Last Spring, Wellesley High School teacher David McCullough garnered national attention for his speech to the school’s graduating seniors. He told them, again and again, that they were not special. In painstaking detail, he let them know that they were (in this world) one of so many that the notion of their individual extra-ordinariness was a parental fiction. Last week, I took my two fourteen year-old boys to see Pippin at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. Pippin is a 40-year old musical written by Steven Schwartz (the man responsible for Godspell and Wicked). It’s message: the pursuit of an extraordinary life leads to the discovery that’s what’s extraordinary about living lies in what we might think of as ordinary life. I took my boys to the theater not just because the show was brilliantly acted and sung, but because theater can teach in a way that speeches and parents cannot.
This theme, by the way, is everywhere you look. The Huntington Theater’s production of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town made the same point in a somewhat different way. There, in the final act, the dead look at the living and wonder if we ever appreciate the moments of our time here. The answer, of course, is not as much as we should. There is so much planning in life, so much thinking about what’s next that the observing and feeling of the now is tough to manage. Pippin’s grandmother exhorts him to live — telling him (with the help of the audience) that it is “time to get living.” Her message, like Wilder’s, is not to lose the now in the pursuit of the next.
For me, the experience of hearing McCullough last spring and seeing both of these plays this winter focused my attention on the words I use as a parent. I have amazing kids (and stepkids). I am persuaded that any one of the four of them (or even every one of the four of them) could change the world for the better. I know that I have let them know that I think they are beautiful, smart, gifted, wise, capable, amazing and so forth again and again. I also know that I have urged them to dream and to reach for those dreams. I worry that I have somehow suggested that not achieving greatness would be a kind of failure.
So, that’s why I dragged the boys to Pippin. I wanted them to get caught up in his journey from battle to royalty to life on a farm. And I wanted them to see, as Pippin does, that the love between two people outshines anything else that the world has to offer. Indeed, men and women have often abandoned the pursuit of greatness for the company of their beloved. And, somehow, I thought that as they sat and watched Pippin, they might get it. Just as I imagine David McCullough thought that, if he just said it right, the students at Wellesley High School might get it as well.
As I think about it, though, I bet they didn’t get it. The notion that the joy in life is found in our day-to-day struggles and our familial relationships is, in many ways, the product of adult reflection. I remember sitting up late with my college friends and imagining our lives. No one of us planned something ordinary. Instead, our dreams were big and the notion of personal happiness was secondary. Now, years later, conversations focus on the personal. Some of us have had complicated journeys. Some have had some sort of fame. In the end, though, we all define our corner of the sky by the people who live there with us. As parents, I think we teach this lesson by osmosis — with an implicit understanding that it will not be learned until later.
One of my sons, after seeing Pippin, said that he felt he’d heard poets make similar observations about what matters. I assured him he had. Trust me, he’ll hear it for years before it really makes sense. In the end though, maybe that’s for the best, for those dreams, those late night conversations, those imagined possibilities — they too are the stuff of our lives. What we need to do is — as Pippin’s grandmother and Wilder’s Emily suggest — find the space to notice where we are and to attend to each of the steps we make along the way.