Monday, February 6, 2012

There's winners and there's losers (and I'm south of the line)

If you've ever had a baby - or, like me, have watched your wife have a baby - you're probably familiar with the Apgar score.

The Apgar score is a way for doctors to instantly assess the health of a newborn baby. It takes into account things like pulse rate, muscle tone and breathing, and it's done on a scale of 1 to 10.

I can't remember the exact Apgar scores of my five children when they were born, but I'm pretty sure they were all something like 9 (there may have been one 8 in there, I don't know). But what I do remember is that none of them got a 10.

In every instance, this genuinely offended me as a father. These kids were seconds old, dripping in goo and in some cases still physically attached to their mother through a slimy umbilical cord, and already someone was judging them...and finding them lacking.

"Wait, why didn't my kid get a perfect score? What's wrong with her? She's beautiful and perfect, DO YOU HEAR ME? SHE'S PERFECT!"

As if the case with almost everything in my life, I now realize that I was an idiot. The Apgar score obviously is not a measure of a baby's worth as a person, but right away I became The Overbearing Protective Father.

If one of my kids had received, say, an Apgar score of 5 or less, I guarantee you my thought process would have been something like, "Oh no, he's deformed. All of the other kids are going to make fun of him. He'll have no confidence and won't be able to get into an elite kindergarten. That, of course, will put him on the 'normal track,' and Harvard and Princeton will never accept him. I've already failed as a parent!"

(NOTE: If this sounds neurotic to you, it is. I'm a far mellower dad now than I was 18 years ago when Elissa was born, though most of the time back then I kept my insane thoughts to myself. Thankfully.)

Anyway, I bring this up in the wake of Solo & Ensemble Contest, which we attended on Saturday at Cleveland Heights High School. For those of you who aren't band geeks, Solo & Ensemble Contest - or just "Contest," as it's commonly referred to - is an annual event in which instrumental and vocal students perform in front of judges, who in turn assess their performances and given them ratings from 1 to 5...or actually "I to V," since they use Roman numerals.

Not every band kid participates in Contest, but a lot do. Terry and I did when we were in high school, so between that and the fact that their private lessons teachers would find it unacceptable if they didn't, Elissa and Chloe also endure the Contest experience each year.

What happens is that your band teacher or private instructor assigns you a piece to perform, usually something classical and challenging to play. Then you practice it for months on end in preparation for a single 10-minute period when you have to play it for a judge. The goal is to earn a "1" (superior) rating because...well, I don't know the "because." Really, until this moment, I never considered why this is done. To make you a better musician? To teach you something about the value of hard work and discipline? To humiliate you in front of others? I'll say yes, yes and yes.

The kids put a lot of work into the process, and it's always a nerve-wracking thing when it's time to walk down to your performance room and play your piece for evaluation. "Nerve-wracking," that is, for the parents. The kids get nervous, too, but nothing like the parents, believe me.

I hate the whole Contest experience only because I'm afraid my kid will feel like a failure if he/she falls short of his goal. And since the kids have my nonsensical, stress-inducing tendency toward perfectionism, the goal for them is always a "1." Always. They're like little Asian overachievers, and I'm seriously afraid they'll slit their wrists if they get anything less than the top score.

Because honestly, I don't care if they get a "1" or not. I would like them to earn the highest rating, of course, but it's not that big a deal to me if they don't. But it IS a big deal to them, and I don't want them to feel bad. So I worry. And get really nervous. And so does Terry.

When Elissa was playing her solo on Saturday, I glanced over at Terry at one point and noticed she was doing the same thing I was doing: Looking straight down toward the floor. I did it because it made the knot in my stomach even bigger if I looked at Elissa while she played. Terry did it because she figured eye contact would make Elissa more nervous. Our family is just one big, sensitive Ball of Nervous at Contest. What should be a fun experience instead shortens each of our life spans by five years.

I feel the same way at spelling bees. The whole thing is unpleasant for me. Really, any event in which my kid will be evaluated, judged, assessed and/or otherwise put up for appraisal makes my insides churn. I know it's good for them, but I don't like it.

Now Elissa is a senior on the verge of entering college, and the whole competition thing is even worse: What's your class rank? Your SAT score? Your ACT score? Your grades?

This Sunday she and two teammates will be taping an episode of "Academic Challenge" to air on Cleveland's WEWS Channel 5 in the spring. They'll be up against two other schools, which means there will be a winning team and two losing teams. Get that? Only 33% of participants will succeed, while the other 67% will fail. That's the way it is, and either way my heart will be racing.

It almost makes me look forward 15 or 20 years into the future when we'll have grandchildren and my own kids can be the ones doing the worrying. Of course, I'll probably get even more nervous for THEIR events and competitions. Maybe I should just have this inevitable heart attack now and get it over with.


  1. I found another spelling/grammar error. What does that do for your over-achieving heart?

  2. I'm not sure I could care less, but if it makes you feel better, I'll try... ;)

  3. By the way, I'm guessing no one got the very obscure reference to The Band's "Atlantic City" in the title of this post. Proving once again that I do this mostly to amuse myself...