Have you ever had the nightmare where someone is chasing you...
...and you are running and running and trying to scream for help-- but you can’t scream? With every ounce of your being you want to be heard, you want someone to see you and know that you need help, but something inside is keeping you quiet. You try and you try to scream but soon your forced silence becomes the real focus of the nightmare. Something might be chasing you, but it is the desperation you feel inside, the hopelessness of not being heard, that causes you to wake in a cold sweat. Chosen silence can be glorious but forced silence will rattle your soul. It will jolt you awake and cause you to sit wide-eyed praying for the nightmare to not return should sleep come when your eyes can finally close. Unheeded desperation is a terribly lonely place.
There are times when I am working and I need an emotional lift. I need to laugh or smile or just to see or hear something that makes me feel good. Have you ever been there? Sitting at your desk or driving in your car and you just want something or someone to make you smile? I am very fortunate in that I work primarily from home and have the ability to turn the speakers to my computer up as loud as I want (at least I can when my wife and kids are at school). When I need an emotional lift, I go to YouTube and open the same video. I have probably watched this video at least twice a day for the last couple of years. As of this morning, the video has over 51 million views and I am responsible for a good 500 or so of them.
Let me set the stage before I share the link to the video:
An overweight late teen boy and a teen girl are about to go onstage for an audition for “Britain’s Got Talent”. As they walk onto stage, the camera swings over to Simon Cowell who snarks, “Just when you think things can’t get any worse...” to the judge sitting next to him. After a few questions, answered solely by the young lady, Charlotte, Simon asks the boy, Jonathan, if he is shy. You can see in his eyes that Jonathan was praying to make it through the banter without being noticed. He didn’t really have an answer, and as the camera cut away you could see him step back to try and shield himself behind Charlotte.
Then comes their story and how Jonathan has no self confidence; he has been made fun of his whole life because of his size. As he speaks, he looks to the ground and does not dare to make eye contact. Even though he is large he strains to pull his shoulders in and clasp his hands together trying hard to make himself as small and unnoticeable as possible. Charlotte does most of the talking, and when Jonathan does talk it is to explain why he is struggling to talk. The brief back-story ends with Charlotte giving the cliché “you can’t judge a book by its cover, you have to get to know what is inside” analogy.
The story is over and we are now back to seeing them both on the stage. Charlotte is dressed like a confident 16-year-old while Jonathan is dressed like he knows he will be heading straight back to his house and to the shelter of his room. Simon tells them “good luck” but you can hear the snarky pessimism in his voice (a fact he later admits to). The music starts and Jonathan shuts his eyes and begins to sing. This is where the video grabs me. Jonathan started singing too soon, and he knows he has messed up and done so in front of a huge live audience, a national television audience, and a panel of judges including one who is well known for finding those mistakes and grinding you with it. In a brief moment of panic, Jonathan looks to Charlotte, 16-year-old Charlotte, and she gently raises her hand and whispers, “It’s OK”. Jonathan keeps his eyes trained on her until time to sing and then he closes his eyes and retreats into his unbelievable talent and shocks that auditorium and that national television audience and those judges, including the renowned pessimist. Jonathan sings with a power and grace and beauty and talent that very few will ever know.
Jonathan and Charlotte sing “The Prayer,” and by the time they are finished the entire audience, judges included, are on their feet giving a well deserved standing ovation. As the music subsides and Jonathan’s eyes open, leaving the shelter of his talent, he begins to shake and he puts his hand to his mouth and bites on his fingers. He has shocked not only the audience but also himself. He seems genuinely surprised that people heard him and they liked him, and he does not know how to act. He honestly does not know how to comport himself to the attention and praise.
The story could end here and it would be a fantastic story. Here is a boy who has been bullied and silenced because of his weight. He lacked the confidence to talk, much less sing. He was found by a high school music teacher and coaxed by a young girl who recognized his talent who pulled him onto a stage. And now he is the talk of England. How cool is that?
But the story doesn’t end there. The video doesn’t even end there. Three of the judges praise Jonathan and Charlotte and tell them how fantastic they are together and how they are going to take the show by storm. Then it is Simon’s turn. Simon praises Jonathan but turns his fiery criticisms on Charlotte. In truth, Charlotte was out of tune and sharp in a couple of places but she was still good. The problem was that she was singing next to a young man who has once in a generation talent. Simon tells Jonathan that he is great but he thinks Charlotte will hold him back and that he should dump her. As Charlotte sinks you can see an immediate rise in Jonathan and without hesitation he tells Simon that they came together and they will continue together. They walk off stage to applause.
Think about that for a moment. Here is a very overweight 17-year-old who has spent his life hiding and trying to not be seen, caged by his own self-doubt, and now the president of a large record company, a man renowned for finding talent and turning those who are talented into real stars, has told him that he is special and he can make it big. But she will hold him back. How easy would it be to jump at the chance to leave those who have mocked you and the life that has encased you in loneliness behind? All it would have taken was to turn his back on the one who walked with him on stage, who talked him into trying out, who settled him down when he started too early, and who answered the questions in order to deflect the attention that would have been far too uncomfortable? Jonathan could have easily, and justifiably, said that these opportunities are too rare to risk. But he didn’t. He stood by his one friend and said that win or lose they would do it together. Simon visibly disagreed and his look let you know that he thought Jonathan was making a huge mistake.
The story could end here and it would be a great story. But it doesn’t end. The next video shows them at the next show. They are no longer auditioning. They are now contestants. The story tells how they have made headlines (mostly praising Jonathan) and how the whole country, if not the world, are now watching to see what they will do next. The story also tells how Charlotte felt heartbroken when she was told that she would hold her friend back. But she didn’t sulk. She didn’t pout. She simply said that she needed to try harder and “prove to Simon that I won’t hold Johnny back”. 16 years old and she stood in front of a huge audience, a live television audience, and was told by a very well known talent finder that she wasn’t good enough. Her response? I will have to try harder and show him.
The next video begins with Charlotte not only still singing with Jonathan but taking the introduction and the lead in the song. The song is opera and in Italian (I am guessing) so I have no idea what she is singing about, but this 16-year-old sings with a confidence and a precision and a grace that matched Jonathan note for note and word for word. It was beautiful. It was captivating. And in the words of Simon, “It was incredibly gutsy”.
This could be the end of a tremendous story, but it isn’t. Instead, Jonathan and Charlotte have gone on to record beautiful music and forge a friendship that is special. What a journey. From forced silence to an overwhelming audience, to a stumble right out of the gates and a calming reassurance, to a gut-wrenching choice, to a courageous response, and now to a life where no one will make fun of or forcibly silence this boy again.
I often wonder how many Jonathan’s slip through our fingers and we never know the beauty and talent they hide from us because they are so sure they are not to be heard. How many potential literary giants have never let anyone read their words for fear of rejection? How many minds capable of grasping the intricacies of the equations in science and math have stayed on the sidelines hoping to not be noticed? How many beautiful voices have been forcibly silenced by mean words and a self-imposed cruelty of silence? How many kids have had their talents silenced because they do not look or act or sound or seem like us? They are out there and their silent suffering is matched only by our loss of not having the opportunity to witness their talent.
By the time Jonathan and Charlotte released their first album, Jonathan had lost a lot of weight. When interviewed now, he holds his head high and looks the interviewer in the eye. He wears a suit, not the old jacket and t-shirt. He does not try to hide within himself and instead speaks of the difficulties of self-doubt and how he had to overcome them daily because he had found a friend who believed in him even when he could not find it in himself to believe. And the story still does not end there, because these two young and incredibly talented people started it all by lifting each other up and believing in each other when no one else did.
Sometimes all it takes is one person to believe in you and then you can blossom. Every child has a gift and every child has a talent. What so many kids are lacking is someone to hear them and see them and believe in them and encourage them. Remember that nightmare and trying to scream and no one hears? You know what is worse? Having too much self-doubt to scream and too little self-confidence to think you should be heard. But do you know what is beautiful? The teacher who finds that talent and cultivates it and grows it and nurtures it and then sends it out into the world for all to share. Now that is the ending to a great story!