They were a tornado of plaid and elbows running out the doors of their Catholic elementary school. Four of them waved a green piece of paper above their heads excitedly but the kindergartener was just running because she doesn’t know any other speed.
I hardly had time to imagine what was on the green paper before they slammed themselves against the van all eager to be the first to announce something. In the maelstrom of words I made out the phrase “talent show.”
The girls were particularly excited. The 13 year old climbed into the front seat, which still feels strange to me. She told me she was going to perform something by Taylor Swift with two of her classmates. The 11 year old also wanted to sing something by Taylor Swift so there was a brief argument but it was submerged in the excitement.
The ten year old told me she would dribble a basketball through her legs and behind her back and maybe perform some magic. (Not sure how they'd segue but she seemed excited.)
When we arrived home I read the handout and my thirteen year old whispered to bring my attention to the bottom which said that only 1st through 8th could perform. She enjoys these conspiratorial moments because I think it makes her feel like an adult. I think sometimes to grow up someone has to let you.
The five year old did not take the news well. She dropped to her knees in the living room, put her hands on her head, and moaned an anguished yawp as if her visions of grammar school glory were foiled yet again. We all stood back impressed that a five year old could conjure such deep wellsprings of regret given that she'd only heard about the talent show on the way home in the van.
"What were you going to do as your talent anyway?" asked the 11 year old to distract her because her first instinct is to always make things better.
When we received no response I asked the same question. Slowly, she released her head and stared up at me incredulously as if I'd just admitted that I didn't know her at all. "Dance, Dad," she said. "Dance."
Now, mind you, this particular child wore a Batman mask for four years. This past year has been spent swinging styrofoam swords at her brother. I've never seen her dance except out of the way of some invisible missile hurled by an imaginary nemesis. But the way she was acting you'd think she shuffle-stepped out of the womb wearing leg warmers and glitter.
She suddenly stood up and without any music began jumping, twirling, and waving wildly as if someone were shooting at her feet. The kids and I watched her for about twenty seconds enjoying the show and then after about twenty more seconds we started wondering if we'd have to taze her to get her to stop.
When she did finally stop because she’d made herself dizzy she didn't stop and look at us for applause or approval, she simply walked past us and asked her seven year old brother to play in the front room.
“That was great,” called out the eleven year old to her.
As my son followed her, I asked him what talent he'd planned for the talent show.
"Cartwheel," he said and walked out with his sister.
Besides being something that may not sound like a talent because something like 80 percent of children can cartwheel, there was one major problem. He doesn’t know how to cartwheel. Oh, I've seen him do the court jester version where he essentially tumbles sideways with his feet a few inches off the ground.
But I wasn’t going to argue because as it turned out, that next week all my kids got sick. Fevers, coughing, nausea. So they were out of school for a number of days in a row. Then came the weekend and to be honest I'd forgotten all about the talent show. But when I drove them back to school, my 11 year old mentioned that the talent show was that day.
My thirteen year old and the ten year old decided they hadn't prepared anything so they wouldn't be performing but the 11 year old said she'd been practicing the song even when she was sick, whispering it to herself under the blanket. She is constantly singing. When I test her on her spelling words she’ll sometimes sing them to me. She says it helps her remember.
The boy suddenly announced from the back seat of the van that he still wanted to do a cartwheel.
My thirteen year old subtly lifted her eyebrows at me as if to warn me that this was something as a parent I should be heading off. "Uhm," I said, fearing embarrassment for him. "I don't think that's a good idea."
Silence from the back seat.
I listed reasons such as he was just getting over being sick, he hadn't practiced, and there would be another talent show next year. Silence. I was about to turn around just to glance at his face when I heard a murmured “OK.”
And I feel bad about that now. Because when I hear his "OK" in my head now I hear the sadness in it. I know sometimes memory makes us build things up into something they never really were. But I believe that maybe it's sometimes only in memory that we realize the true significance of a moment. How often do we all lay in bed at night and all of a sudden something someone said days ago enters your mind and you find yourself sitting up in bed thinking, "Oh that's what he meant." And then you shudder at the paucity of your response at the time.
When he waved goodbye as he walked towards the school he showed no sign of being upset but I think boys learn early to bury things.
I forgot all about it. The show was at 1 p.m. so I went back home to work when I received a phone call. It was my son's first grade teacher. She asked me if I had forbidden my son from being in the talent show. "Not exactly," I said.
"He came to me this morning," she explained. "And he had tears in his eyes when he told me he wasn't allowed to be in the talent show. He’s upset."
I felt like the worst father in the world at that moment. So I quickly asked her to please tell him he could be in the talent show.
At 1p.m. I signed in with the front office and walked down to the gym/cafeteria/auditorium. I stood in the back and watched while so many wonderful children bravely and amazingly stood up before just about everyone they knew in the world and performed. The shaky nervousness of a little girl's voice, the hesitancy of little fingers searching for a minor chord on the piano, and the thunderous ovations from the children after each performance confirmed in me why this little Catholic school was such a wonderful place.
When it was her turn, my eleven year old walked out into the semi-circle of folding chairs underneath the basketball backboard and she sang beautifully, gaining confidence in her voice with each note, until her classmates began clapping along and there she was - my little girl singing proudly and loudly as if she were alone in her room. Yes!
I was so proud of her. She left to the embrace of other little girls and they all, I'm sure, told her she was great and she told them how great they were. And she was right. They all were.
And then my son was called.
Now, many of the children had costumes or instruments or props of some kind. One girl even had a pogo stick. But out walked my seven year old in his gym uniform staring intently at the floor, his cowlick in the back of his head waving as if it were enjoying the attention.
There was nobody else in the room for him. It was him and his imagination performing the perfect cartwheel. After a few seconds of nothing, there began a low murmur. I could see a few teachers looking at each other seeking in each other's eyes whether they should go ask him if he's alright or just ask him if he wants to get off the stage. But suddenly he sprang into action. No introduction. No hesitancy. My seven year old son ran full speed towards the front row of grandparents, parents, and kindergarteners! And I watched in horror as his arms sprung out in front of him, his feet were suddenly up over his head, and then he landed just inches from the spectators who were leaning back in their chairs.
He did it! The boy actually did it! He did the first actual cartwheel of his life. Exactly when he needed to.
He quickly spun on his heels and walked back towards the center of the "stage." He had everyone's attention. And then he did an even more unexpected thing. The boy bowed and walked off the stage. Nobody knew what to do. Nobody. They watched him walk off. They still weren't sure if he was going to spring into action again so they waited until he sat down with his classmates. I suddenly recalled that every time he’d said what he was going to do, he said “cartwheel” in the singular. He was telling the truth.
The crowd was silent in confusion. Suddenly applause. Loud applause. And laughing in good cheer. I looked at him and I saw him smile. It was a great smile. His classmates were all talking to him and cheering him on.
I hadn’t known I’d been nervous until the knot in my nerves released. I silently thanked God. Not for his first perfect cart wheel but just for that moment of bravery. Because when he started running he had no idea if he could do a cartwheel. And he ran right at the crowd of people.
I was so grateful to be there to see my little boy with his feet where his head should be. That's actually a more apt description of my boy than I set out to write. But I reread it and realize it's true. He's got feet where his head should be.
I wonder if he'll remember that moment. Or whether that moment is just mine. Either way, I'm grateful. It’s one of the gifts that parents come upon unaware.
Supposedly, according to my girls, everyone after the show was talking about the boy who came out and did one cartwheel. Sure, it was mocked a bit. Sure, they didn't know what to make of it. But they'll all forget it. But not me.
And dopey ol' me, I'd almost gotten in the way of it. If it hadn't been for a kindness from his teacher to call me and ask me if he could perform I'd have missed it.
As the children all made their way back to the classrooms I loitered. The boy broke from his classmates, hugged me and asked if I saw him even though he knew I did. I told him he was amazing. Just amazing.
I couldn't have gotten that smile off his face if I'd tried. And I wasn't going to.
Next year I'll let the little one dance her dance because let's face it, that's the only dance worth doing. And if my ten year old wants to do magic while dribbling basketballs, that's ok by me too.
On the way home, the ten year old asked the boy if he was going to do a cartwheel in the next talent show.
"No," he said. "I did it already. So I'll do something else."