We sat in a ring on the stage. The green velvet curtains, heavy with age, were pulled back and waiting to left and right in their neat long vertical pleats. The house lights, cheap and fluorescent, mismatched in color, raised a skin of dust over the curtains that makes them in the light of memory silvery, glowing, enchanted, though rational recollection tells me they were in fact dirty and poor and striving for a little too much. We were going into our fourth musical of the school year. We were burnt out, but too young to know what burnout feels like. We were listless, depressed, angry. Bruce and Doc sat in their rolling wood chairs at the opposite apex of the circle from where I slumped on the black floor.
The musical was terrible. No one had any more to give. We had two weeks until dress and it was not coming together like it should. This was to be the kind of moment I'd later hear called a "come to Jesus." Since that day, age sixteen and burnt out, dried up of all the song and dance and Rodgers and Hammerstein I had to give, I've thought of it as a "come to Bruce."
"Tell us why you do this," Bruce said, demanding an answer. The house lights cast long regular reflections on his bald head. I thought wearily how much I loved him, how I'd do anything for him, the best teacher I'd ever had, how I only wanted to earn his approval and then I'd finally know what achievement was.
My schoolmates reached into a grab-bag of answers and offered each one up tenuously, hoping they'd found the right one. Approval, approval. Give it to us, please, god. Let us guess the right answer and then we'll know we've done well and we can stop wondering what it takes to succeed.
"Tell us why you get up on stage and do this."
It's fun. It's creative expression. The chance to be somebody else for a while. It's an education in the arts. All these little hopeful offerings in the dozens of young hands.
Doc frowned. He always frowned, but his frown grew more intense.
No one had produced the right answer. And so I decided to offer my own. And honest one, though it was not the one my teachers wanted to hear, and I knew if I said it aloud the whole school would look askance at me. I'd be the one who was doing it for the wrong reasons.
"I do it because I love the applause."
It was like ice inside me, to say it. Such an awful chill, knowing I'd been honest and knowing that it was wrong. No one is supposed to do art for the applause.
Bruce looked at me. He nodded. And Doc. He nodded, too.
"Libbie. Is anybody going to applaud for the job you're doing now?"
"How are you going to earn that applause? How are all of you going to earn it?"
Somebody else said, "We're going to do better. We're going to put everything into this. We still have two weeks; we can do better."
But Bruce kept looking at me, so I came out with more honesty. It had worked the first time. It had been the only right answer.
"I'm going to be so good they can't not applaud."
"Good," Bruce said. "Do it."