This summer’s mass shooting in Lafayette reminded us how troubled humanity can be. But a day after the tragedy, I drove to Lake Charles to take part in a summer ritual that in recent years has renewed my faith in human possibility, even when the headlines tempt me to give up.
For three summers, my 14-year-old son has participated in Louisiana’s Governor’s Program for Gifted Children, which gathers dozens of teens from around the state to live, play and study together. As GPGC director Josh Brown reminds the kids each year, having a gift doesn’t mean very much if you don’t use it to improve your community, your country, your world.
Which is why, at the closing ceremony of every summer’s seven-week boarding program, the students assemble on stage to sing “The Impossible Dream.”
It’s the ballad made famous by the 1965 Broadway musical “Man of La Mancha,” drawn from Miguel Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” Quixote embodies the virtue of believing in human potential — even at the cost of looking foolish.
If some marketing firm were to focus-group the ideal camp song for a group of teenagers, “The Impossible Dream” would probably rate a nearly universal thumbs-down. It’s corny, old-fashioned and unbelievably earnest, composed of the very qualities every self-respecting adolescent tries to avoid. But precisely because “The Impossible Dream” challenges the eye-rolling cynicism of middle and high-schoolers, it really resonates each year with GPGC’s students.
This year, as in previous summers, I’ve noticed a chorus of misted eyes on stage when the kids belted out the Broadway standard. Part of the emotion obviously comes from the closing of camp itself, a bittersweet end to a chapter of cherished memories. But I sensed something else, too, watching these bright young men and women singing about idealism and longing, even as the words caught in their throats. They’re just starting to see, as the tenderness of youth ripens into the aspirations of adulthood, that opening yourself to the world can mean disappointment, hurt and sometimes, as this summer’s news has told us, even death. It’s a hard thing for any of us to acknowledge, and an even harder reality to bring into the life of your child.
Anxiety and fear have seemed like natural responses to this summer’s events, and thoughts of that bloody Lafayette theater hung over the auditorium as my son and his friends stood side by side and sang “The Impossible Dream.” I sat there in the audience, watching so many bravely hopeful faces wet with tears, and began to choke up, too. I was telling myself what many Americans have been struggling to remember this summer:
Even in a time touched by cruelty and despair, an open heart is still worth the risk.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.