Once upon a time there was a little girl who tried the play the violin and couldn’t.

She wasn’t particularly untalented. She was second chair in her school’s modest strings group, but on that particular day, the notes kept swimming into indistinct swirls, and everything seemed out of tune. After class, as she knelt in the corner, loosening her bow, her teacher approached her. “Everything ok?” he inquired gently.

She ran a finger over the instrument’s scroll, her eyes lowered. “I’m in a speech class.” Her voice was unusually subdued.


“I have to give a speech.”

He dragged a rickety folding chair over and sat down, resting his own violin across his knees. “Oh yeah? About what?”

“The death penalty.”

“And do you have an opinion on it?”

“DUH.” She finally looked up, taking the opportunity to roll her eyes.

“Then tell me.”

She told him.

“That,” he said quietly. “Just say that. Exactly like you just did for me.”

And so she did, ending with an excerpt from the closing argument of the Leopold and Loeb trial by the famed lawyer Clarence Darrow. She read it aloud from a ponderously large anthology of speeches, although her hands were trembling so badly, she could barely see the words. She didn’t look up when she finished. She didn’t look up when her usually taciturn peers rose from their seats and gave her a standing ovation. She didn’t look up all the way back to her desk, and it took her several minutes to summon the courage to glance up at the clock. Her teacher caught her gaze and offered her a warm smile – so she immediately reverted to staring at the cover of the book, ignoring the rest of her class; it was enough to bask in the insular warmth of the knowledge that Well, at least it’s over.

Ten-plus years and 8,000 miles away, I stood in front of a classroom of 51 middle-schoolers, belting out a Sunday school song in an attempt to get them to focus. “When I say a word that starts with the letter ‘M,’ boys stand up and girls sit down,” I explained. “And when I say a word that starts with ‘F,’ girls stand up and BOYS sit down. Tuko pomoja? Have we understood?” They murmured indistinctly. “Well … let’s try. Ready? GO! I WILL MAKE YOOOOU FISHERS OF MEEEEEN, FISHERS OF MEEEEN, FISHERS OF MEEEEN … sing along if you know it!”

I paced the front of the room, clapping in rhythm, giggling along with them when they inevitably got confused and made mistakes. A group of girls in the corner were mouthing along, so I stood next to their desks and barked “LOUDER!” My voice was hoarse and nasal from a week-long headcold – I sounded like an aging pack-a-day smoker with a meaty hand pressed against my sinus cavity. What I lacked in tonality I was forced to make up for in volume and enthusiasm.


It’s amazing, the things we find ourselves doing that we never would have pictured. We learn and change and have adventures. We challenge ourselves in strange little ways. We make decisions that would have scared us immeasurably, if we knew from the start how they would turn out, but never stoop to regretting them. We stumble upon so much unanticipated joy we don’t know what to do with ourselves.

It’s crazy where we end up, and who we end up being, and when we notice it.

Walking the 7 kilometers or so home after class, I imagined what a conversation with that young girl – remember her? The one playing the violin? – would be like. It would probably take a while to get to the topic. We might have to work through all sorts of vastly more important material: Who won on “Survivor”? What’s it like to French-kiss a boy? Did Mom ever find out about that expensive-looking lipstick you “borrowed” and almost immediately broke? We didn’t re-elect George Bush in 2004, did we? Wait, REALLY?? But I’m sure we’d get there eventually.

Oh hey, get this: when you’re 23, you’re going to be totally cool standing in front of a crowd of judgmental strangers.


Way. You’ll be singing, even. And speaking in a really bizarre second language, sometimes.

Which language?

I’m not going to tell you. Spoiler alert.


But you’re pretty decent at it. And that’s not all. Turns out? You’re pretty good at a lot of things. The confidence comes with age and experience. You’ll get there. Even when you don’t see it coming.


Yeah. It really kind of is.