I am one of the nearly forty-nine million You Tube viewers who have watched Susan Boyle, the unemployed cat owner from Scotland, blow away the audience of Britain’s Got Talent.
Before she takes the stage we learn that Boyle is 47, never married, never kissed, spends her days with Pebbles the cat, and by eye-balling her: frizzy graying hair, eyebrows like caterpillars, ill-fitting dress, gray pantyhose and open-toed cream colored shoes, we assume she’s not a beauty pageant winner. The audience and judges size her up, too. When she says her age judge Simon Cowell responds with an exaggerated eyeball roll and fellow judge Piers Morgan, a former tabloid newspaper editor, furrows his brow (clearly this ancient dame is wasting his time). Amanda Holden, the third judge, is a beautiful English actress with a body and face that no matter how good your self-image is — if you stand next to her in line at the coffee shop — you instantly feel bloated and troll-like. Cutaway shots to the audience show young people snickering and looking at Boyle as if she forgot her mop backstage.
“Okay,” Cowell says. “What’s the dream?” This is what it all boils to, really. The dream. The hope.
“I’m trying to be a professional singer,” Boyle says. (Insert shot of young girl reacting as if saying, “Yeah, right. And I want to be Amanda Holden.”)
When she says she’d like to be as successful as English musical theater legend Elaine Page, the cynicism in the room is as thick as Boyle’s eyebrows. If Boyle detects any of the sarcasm, unbelief, or disdain she never lets on. She announces her song choice from Les Miserables and Morgan laughs.
Boyle signals for the song to begin and holds onto her mic like a child at her first school program. Then . . . she opens her mouth and when she does the audience erupts in cheers and applause. Simon Cowell’s eyes widen, Amanda Holden’s mouth drops open and Piers Morgan, who just seconds ago laughed at her, now smiles and applauds. Again, if Boyle is aware of the cheers, ovations and wild applause she doesn’t let on. In moments, the lovely Holden is on her feet aiming her applause directly at Boyle. Two women are facing each other: one is the epitome of success, loveliness and grace and the other has been accustomed to taking a backseat to the likes of Holden . . . but not now. The beauty is honoring the wallflower.
As the final notes fade, the entire audience along with Morgan and Holden are on their feet (Cowell remains seated in case you’re wondering); Boyle blows a kiss to the crowd and begins to trudge off stage. The judges urge her back and the two hosts in the wings direct her to stay put. She has no idea what she has just accomplished or the effect she’s had on this once judgmental audience. The judges assess what they’ve just heard. “Amazing. I’m reeling,” Morgan says.
But there is no greater compliment than that from Holden. “I just want to say that it was a complete privilege listening to that,” she says. Boyle wasn’t what she appeared to be; she was more.
In Finding Grace (St. Martin’s Press) I relate the story of sitting in math class with my friend Peggy. Our seats were located in front of four of the princesses of the school. They were so beautiful, charming and trendy wearing their Izod alligator polo shirts and crisp khaki pants. Peggy and I wore Toughskin corduroys (Their slogan was, “The toughest of Sears tough jeans . . . lab tests prove it!”), sported either a bad perm or an uneven haircut and never made anybody’s cool list. Susan Boyle would have been our friend.
Our math teacher was a man with a red face. It wasn’t sunburn or even a healthy glow; it was just red . . . all the time. Mr. Teacher Man seemed to be on the backside of his teaching career. Not because he was old but because he seemed to hate the job, or maybe he just disliked Peg and me. I don’t know. As Peggy and I went to the chalkboard one day I knocked the eraser to the floor. We both bent for it and clunked our heads together. The class laughed but Mr. Teacher Man did not. We were wasting his time.
In the days following a school assembly was called. A special speaker was coming to entertain the student body. Peg and I threw our books in our lockers and made our way to the gymnasium. There were prime seats down front. We crossed the gym and climbed up two bleachers for our perfect spot when we heard him. “Those aren’t available.” We turned to see Mr. Teacher Man whose eyes were scanning the gym floor. I didn’t think he wasn’t talking to us and moved toward the seats again. “Those seats are taken, girls.”
By that time every good bleacher was filled and we trekked up to the top row. I sat down and was positioning myself behind Ralphie the teenage giant boy when I noticed the four princesses sit in “our” seats down below. It turns out that Mr. Teacher Man was right. The best seats were unavailable . . . to us. Those seats were special and for special girls. We could make do somewhere else.
Strange how people color the way we feel about ourselves. Somewhere along the way sociologists termed that as the looking glass self: we begin to perceive ourselves as those around us see us. You’re a good student but not as good as your sister. You’re a great athlete but not nearly as strong as your brother. You’re thin but just not thin enough for the job. You’re too fat for the job. You’re a good mom but have you seen her remarkable home and kids? You’re too old and frumpy to sing. Countless books, magazine articles, and television shows are dedicated to helping us be better in every way so we can finally reach those coveted best seats.
But to love and accept someone despite their flaws and failures is a gift of grace in a cynical and hypercritical world where our own panel of judges smirk and snicker and whisper catty comments. Grace says, “Okay, what’s the dream?” without passing judgment or rolling the eyes. It sees beyond the frizzy hair and frumpy dress to the heart of the singer, or mother, or twice-divorced waitress. Grace stands up and says, “It is a privilege to know you.” Grace realizes there’s more than what meets the eye and is the most life-altering gift we can give to one another.
I have a feeling that Susan Boyle knows that.
©2009 Donna VanLiere, author of Finding Grace: A True Story About Losing Your Way in Life . . . And Finding It Again
Donna Vanliere, author of Finding Grace: A True Story About Losing Your Way in Life . . . And Finding It Again, is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Christmas Hope series and Angels of Morgan Hill. She lives in Franklin, Tennessee with her husband and three children.
For more information please visit http://www.donnavanliere.com