my memory, and I thought that it was stuck there because I had never before pulled off the level of courage I had when I told the tiger group about how to draw the tiger habitat. And then I started making theater.
There’s this anecdote that gets told in theater a lot, particularly when you’re just starting out. It’s about an actor who goes out for the role of Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, and though he puts his all into auditions he’s just terrible. There’s no way the director can cast him in the lead, but he does find it in his heart to cast him as Friar Lawrence. By the time opening night is rolling around he’s told all his friends and family that they should come see his show. And what’s it about? It’s about this Friar who gets caught in the middle of a tragic love story…
So what does this have to do with middle school tigers (if you haven’t already started putting it together)? The actor got right everything that I got wrong. This guy took his red-assed monkey out of the cement box, worked on it really hard, and made something amazing that he was proud of. Both he, and the monkey, ended up benefitting. But me? I shortchanged both the monkey and the tiger. I didn’t communicate properly, and couldn’t adapt my idea to fit my actual situation, so nobody got any benefit from me. In fact, I’m pretty sure I dragged them down by being awkward and sulky.
Ultimately, this story is about communication and adaptation, and if you ask me those are the keys to both self-reliance and risk-taking. You must share your ideas – like crazy, in fact – even if you sometimes get shot down, because you never know when the right person is listening. And when you do get shot down, you must put your big-girl pants on and adapt. That doesn’t mean drown the monkey, or stuff the tiger (well, sometimes. But that’s another story). It just means wiggling things around until they are just right. That’s what work is. It’s not easy. But sometimes it’s good for your monkey.