After the Boston Marathon bombing, my mother sent me an email that read, “I’m just so sad about the state of the world.” As events unfolded in the days that followed, I too felt pulled under by the heaviness weighing on my heart–distressed by the madness of it all, and fearful of what lay ahead not only for myself, but for my young daughters. But later that week, while sitting in a high school auditorium, I caught a different glimpse of the future. And what I saw gave me hope.
My friend Sue had saved me a seat next to her in the second row. Her fifteen-year-old son was making his singing debut at the annual spring talent show. He hadn’t planned on trying out, but at the last moment, threw his hat in the ring and was surprised to earn a spot on stage. In the three weeks between his audition and the show, he’d spent all his spare time practicing.
“How’s Liam?” I asked, as I settled into my seat.
“He’s pretty nervous,” said Sue, looking a bit strained herself.
The auditorium filled quickly as we sat waiting for the show to begin. Families, high school staff, and large groups of boisterous teenagers claimed every seat. A frenzied excitement grew as boys in the balcony heckled performers who popped their heads out from behind the curtains. Groups of girls ran up and down the aisles in a pre-show game of musical chairs. I worried that the frenetic energy might grow out of control, but when the lights were finally lowered, the crowd hushed each other loudly and settled down.
A fresh-faced emcee, cracking bad jokes that made the audience groan good-naturedly, introduced a parade of first-half acts. Boy bands wearing skinny jeans coolly strummed their guitars to obscure Indie hits. A Native American girl proudly performed an intricate hoop dance. Girls in short skirts and dangerously high heels belted out pop songs they’d been practicing in front of their bathroom mirrors. Before, during, and after each performance, the student body clapped, stomped, and cheered wildly–an unrestrained outpouring of approval. Onstage, the performers smiled shyly with pleasure at the attention. My sadness slowly diffused, my heart lightened by the earnest tenacity of the performers and the enthusiasm of the crowd.
And then it was Liam’s turn. His accompanist took her place at the piano while Liam, looking a little pale, sat on a tall stool center stage. The song he’d chosen was “Mad World,” a hauntingly beautiful yet depressing commentary on contemporary life. Liam’s version was low, throaty, and melancholy. As he sang, a hush fell over the auditorium. Then, just as he started the second verse, Liam’s face went blank. He’d lost his place. As the music went on without him, he slumped his shoulders and buried his head in his hands. It was heartbreaking to watch. The audience was silent as we collectively held our breath. His mother sat very still with her hands clasped in a tight knot.
Several more seconds passed. I kept thinking, “Don’t walk off the stage, Liam. Don’t walk off the stage.” Liam, pinned in place, trapped by his memory lapse, threw several panicked glances over his shoulder at his accompanist. Calmly, she continued to play a looping melody. Just as the tension became unbearable, a young voice from the back of the audience cried out, “YOU CAN DO IT!”
The words hovered in the air for a moment and then were followed by a chorus of teenage voices. “DON’T GIVE UP!” “YOU CAN DO IT, LIAM!” “YOU CAN DO IT!”
Startled, Liam lifted his head. There was another quick burst of cheers, and then all at once the voices quieted. A few more seconds passed and then, taking a deep breath, Liam lifted the microphone back up to his mouth, and resumed singing.
“I find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take
When people run in circles it’s a very, very
Mad world, mad world.”
Liam finished his song, his emotions quivering just below the surface. When he was done, he quickly left the stage, his head bowed. The applause that followed him was thunderous. As I clapped and hollered along with everyone else, I hoped that Liam could hear us from behind the curtains. I hoped he felt honored for finding the courage to finish the brave act he’d started and for his talented performance.
During intermission, Liam’s parents went in search of their son. When Sue returned, I asked how Liam was doing. Wide-eyed, she told me that he was okay. “He said that right after his performance, Giacomo talked with him.”
I knew Giacomo. He was the son of another friend, an easy going, likable kid. Older than Liam, Giacomo was a gifted and seasoned performer. He’d been accepted into the Berklee School of Music.
“Giacomo told him that what happened on stage actually worked for that song. That it made it a better performance,” said Sue. To my surprise, I realized that Giacomo was right. Liam’s emotional delivery only served to enhance the angst-ridden lyrics of “Mad World.”
“Liam is so pumped that he’s already talking about trying out again next year.”
Before we could say more, the lights were again lowered. As the emcee introduced the second act, my heart bloomed with love for Liam, for Giacomo, and for every teenager in that audience. It is so easy to paint young adults with a wide brush. Because we fear their raw wild energy, we quickly slap them with the customary labels: irresponsible, thoughtless, rude, and disrespectful. But to do so makes us blind to their fortitude and pluck, their acts of grace and kindness, and their ernest belief that “YOU CAN DO IT.” That we all can do it if we just don’t give up.
The second half of the show was as good as the first. One performer dedicated a rap song to the children lost during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting earlier this year. “So we don’t forget,” said the young boy. Tears filled my eyes, and I realized that part of me had forgotten. In the busyness of my daily life, I had forgotten what those families would never be able to forget. But this student hadn’t because he, like all the rest of the students in that auditorium, had to live with the fact that one day someone might walk into their classroom and start shooting. That is the mad world we live in.
Yet here was a room full of teenagers who refuse to buckle under either the labels we give them or the heavy burden of sadness and fear that threatens to tip our world on its axis. Yes, it is a mad, mad world, but I have hope because of what I experienced while sitting in that high school auditorium. The members of the generation to come have hearts that beat with determination and fearlessness, exceptional kindness and wild optimism. The fears I’d carried with me that week were assuaged knowing that these young people are our future.
Near the end of the show, one of the singers flubbed her lines. She stopped, laughed bravely and said, “It’s all right. It’s all good,” before starting up again.
She’s correct. It is all good. She is good as are Liam and Giacomo and all the other teenagers who filled that auditorium to the brim with their earnest hope. And because of them, despite this mad world of ours, our future is going to be all right.