“Do you play at open mics?”
“Never. Never. You know – I could record an album and sell out huge clubs. I could do that, all of it. I have the talent, you know? But if I start performing to meet expectations, if someone’s paycheck depends on whether or not I play the right chords, if I become a professional musician, I’m afraid I’ll succeed, and I won’t love performing as much. I’ll have to listen to my agent and I wouldn’t be able to stay true to myself. And wouldn’t that be terrible?”
There was no modesty to her, this busker. In her heart of hearts, she believed that yes, she was talented enough to rise from the subway station to stardom. She was convinced that anyone who heard her music would be moved to tears; that she had a talent worth paying for. But she wouldn’t even perform at an open mic. She claimed she was afraid of success, but any halfwit could deduce her real fear: failure.
When I was twelve, my parents received a letter in the mail. It was from some boarding school looking for exceptional minority students to give scholarships to. I’d done pretty well on my citywide standardized tests, and we always circled both ‘Black’ and ‘Caucasian’ on any form that asked, so on paper I was very much what they were looking for.
On an overcast day in autumn, my parents drove us from our brownstone in Brooklyn to another brownstone on the Upper East Side for an interview. They were ecstatic about this opportunity. Getting into a good high school in the boroughs is a process – you apply, take admittance tests, and hope you don’t get waitlisted. John Jay, the ‘zone’ school I would attend if I weren’t accepted anywhere else, was infamous for knife fights and pregnant students. Foxy Brown spent her formative years there. Suffice it to say, my parents wanted to ensure that I secured a spot elsewhere.
I, on the other hand, already knew where I wanted to go, and it wasn’t some stuffy boarding school. I foolishly believed that I was going to make a living… singing. I’d dreamt of going to LaGuardia ever since the premise of FAME was explained to me as a child (I have not once seen the film or the television show in my 25 years). The prospect of going to a performing arts school thrilled me. I mean, the next Usher could be my high school sweetheart. I wasn’t going to let some life-changing scholarship get in the way of that. Never mind the fact that I was talentless and that my aspirations were nothing more than a vanity project.
Glam or not, I was initially flattered by the invitation to compete for the scholarship, so I sat in some pretentious mahogany room with burgundy oriental carpeting and talked about inkblots. Afterward, I took a short written exam while my parents sat in a waiting room, blushing with pride.
A month later, we heard from the school. I was asked to take an official admittance exam. The test would be held on a Saturday and it’d take several hours. My parents gushed on the car ride over while I wondered why they wanted to get rid of me so badly.
Upon my arrival, I was herded into a windowed cafeteria with 300 other bright-eyed preteens who appeared to have been groomed for this very moment. I had practically kicked and screamed the entire way over. I did not belong. I thought about this. I thought about LaGuardia. I did not think about what could come of my acing this test – some kind of prestigious, faked pedigree that my parents could never afford to give me. A better chance of attending college on scholarship instead of on borrowed money. I was being offered a new path.
I wasn’t ready to be that self-aware, though. I didn’t want to prove that I deserved a scholarship. I didn’t want to have to live up to what I perceived to be unattainable standards set by my family and the administrators of the scholarship program. The kids I was competing with seemed to digest those standards pretty easily – none of them were fazed by hard work. They ate expectations for breakfast.
I did what any immature, scared kid would do – I steamrolled through the test as quickly as possible and I left. I didn’t use my ‘scratch paper,’ I didn’t show my work, I didn’t double-check anything – I was finished, as far as I was concerned. I was the second person to hand in the test and leave.
I found my parents in the parking lot and got in their car. “How was it? Was it easy?” they asked, ever so earnest, and I replied, “Yeah. It was really easy.”
Obviously, I didn’t get the scholarship. I also never attended LaGuardia – a year and a half later, my parents moved our family 45 minutes north of the city and I attended an average suburban high school. I continued to sabotage myself, skipping classes and preferring bowls to books. I graduated with average marks and went on to spend a not-so-average amount of borrowed money on tuition for an average college. The anticlimactic nature of my education could’ve only been improved by making an effort to ace that test – I’d instead chosen to float, and I’d got back what I’d put in: the bare minimum.
Thirteen years after I failed that test, I found myself sitting at a bar with a busker who was telling me that success was somehow bad, that playing guitar in a subway station and bumming cigarettes and eating peanut butter and jelly every night for dinner was preferable to being ‘discovered,’ better than potentially doing the thing you love for a living wage. It was painful to talk to someone who, at thirty, had no idea her biggest fear had already been realized: when she committed to the idea that she didn’t need to grow, that she’d rather operate on an insular level rather than take any sort of risk, she bought into the failure she desperately sought to avoid.
I never saw the busker again. I keep my eyes peeled for her whenever I hear guitar riffs floating through the subway station, but we never cross paths. We ride two different lines.