It was the summer between my junior and senior year and I was away at a summer youth music school. My parents were getting a divorce, my home life was a mess, and I was happy to spend almost two months with other kids my age focusing on the one thing I really loved: music.
I spent the summer working hard on my vocal performance. I auditioned for groups and tried out for the privilege of private lessons. I didn’t make the special chorus but I did qualify for one-on-one sessions with a vocal coach. I was excited. I was going to grow as a performer.
By the end of the summer I had learned more than I had ever bargained for. I even fell in love. On the last day of camp, hundreds of students and teachers gathered in an auditorium at the University of New Hampshire for a final ceremony.
I wore a loose tee shirt and a jean skirt as I sat in my seat feeling butterflies. I desperately hoped I’d be given an award. I wanted something to prove to the world around me that all of my hard work that summer was good. Really good.
Despite the fact I had rather low self-esteem, I did feel with some certainty that I would get an award. I just knew I had achieved something great. I had matured as a young woman, a student, and as a performer. But as the awards ceremony stretched out, I started to doubt my intuition. Hadn’t I proven my commitment and my passion for music?
Near the end of the awards ceremony, when it seemed as if all the awards had been handed out, the chairwoman of the vocal department stepped up to the podium. She cleared her throat before reading some handwritten words from a small note card.
“And lastly,” she said, “we have an award for this one very special person who worked hard, was committed to learning, and grew in leaps and bounds…The award for most improved singer of this year’s Summer Youth Music School is Brooke Burton.”
“The Most Improved” Award? I sat in my seat completely dumbfounded. I was struck by the thought that maybe the faculty had created the prize in a last minute show of pity. The self-loathing teenager I was–the person who told herself that her body was too square to be attractive and that the deep tone of my contralto voice was too manly–became undeniably uncomfortable in this long hoped for moment. I began to sweat through my tee. I was terrified.
Someone elbowed me to go up and take the award. I could barely feel my feet underneath me as I walked up to the stage. That’s it, I thought to myself. Now everyone knew the cold, honest truth. I was a terrible singer, only made better by a lot of hard work.
I felt humiliated by the award. Because when you’re seventeen years old and full of self-doubt, humility and pride is a hard thing to come by. Humiliation is what shows up, trucked in by the dumpster. “I guess I really sucked,” I said when I got back to my seat. I said it because I half believed it and also so that that person sitting next to me wouldn’t say it to me first.
It’s been decades since I won that marble and gold plated award. But for some reason the memory of that day came back to me today, all vivid and real. The feeling of excitement, pride, expansion, and hope–twinged with a heavy dose of humility–came back to me in the form of this memory. It practically tapped me on the shoulder to see if I was ready for the lesson.
And after twenty years of not being ready, I am.
I know today that life isn’t about getting that One Big Award. It’s not about being The Best. Life is about striving to be better, reaching beyond what feels comfortable, and growing. Life is about working hard, being humble, accepting the accolades along the way, and not getting too caught up in the actual awards.
Of all the awards in life to get, Most Improved might be the best prize I could ever aspire to. It’s a gift for making progress, not perfection. It’s a symbol of hope for better things to come; a prize for learning what was once not known. It is a token of appreciation for someone like me who needs a lifetime to develop and mature.
So here’s to learning, growing, and for reaching far beyond what feels comfortable. And maybe, when it’s all over, we will find ourselves in possession of our very own Most Improved Award. May we all be happy to have been given it.
I’ve been buying whole chickens at the farmers’ market for a long time. Boiling the leftover scraps of farm stand veggies and the chicken bones in water has always been a great way to make the most of my ingredients. But it was on the day that I had nothing much in my house to eat and I decided to poach an egg in chicken stock that I learned that sometimes it’s the simple adjustments to something good that makes them great.
Most Improved Chicken Broth
1 1/2 cups Homemade Chicken Stock*
Fresh chamomile (one small pinch)
Salt and Pepper to taste
Bring your chicken stock to a boil. Meanwhile, crack an egg into a small bowl. Then, stir the broth with a spoon to create a little vortex; slide the egg into the center of it. Turn down the heat and let the egg poach until its desired done-ness. I recommend letting the egg stay slightly runny so you can stir it into the soup for deep layer of flavor. Top with a pinch of fresh chamomile, salt, and pepper.
Eat immediately. Maybe chew on some toasted bread. Whatever you do, admire the soup for what it is, what it has become, and what you could do to improve it next time.
*I like to follow Alice Waters’ recipe for chicken stock from her cookbook The Art of Simple Food. If you would like a trust worthy recipe online, you can not go wrong with Elise’s chicken stock.