Last year for six months, the sound of a tug boat — sometimes a tug boat blowing into a foghorn — traveled from my son’s room and filled our whole house. In 5th grade, he was told to practice his saxophone every night for 20 minutes, and he refused to miss a night, even when we said it was okay to miss “just this once.” It was hard on the rest of us who treasured peace, but we still told him it sounded great and that he was getting there. And then one day before we knew it, we heard a song – a recognizable one. My son had become a saxophone player, sounding out Happy Birthday, and Jingle Bells, and even the theme from Charlie Brown’s Christmas.
So this year when he signed up to be in a solo competition, I knew he’d do just fine. Better than fine. The night before the solo, he adjusted his reed at least 12 times, trying to get rid of a little squeak that had been annoying him all week. Then he played me a few songs and went to bed feeling confident. But the next morning when we got to school and he assembled his sax, he started to look nervous.
“What if it squeaks? I need to test it but I can’t,” he said.
I told him that since he had a little time to kill, he should go into a classroom and close the door and test it. But my rule follower told me, “No, mom. We aren’t allowed in the classrooms.” I tried making several other suggestions to ease his mind, but he wouldn’t listen to any of them. So we headed into the room where the judge sat — the room where my son would be judged. I sat in a student desk while he stood in front of the room.
“Go ahead,” said the judge stoically from behind a desk.
He blew into his sax and let out a few notes, then a loud, unmistakeable squeal. He took his mouth away from the reed and looked over at the judge with a forced smile.
“Make sure your reed is wet,” she said. He nodded and tried again. And again, there was a squeak. My heart beat fast inside my chest.
“He’s been having trouble with this,” I said from behind my desk, feeling like I needed to do something to save him. But it was obvious that it wasn’t something in which I should be involved – it was simply between him and her.
She told him to start again, and for an entire song, he forced his way through ear-splitting squeaks. He was so brave, not letting a tear drop, but I could feel myself wanting to sob for him. My perfectionist was enduring torture, and there was nothing I could do about it.
After the song was over, the judge came over and showed him how to adjust his sax. The problem was with the “D” key, she said. It was just a little too tight. He nodded politely and thanked her, then we walked out of the room.
And that’s when his tears flowed.
“I was horrible,” he said.
“No you weren’t,” I told him. “You played the right notes. It was just a mechanical error.”
I thought of every reassuring thing to say. “You weren’t that bad” and “If you didn’t get a high mark this time, think of how good next time will feel.” The truth is, nothing I said made him feel any better. We waited anxiously for his score to be posted, and I’m pretty sure my anxiety was higher than his. When he finally saw it, he sighed with relief.
His score was not the highest, but not the lowest. It was the one that most of the other students received. The judge must have either taken pity on him, or realized the squeaking was not his fault. Either way, he was a happy camper, and I was able to breathe again.
Even though my first experience watching someone else critique my child turned out okay, I know that sometime in the near future, it may not work out that way. For years I’ve watched him play baseball and basketball, telling him “Great job” for doing his best, even when he struck out or missed a free throw. My goal has been to build him up and make him a confident player, because he is his biggest critic. But after many seasons of playing just for fun, on teams with coaches who asked him to play for them, he will try out for middle school sports. He’ll stand — or try out — in front of judges who will tell him whether he is good enough for them or not. And no matter what I say or do, I can’t prevent the worst possible scenario — the worst possible “score”.
So before the tryouts, I want to write a letter to my son. Even though at this age, the things I say might not make sense to him, and he may not ever read it, I have to get it off my chest for my own peace of mind. Here goes.
For seven years, I have loved to watch you play sports. From a three-foot-tall preschooler standing at the tee to this big guy who’s almost my size, you’ve learned so much and have become such a strong, smart player. I have loved watching you laugh with your friends, and seeing the proud look on your face and fist pump you make when you strike someone out or make a basket. As a mom, I wish we could keep sports the way they have been so far — fun and relaxed. But because I know how badly you want to continue playing in school, I’m going to have to make myself do something this year that no mom wants to do: I have to let someone else tell you if you’re good enough to play.
I don’t want to. If it were up to me, I’d protect you from every potentially heartbreaking experience I could. I would find a team for anything you want to play and stick you on it, as long as you get plenty of field or court time. But because I know this is what you want, I’m going to have to let you compete against other boys for your positions — some of them may even be your best friends. And I want to tell you that you will be the one to make it — that you will be the best. But instead, I have to tell you something else:
You are not the best.
None of you are.
Some of the boys who try out might play great that day, but some of you who are nervous might not play so well. The coaches who will be watching you don’t know the potential you have like your parents do, or like the guys who have coached you for years before. They are simply looking for the players who play their best that day — the ones who will form a good team. So the only thing you can do is play your hardest, remember everything you’ve learned so far, and give them your best.
And if you make it, we will celebrate together. I will jump for joy when you receive that call or burst through the door telling me the news. I will come to every game I can and cheer you on just like I have before.
And if you don’t make it, the first thing I will want to do is drive right up to your school and punch each of the coaches right in the nose and tell them they don’t know a good player when they see one. But I think you know — I can’t do that.
Because as much as I really would like to fight for you, I won’t be able to do it forever. You won’t always make the team, or get the best grade, or make it into the college you want to attend, or get the dream job for which you apply. And it will feel terrible. Rejection hurts.
I know this, because I have been rejected. This year alone, I’ve received several letters from magazines in which I wanted to place my stories, stating that my work was not a good fit for them. But I am old enough and have been through enough to know that it doesn’t mean that I am not good enough….it just means they were looking for something different for now. And what I must do is submit it to the next magazine, or to the next editor, or write a different story.
It might be hard for you to understand at this age, but what I’m trying to say is that if you don’t happen to make the team right now, it doesn’t mean YOU are not good enough. You know in your heart that you love these sports and have practiced for enough years that you know the ins and outs of how to play them well. So we will find another team for you to play on, and you will keep practicing, and try out again next year if that’s what you want to do.
The most important thing I want you to know is that I will be proud of you — SO proud — whether you make the team or not. It takes a lot of courage to put yourself in a position to be judged, and that alone deserves a giant round of applause.
I am, and will always be, your biggest fan.