We are sitting in plastic folding chairs in your typical elementary school gym. We are 6 rows back from the front, where silver concert bleachers are lined up below a projection screen. Before the classes of first graders even appear, I can tell that we are in for a round of suffering—like a headache, or maybe even a migraine you can feel in your teeth. I’m not sure what has given this away—maybe the instruments lined up on the floor below the bleachers that I cannot see through the people who are sitting in front of me. Maybe the younger and older siblings who are darting around behind me, who do not want to be here, who can sense boring from 6 rows away like a predator senses pray. And maybe it is the memory from childhood of standing on bleachers much like these ones with one hundred other kids, most of whom would not be trying out for American Idol any time in the future.

The first class arrives and there is mild clapping for the first few seconds. Parents of the kids who are entering get their phones out and take blurry pictures of the first-graders bored faces as they walk by. With each class, the clapping is weak and grows weaker, and to my ears says, Let’s get this show on the road. As all of the classes begin to file in and clomp their way up the bleachers, the lines get traffic jammed by the sorry adult in front who is trying to organize and sort the kids to their places. If this sorting has anything to do with separating the trouble-makers, it has not worked—it will never work. They are all, in this setting, trouble-makers. No amount of sorting will ever get these 6 and 7 year old kids crammed shoulder to shoulder on shaky bleachers to not knock into their neighbors to see if they will fall, to not see if they can touch the giant screen that ends just above their heads, to stay engaged and happy for the 10-song-torture that is ahead.

My son’s class arrives and I try to make eye contact to show him where we are sitting. He zombie-stares right through me, lured to his place up front like the rest of the tiny monsters who are about to provide the next hour’s entertainment. When he is in his place, what I knew when I saw this folding-chair arrangement is settled—I cannot see him. I can see only the top row of kids, the ones who are turned backwards and smacking the screen, who somehow believe this ability to touch this white hanging thing has elevated their level of cool, who are making all of the lower down kids feel like suckers for not getting a screen-touchable spot.

The show begins. The premise, “The Day the Crayons Quit,” was promising. This book is one of our favorites, where each crayon in Duncan’s box protests their use and makes demands to be used differently. The premise of the concert could have made it mildly better—more of the headache style of pain than the migraine. As soon as the first video starts playing on the projection screen, though, I realize my hopes were wildly misplaced. A group of 6 kids is on the screen, reading a paragraph from the book in “unison.” Note the quotation marks—6 first graders who are in reading levels from sounding out to expressive cannot read in unison, so we have a cacophony of kids speaking in tongues. Later I ask my son how these kids were picked, and he says the teacher asked who wanted to be a crayon and put groups of kids together. As I watch this nonsense on the screen, I think of participation trophies in sports, of every kid getting their chance to shine. I think of how every kid is not cut out to act, and how letting them is ruining the watching experience for the rest of us. Instead of one good kid enjoying a moment, we have to listen to this garbungle.

(I know what you may be thinking at this point—I want my kid to have his time to shine. But no, no. His turn comes when they get to gray crayon. He is in the front row of kids who are the 6 headed, 6 tongued gray crayon. He stares at something off screen while he mumbles a word here and there. I imagine myself with a cartoon-style hook, reaching in from stage left, looping that floppy neck perfectly, yanking him from where he doesn’t belong. Get that kid who doesn’t care enough to look at the poster with his lines on it off the stage pronto. Teach him that he doesn’t get everything he wants, that mediocre doesn’t cut it, that sometimes it is someone else’s time to shine. Yank, yank, yank until one kid is left. Teach them all. I think one big thought about how we have gotten to a place where 6 kids are reading a part meant for one: What is wrong with us?)

Between these brutal videos, the kids sing a cute song about a color. They play instruments on the floor where you can’t see them. The teacher has done the best job she can with 1st graders who mostly don’t care, with this gym that doesn’t work for a performance, with a culture that demands that every kid get a chance to be a crayon, even if there are only 10 crayons. None of this is her fault.

And will you believe me if I tell you that I haven’t even gotten to the worst part yet? I imagine that if you have been to any children’s performances in the last 5 years, you will be able to predict what I am about to say. I could not see my son through the people in front of me. Once the songs started, in fact, I could not see any kids aside from the one I watched through the woman’s phone in front of us, who, for the entire concert, held her not-transparent-at-all phone up using her not-transparent-at-all arms—up, and right in our way. Arms above her head, she zoomed in so-tight-it-was-blurry on her son’s face. Her son, my husband and I noted—as we had an extra-close-up view—knew only half of the words to every song they sang. As I watched her blurry movie, I was reminded of Louis CK, who has noted this trend of filming everything and reminded the world to put the phones down, that her son is in High Definition right there if she does, that the resolution of real life is amazing. I wondered what she would do with these videos of her son’s mediocre performance. Would she go home and watch them on repeat? Would she remember this misery fondly next week, next year, 10 years from now? At his high school graduation, would she show him, and say, Here you are, little Billy! Remember the words to this color song you sang, and this one and this one? Oh, perhaps not, since you didn’t remember them even then, as you were singing it. But isn’t it a treasure, this one hour of root-canal-like pain?

Finally, finally, the hour is up and the crayons are done quitting and we can all go home. My son finds us, and we hug him and tell him he did well, he made it—we all did, we did not die. He accepts this as good enough praise for the concert he didn’t care about. We link arms like the survivors we are and leave the concert behind us forever.

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