By JIM NICHOLS
I first met my future mother-in-law when I was in high school. She thought I was funny and clever, and I thought the same about her. As I hung around the house for years pursuing her daughter, we developed two questions/statements we would make to each other. Each elicited a predictable response.
My statement to her was something like, “I am anxious to be an adult like you are so I can have everything in life figured out.” She would laugh and say, of course, that the time still has not come for her and she did not think it would. That was somewhat puzzling to me.
On the other hand, she would often ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My interpretation was that the question was somewhat of an unanswerable joke, but also had some seriousness to it because I was, after all, courting her daughter. Every time she asked that question, I tried to dodge it.
Both of those exchanges paralleled a cartoon I used to show my students. Depicted were a mother and a father in conversation. The man is saying, “You know, when I was growing up, I thought my parents had a clear plan for me and knew exactly what they were doing. Now, I realize they were just making it up as they went.”
In all the years I used that cartoon, hardly any students even smiled—they did not understand it.
The musical “Matilda” concerns children growing up. They are in a discouraging school situation and the “adults” in the show are a mixture of individuals with qualities that are some tyrannical, some clueless, some dishonest, and some caring and loving. The children are looking for models and are sorting through what it means to be an adult.
For me, the pivotal song begins the second act where the children (some on giant swings) sing about their hopes for adulthood. They manifest the tension between childlike desires, sensible fears, and unrealistic optimism.
With a simple instrumental background, composer Tim Minchin speaks words of truth that, I suspect, all the adults listening understand and the children mostly miss.
“When I grow up, I will be tall enough to reach the branches that I need to reach to climb the trees you get to climb when you’re grown up.”
“I will be smart enough to answer all the questions that you need to know the answers to before you’re grown up.”
There are child dreams of eating sweets, sleeping late, and watching cartoons “until my eyes go square.”
There are hopes of being “brave enough to fight the creatures that you have to fight beneath the bed each night to be a grown up.”
That hope especially resonated with me; I spent my whole childhood sleeping in the exact center of the bed to avoid whatever was under there from reaching up and grabbing me during the night.
“When I grow up, I will be strong enough to carry all the heavy things you have to haul around with you when you’re a grown up.”
Toward the end of the song, the only adult in the scene repeats the verse about the creatures under the bed. It seems, as we know, there are always fearful creatures of some sort in our lives, even when we are adults.
It is not an accident that Jesus repeatedly cautions us to “be not afraid.” There were certainly fear-invoking creatures in Jesus’ time and life. From a human standpoint, his encounters with fear inducers are one of his most significant illustrations. He does not seem to avoid fear but seems to be able to see through it to the ultimate care on the other side. Rather than being paralyzed by the fear (as we often are), he continued through it.
In the conclusion of the song, the child Matilda uses that theme by saying that everything is not written in her life yet; she has the ability and strength to change what some might interpret as already fixed.
What will I be like when I grow up?
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain