Gatekeepers

In life there are gatekeepers. These are the people or organizations who label you and based on that label will tell you, “yes you can do this” or “no you can’t do that.” For some people a gatekeeper is a boss who tells them they will or will not get a raise or a promotion. For others a gatekeeper might be a book publisher who tells them their book is or is not marketable.

You cannot control how the gatekeepers will label you. But you can control whether you accept that label in your heart.

In the third grade I had a gatekeeper. She was my teacher.

On day she announced she would be directing a theatrical, musical version of Hansel and Gretel. There would be auditions where each student would recite specific lines she selected and based on our performances she would assign all the roles.

At the time I had a best friend named Robbie. We were both class clowns and were excited by this opportunity. I pictured myself moving the crowd through eloquent oration. I pictured myself delivering the punch line causing the audience to erupt in laughter. At the end of my performance I pictured the crowd showering me with thunderous applause.

On the day of the audition Robbie and I waited in line with the other kids to step to center stage and recite the line. Then we waited nervously until the next day for the results. That whole night I could barely sleep.

The next day the teacher announced the roles we all received based on our auditions. She gave Robbie the lead role of Hansel. She continued to read the other roles and who they were assigned to. I waited. Finally she said my name. I would be playing the role of “Background Tree” in scene four.

The background tree had no lines.

The background tree held a cardboard cut-out of a pine tree with a hole cut out for my face.

The background tree stood behind the four other trees.

…with speaking parts.

I was devastated and humiliated. I cried myself to sleep that night. I assumed this meant the teacher thought I had no talent.

Now don’t get me wrong, I suppose the world needs background trees just like it needs ditch diggers…

But that’s not true…

The world needs ditch diggers.

It does not need background trees.

Obviously the role was not necessary to the play. If I did not show up the performance would have continued swimmingly. It’s not like I had an understudy for the role. In fact, there were three other background trees as I recall. I wonder what they’re up to now?

Clearly this role was created for those kids the teacher thought had absolutely zero talent. But inside me I knew I had talent. I certainly had more talent than it took to play the role of Background Tree.

For a long time, however, I accepted this role I had been assigned. I may have had talent in my eyes but I allowed myself to be placed in the background by the gatekeeper. I became afraid of putting myself out there because I did not want to be in the position where a gatekeeper could shut me down again by saying, “You’re not a Hansel. You’re a background tree.”

And by not putting myself out there I limited myself. I became a background tree.

My critical error was that I accepted in my heart this role the gatekeeper, my teacher gave me. I let it define me. I became afraid to put myself out there because I was afraid someone else would label me a background tree again and I did not want to feel that intense humiliation.

Looking back on this experience I realize that in order not to be a background tree in life I must do three things.

  1. I have to put myself out there
  2. I cannot accept in my heart the roles the gatekeepers assign me if I know in my heart they are not true to me, and
  3. I have to put myself out there again.

The only person who can truly make me a background tree is me.

In life there are gatekeepers. And the gatekeepers might not recognize my talent. I cannot let the gatekeepers assign me the role of background tree in my heart because then I actually become a background tree.

As it turns out I did audition for another play in middle school. This time it was a production of Peter Pan. By this time I knew I was not a background tree and was excited to audition again.

Robbie got the role of Peter Pan.

I got the role of “Generic Lost Boy.”

It stung. Just not as much.

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