I'm writing this as I wait until it's time to go watch Julia's end-of-camp performance of "Annie." She left the classroom on Monday, the first day of camp, disappointed because she had been cast as the Usherette (if, like I was, you're unsure of who that is, it's because she is in the show for about .2 seconds: long enough to tell Daddy Warbucks there are open seats at the movies, and that's it). As the little girls around us squealed about their roles as orphans, Julia looked around a little dejectedly.
I couldn't help thinking about my own childhood theatrical disappointments. When I was in fourth grade, our school began doing end-of-year plays. Instead of being cast as an Indian, like most of my friends were, in Peter Pan, I didn't get a part on the stage. In my role as the prompter, I memorized the entire script (wholly unnecessary, but I couldn't help myself) and sat backstage dreaming of being as talented as the sixth grade girl who played Wendy. In my short theater career, I went on to have a couple of leads and more ensemble parts. I knew Julia would have to learn the "every role is important and not everyone gets the lead and not everyone gets the part they want" lessons sooner or later, and at the same time, I wondered why, in a week-long camp, all of the six year old girls couldn't just be orphans, sing "It's a Hard Knock Life," and be done with it.
"You know," I said tentatively, "you could ask your teachers if it's possible for you to be an orphan, too." Julia perked up. While I advised that it was entirely plausible that the teachers would tell her that her part was her part, I told her that it didn't hurt to ask. Julia drafted a note, but with some convincing from Scott and me, agreed to talk to her teacher in person. The next morning, while she squeezed my hand, Julia spoke confidently as she asked if she could be an orphan, too. As I stood, holding Julia's hand, I thought about the fine line between advocating for Julia and stepping in, being pushy. Was I teaching her to speak up for what's important to her, or was my encouragement tiptoeing over into "entitled" territory?
While one of the teachers hemmed and hawed about how it depended on how many orphan costumes they had (and then backpedaled when Julia told her she would be happy to bring her own costume), the other said she thought it was a great idea to make room for one more orphan. Julia beamed, and happily skipped over to the other girls. She spent the rest of the week singing “Tomorrow,” teaching Margaret the lines for the other orphans while she pretended to be Annie, and studying her script.
From both teaching and parenting, I know the research about how, when girls speak up, they’re bossy and bratty, whereas when boys do the same, they’re confident. My hope that Julia's takeaway from this week will be that it's okay to ask for what she wants, and that if she advocates for herself, she might be surprised to see what can happen.