“I can pay for my own lunch”, the poet said as she stepped up to the cash register. She didn’t make eye contact with me. In fact, she rarely did. That was indicative of how things were going between the spoken word poetry team and me. For a few months I’d been doing an awkward, side-eyed line dance with them when we should have been locked into the unwavering gaze of a tango. I was filling in for their long-term coach, my colleague and friend who was on maternity leave. Her proverbial shoes were clown-sized.
Afterwards, I tried to explain how I hadn’t meant to offend them, that I know they can pay for their own burgers, but that buying lunch was intended as a simple gesture to thank them for working hard all season. I wanted them to have a great bout day since it was the last one before Louder Than a Bomb semi-finals. What I didn’t admit, even to myself, is that there was more to it than that. I can see now that it was a cowardly attempt to atone for the fact that I wasn’t the coach they deserved.
They didn’t need Five Guys. They didn’t need nourishment in the form of caloric burgers, fries, and sodas. They didn’t need a cheerleader. What they needed was a leader. They needed someone to tell them that their words read well on the page but were too enigmatic for an audience to understand on the fly. They needed someone with the strength to figuratively bar the classroom door at every meeting until they had something to show for their time. They needed someone to say The line that ends with ‘how his moon shines’ is beautiful but doesn’t fit there. They needed someone to say No, it’s not ready yet. Rework your ending. Again.
I was not that person for them. I let my fear of not doing a good job whittle my enthusiasm down to indifference. I gave into my laissez-faire tendencies and convinced myself that it was ‘good enough’ as long as I was there to hold meetings and fill out paperwork and escort the poets to bouts. If they didn’t want my feedback, fine. If they didn’t respect my decisions about who would perform, they were mature enough to decide among themselves. I was just the temporary fill-in, after all.
I know that the team was disappointed in the season by the way our debriefings went after the bouts, and because weeks later one of the poets interviewed me for a class project and asked, “Do you think things would have gone differently if Mrs. S. was still here?”. I stumbled over my answer, still unwilling to face the fact that I’d failed them. I wanted to believe that the season’s success had rested entirely in the hands that held the mics.
In truth, the poets brought exactly what they were supposed to bring to the table: passion for writing and performing, depth of insight and voice, the ability to read each other and adjust their critiquing styles accordingly. Some of them could roll out a poem in less time than it takes me to read one; others labored each word in slow agony. The poets were endearingly sweet and cheerful, or brassy and decisive, or enviably serene, or all of the above. On occasion there were flares of temper, bouts of sullenness, or 11th-hour episodes of flakiness; but all in all, we had a nice rapport.
Nice rapport or not, I understand now that I let them down. If I could go back, I would do everything differently. I would redefine ‘good enough’, which underscores one of the painful lessons I learned from this experience: trying and failing is so much more honorable than giving a halfhearted effort. We’ve all heard that message before. Unfortunately, some of us have to learn it the hard way.
I often praised the poets for their bravery in sharing their deeply personal stories on stage. They poured their hearts into something with no guarantee that it would be well received. Even the most stoic among them had pre-bout jitters. They performed anyway. Sometimes the crowd felt their vibe, sometimes they were met with polite applause. Whatever the case, they vowed to get up and do it again next time. As their coach, I should have done more; no matter what, they were marvelous.