Monday, March 9, 2009

All the World's Her Stage

I met Alyssa for the first time on a stage.

A fitting place if you know my step-daughter.

I don't mean it pejoratively when I describe Alyssa as being "naturally dramatic."

She is 15 in May and a standout freshman in the state's largest high school. Which is to say, of the roughly 300 other freshmen in the school, she towers both literally and figuratively.

I say these things knowing I risk a bit of incredulity since she is my step-daughter. But I'm not going to try to hide my bias. I never do when it comes to my children. I am unabashedly their greatest cheerleader. Well, second-greatest next to Corrine anyway.

The truth is, I have four teens, and even though legally with two of them I must employ the word "step", each of them is equally beautiful to me in his or her own way. And I'm proud of each for different reasons. Fallon for her imagination and natural beauty; Harrison for his intellect and quiet love; and Ty for his innocence and wonder.

Alyssa, about whom this post is written, I would say is lovely.

A word I like because it speaks of a different kind of beauty to me, one that includes a strength inside of a person.

Outwardly, she is gorgeous. There's no doubt about it. Statuesque, a fantastic smile, a wonderfully balanced figure for a girl not even a woman yet. I'm not ashamed or embarrassed to say that I think both of my daughters are attractive and appealing to look at. I'm their father. What am I supposed to say? That I think they're "cool"? "Awesome"? "Nice"?

How ... insincere.

Just as I would say that Harrison is turning into a handsome young man and always catches the eyes of the girls. And that Ty, who will be tall like his father (over six feet!) has that innocent, doe-eyed look that will snag some girl someday.

But I digress.


I met her, as I started to say, on a stage. I tried out for a show called The Nerd. I was cast as the title character, believe it or not. And Alyssa and her mother were cast as mother-daughter characters.

I was taller than Alyssa then, but other than that she has not changed. She still commands the attention of those watching. She has a solid presence when she "treads the boards", that is the stage. She's got it.

She was on stage this past weekend in Augusta when her school's one-act performance went up against four other schools in a regional competition. This happens every year in Maine. High school drama clubs put on 30-minute one-act shows as part of a competition.

This is, for most of these kids - including Alyssa - their "team sport", their chance to share camaraderie with others, to bask together in the glow of achievement and enjoy something that transcends individuality. Some play baseball or basketball or soccer. They know what I mean.

Alyssa's club did not win, but their performance got high marks from the judges, as it should have. The club saw some fantastic performances that they can now take back with them and learn from. But more importantly, they did it together and they enjoyed themselves.

I have not seen Alyssa more in her element, happier, more comfortable than I did this weekend.

Which brings me to why I'm writing this today.

My wife is a tigress - like most mothers - when it comes to their children. She gets her back up when she perceives that her child is the victim of an injustice. Picked on, left out, laughed at, injured emotionally by another. She had to be restrained at a wrestling match Ty was competing in when the mother of his opponent shouted "Make his nose bleed!"

So, when others refer to Alyssa lightheartedly as being "loud and obnoxious" I have to restrain her because she knows deep down they are really being insulting.

I know for a fact Corrine's greatest fear is that her daughter will go through her life disliked, disregarded, disrespected because of Alyssa's strong, dramatic personality. We've spoken of it in private many times. Alyssa is head strong. She is opinionated. She is no shrinking violet. Add to that her academic standing: honors or high honors. Add to that her talents - singing and acting.

These things make a girl a target. More than a boy. Much more. An aggressive, outspoken, talented woman is a bitch. That's just the sad truth. And Corrine fears she is responsible for turning Alyssa into the girl who will sit alone at lunch for the rest of her life.

She raised Alyssa to make herself heard. She whispered into Alyssa's ear as a child "You can do that" rather than what most girls hear, which is "Are you sure you want to try that?"

The difference is subtle, but it's there. One says "There's nothing you cannot do," the other implies "I'm worried you'll fail, so try this instead..."

The latter is laced with good intentions, but it ultimately fails children - girls more than boys - in my opinion, by teaching them the path of least resistance, and therefore making them stools for others to perch themselves upon on their way to greatness.

Corrine fears she created a monster.

I don't.

She's raised a girl who will put forth her greatest effort, the withering opinions of others be damned.

I will be the first to admit that Alyssa can get on my last nerve sometimes. Sometimes her drama and cheeky contrariness seem aimed to achieve only one thing: to annoy the hell out of Corrine.

And it breaks Corrine down, forcing her to analyze her decision, way back when, to raise a girl to be an individual instead of a doormat.

"Do you think they hate her?" Corrine asks me.

The truth is, I think it's classic jealousy born of an age-old mindset that women are to be demure and accommodating. Even in the 21st century. Men are intimidated by this. And girls are strangely resentful. It leaves these types of girls outside the circle a lot.

So it was good for Corrine to see Alyssa among her friends in drama this weekend. Among kids who appreciate her loudness. Her obnoxiousness. Her talent for drama. Corrine got to see that her work as a mother was and is not in vain. That Alyssa will be just fine. And that if she ever is left alone at lunch, that it will truly be their loss, not her daughter's.

I can't wait to see what she does with her life as an adult.

Because Corrine raised a smart, strong, opinionated, talented, lovely girl.

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