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Being at the back of the crowd

I was wondering if my future self was previewed by my role in the school Nativity play? I had to be an angel, which didn't really please me. Unlike most small girls, my goal was to be Joseph. I wanted to look after the donkey, you see. Yes, it was an imaginary donkey, but all the same, looking after a nice little ass seemed a lot better than standing at the back of the group, trying to look angelic.

There we are then, me, as an angel, at the back of the crowd, trying not to look bored. It does sound rather like most of my life in a nutshell.

It was a home-made costume, consisting of white nightie and coat-hanger wings edged in tinsel. I have a vague memory of pain so I think there must have been a wire/tinsel halo too. I know my hair looked like it had been through the heavens before I got to school, but that was my usual look.

I was an awkward child, fluffy blonde hair, wonky plastic glasses, a tendency to scowl and not in the least interested in being an angel. The only part I liked about it was the silver tinsel and that love affair ended once I realised how uncomfortable it is to wear tinsel next to your skin. Have you ever tried it? It feels like angry beetles trying to have a barn dance.

Also, even though I hated being the centre of attention, I didn't want to stand at the back. I was short, even then, and wanted to be able to see what was going on. I wanted to see if my mother had turned up (as if she wouldn't, but this is the way 6 year olds think) and I wanted to see what Mary and Joseph were doing.

You would think after all the rehearsals, plus forced attendance of Sunday School, that I would know exactly what Mary and Joseph were doing. I probably did, but I also wanted to see what they would do when they were being played by people I knew. I guess I was expecting a twist in the familiar story?

Like in normal life, I've never been at the front of the crowd, where things were really happening. In a very real sense, I've spent an awful lot of time at the back, fidgeting, wondering why I had to wear tinsel when everyone else is in impressive costumes with non-itching accessories.

Even as an angel I was out of place. The other two angels were tidy, meek little girls who looked at home in their nighties and didn't seem to fight against the tinsel either. I remember them giving me some looks, as I shuffled and tried to ignore my itching socks.

I know I would have made an impressive Joseph. I had all sorts of ideas on how I'd say the lines and what I could add to make the story better. I wasn't going to change the story, just make it better. It would have been fine...

Looking back, even if I'd been a boy, no teacher in their right mind would have cast me as Joseph. I was quiet, most of the time. Did as I was told, most of the time. Got on with others, most of the time. You do notice the recurring phrase there?

Most of the time just doesn't cut it. In life, society at large and other people in particular, they want the good side of you all of the time. Or the bad stuff. To be honest, what they want is consistency.

Be really rotten as a human bean if you want, be rubbish at everything you touch and be too smelly to share a cab with - but do it all the time.

It's an extraordinary truth that most people would rather put up with a complete disaster of a person than experience an almost complete disaster who randomly throws out something wonderful.

Yes, you may create chaos wherever you go, but beware if you suddenly make sense and do something great. That makes people uneasy. What do they do with you now? Can you repeat the performance? Will you get better, shuffling off the chaos like an old coat and embracing a whole new world?

No, probably not. You'll carry on as you were, then later, who knows when, you'll do something great again and worry society into taking another look at you.

It's the same if you cope and are great, most of the time. This is much harder, in fact and people react even more negatively if you are this kind of person. Most of the time you are capable, with skills and talents others need and appreciate. Then you have an off day and whooooooo, down you go, suddenly becoming the chaos in the centre of order. All is lost and you make life very difficult for yourself and other people.

It is explained as a blip and, because you are so useful and usually wonderful, people forgive you and move on. You inspire some worried looks or thoughtful glances but that's about it. Until the next time. Dowwwwwwn you go again and all is chaos once more. That's when it gets really difficult for people.

Once in a while, you can be trouble, once in a blue moon everyone is trouble. But if it looks like this is part of your personality, then it almost doesn't matter what you do in the meantime, how good you are, how talented - those momentary lapses are enough to have the apple cart shooting off Bonny Road and up-ending into Muddy Brook.

So, when society has tagged us as unreliable, whether we are usually a positive or negative force, we become too unwieldy to be categorised. We must be pushed to one side, out of the way, so that good, sane, sensible people who only take days off in advance, can step in and be the lead players.

For those of us who can't manage the donkey full time, or who would smack that inn keeper if he tried to turn away our little wife who can barely walk anymore, then we are pushed to the back of the crowd. We need to be trustworthy, even if it's trustworthily bad.

I've dressed up many times since I was in the Nativity. Just like then, my image of my own success is often at a different angle than expected and I end up failing in some way. What I do succeed in though, is having a go. I'm always willing to put on another outfit and thrust myself into the role, adding my own spin on it and seeing where it can take me.

People still feel uncomfortable when you do this and I understand why. But these days I just don't care. If I want to be Joseph, I will be. There's no reason why we shouldn't all have a turn as the leading gent or lady, whatever other people say.

In my view, if you want to wear the tinsel halo and the nightie, knock yourself out. Be Mary if you want. Stage your own production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and fight over who gets to be Howard Keel. Grab your petticoats and make sure no limp-wristed simperer gets the role of Annie Oakley. Take up the hat and be Willy Wonka and let someone else be an Oompa Loompa for a change.

Do it yourself, readers. Don't wait for the teacher to pick out the roles, giving them to the usual suspects who can read half as well as you but don't chew the blackboard chalk when no one's looking.

If you want the starring role, one thing I have learned is you must take it for yourself.


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