Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Young Competents

Last year my piano teacher had me learn a Mozart piece. I spent weeks and weeks trying to pass it off. Finally she gave me that little gray check in the top left corner. As she did, she glanced at the date. "This is one of Mozart's first pieces," she said. "He wrote it when he was five."
Yes, somewhere in my eight years of piano education, I'd learned that Mozart started composing at the age I was chewing off pencil erasers. The facts were securely filed away in a back corner of my brain. I knew, roughly, when Mozart was a child, and the date was there for me all those months. But somehow I never bothered to put two and two together. Once she laid it out for me, I felt this sudden surge of anger. How dare he write something that I couldn't play at more than three times his age.
And then I remembered I'm not Mozart.
He was put on this earth to compose music. I was put on this earth to do other things. He was simply born with an extra shot of talent and put it to use when he was in his early years. Still, I can't help feeling jealous when I hear stories like his.
Recently I read an article about Isabella Rose Taylor, age fourteen, a fashion designer who got her creations in Nordstroms last year.

Then I switched tabs and scrolled through my twitter feed, reading the latest from Abigail Harrison. She's a NASA space ambassador, inspirational speaker, aspiring Mars astronaut, and seventeen year old.
Abigail Harrison

Then I felt a little less competent. I'm eighteen. Here are three different people. two of them my contemporaries, who have done more at a younger age. 
I just finished up an internship with a local publishing company. I got it because I knew someone who knew someone, and that made me feel less competent than anyone who hauls themselves up by their own bootstraps and finds a position on their own. Still, I love it because I got to gain actual experience in the publishing industry. Another blessing came this Saturday: a free ticket to Storymakers, one of the major Utah writing conferences. I got to speak face-to-face with bestselling authors like Brandson Sanderson, Brandon Mull, and James Dashner. Even better, I got to run into smaller authors I've met at other conferences and signings.
It was my first "adult" conference and I felt like the odd one out for most of the day. I sat back and soaked up information in the beginning. I wasn't as famous and talented and competent as the people around me, but I could be a sponge. A good sponge. 
Then I ran into author David Farland at a signing table. I hadn't read any of his work, but I'd heard his name before, so I started chatting.
"Have I seen you before?" he asked.
"I don't think I've met you," I said. There were plenty of authors I'd run into before. It's a good thing they were all wearing nametags. "I'm not good at recognizing faces," I told him. 
"Don't feel bad," he said. He then proceeded to explain that everyone has a bad facial recognition memory-at least compared to him. "I was recruited by the CIA when I was sixteen."
They saw his standardized test results and came to recruit him. He was then one of six people in the US with that memory capacity who didn't suffer from audiovisual hallucinations. He could leave behind math class and work for the government, but in order to do that, he had to move to Virginia. He chose to stay in Utah. Some good came of it, though. When he joined the military five years later he was already cleared to work in intelligence.
Want to know how bad my memory is? When I was twelve, I babysat for a family that lives one street away. I knew the mom and some of the kids. My first day sitting for them, the mom walked me around the house, explaining bedtimes and what the kids weren't allowed to touch. The dad followed but my focus was on her. About ten minutes after they left, a strange man approached the door and looked through the glass. I prepared to usher the kids back, answer the door myself, and tell him the parents weren't home. But before I could, one of them opened it himself. It was their dad, and he'd forgotten his wallet.
I have a hard time with a lot of things, like following conversations and understanding how the steps of a project fit together. But memory's always been a hard blow. My whole life I've craved competence. Not knowledge or luck or talent. Competence, that combination of skill and experience. Now someone was sitting in front of me who, at age sixteen, had the competence a couch critic would call unrealistic for a teenager. But it wasn't a novel, it was his life story. 
Then David told me something that changed the way I view life: he's horrible with names. He explained the science behind it, how the part of his brain that handles audiovisual memory is so big, it crowds out the name department. I thought of how many nametags I'd recognized that day alone, how one author gave me a free copy of her book just because I mentioned we'd met at a signing back in December.
"I'm not really good at remembering anything." I said. "Except names." Words in general, actually. I've always done better in English and history because they're story based. This year I discovered that extends to lyrics. In choir, I either ditch sheet music before everybody else does or keep it around just for notes and vocal parts. I do have degrees of competence. But I'm so busy looking at the incompetent parts of my life that I forget to notice them.
As that day went on, I found another reason to feel competent: I was the youngest person in all my classes. Some people asked if I was thirteen and if I was "interested in writing too" while some asked if I was a published author or a full editor. My age isn't a handicap. It's a nod to how far I've come in less time than many of the people there. 
So maybe I'm not an astronaut of a composer. Maybe the CIA and the runway aren't calling my name. But I am good at something and I'm taking baby steps towards success. And here's the thing: I believe everyone is. We're all young competents, just in different ways. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Miss? Sweetie? Kiddo?

Two days ago I went to Zupas alone. It was crowded, like any restaurant at six o' clock on a Saturday night. I was forced to stand a little closer to the people in line with me than I normally like. But then, I wasn't standing any closer to my linemates than anyone else was with theirs. When the group ahead of me finished ordering, the server passed over me and spoke to the adults standing behind me.
"What can I get for you guys?"
Okay, I thought. Apparently I look young enough to need adult supervision before I buy soup.
At first I stepped back, thinking I'd let the adults order their food and place mine when the server silently noticed her error. But she had to realize it whether I said anything or not, so I spoke up.
"I'm not with them. I'm paying alone."
So I ordered my sandwich, slid down, and got a soup to go with it. But this time, when the server turned to me, she said, "Do you want onion crisps on that, miss?"
Miss? Not sweetie? Not kid? That's what I got for years. That's what I got a few months ago. That's what I still get, depending on the stores I go into.
This happens to me all the time when I'm out shopping with my friends. One cashier says "What do you kids want?" and the one in the next store over asks, "How can I help you ladies today?"
Am I a lady or a kid? I don't know how much of this is due to my size, my age, the fact that I'm standing on a threshold between childhood and adulthood. I don't know how much of it I'll get in the future. I've heard tales of young wives who tell door-to-door salespeople "I'm the mommy" when asked to fetch their parents.
The dissonance is disconcerting. I'd just like to know what side I fall on so I know how to walk into a store. Do I have to hold my head high, so the cashier knows I actually have money and she should treat me like I intend to spend it? Or can I just slouch up to the counter and slap down some bills? There's a difference in your bearing, conscious or unconscious, whenever you walk into a store as an unaccompanied teenager. It depends on so many things-how you're dressed, the number of friends you're with, whether you're carrying a purse or just a debit card in your back pocket, what you're buying-and, of course, the mindset of the guy behind the counter. After spending so many years marking cashier reactions, I've come to the conclusion that it has less to do with all of those than the last. If two servers in the same establishment serving the same customer can come to differing conclusions, then I don't doubt that I'm right.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Windows Down

Last week, my school's choirs were supposed to travel down to another high school in two buses for our regional competition. The second bus never showed up, so our director said, "Smaller choirs, you've had transportation release forms. Just drive."
I had a car, and three of my friends didn't, so I ended up being the taxicab for that afternoon.
So I drove.
On a freeway.
In construction.
During rush hour.
With three choir girls belting off-key renditions of whatever's blasting on the radio even though they've just proven themselves capable of carrying a tune.
But you know what? I was fine with it. Because I'm doing an internship that entails driving through that same stretch on construction several times a week. I rolled down the windows, sang along with them, and even drank a smoothie for part of the way. For me, it was a party. When  I related the story to a friend the next day, she had this look of horror on her face. A lot of people wouldn't be able to stand the chaos. I know college-bound seniors who are still terrified of freeway driving. I know I was back in the fall when I first drove sans adult supervision.
When I took my internship, I did it because
1) I got to drop my math class
2) It's a stepping stone to my dream career
But as a side effect, I gained confidence and competence.
While I was singing onstage, I thought of all the experiences I've had with choir, and how I wish, despite all the drama, that I'd started sooner. I decided if I had a time machine, I'd go back and tell Sophomore Self to drop newspaper, because I hated everyone in that class except that one Goth kid and the Italian foreign exchange student who never talked. That way I could take choir instead. But if I hadn't taken newspaper, I wouldn't have transferred into foods, the only other class available, and met my friend Marina. Marina was one of those seniors who just radiated confidence down upon little sophomores like me. She talked up choir, so when registration came around, I signed up for it.
Lots of people seem to think that life choices have simple, cause-effect ramifications. But you can't just hit one pool ball and think you know where everything's headed. From the way career counselors talk, you think you need to plan out your entire life by eighth grade and stick to it through grad school. Actually, life is so much more than growing up, up growing up is so much more than what you'll do when you grow up. Do, not be.
I'm going over college housing registration in the other tab. Again. Because my first choice didn't end up being a permanent choice. Life is so much more than what you expect out of it, but don't let it hold you back. Just hit a ball and see what you get to shoot at next.