55: Big Gifts, Small Packages

55: Big Gifts, Small Packages

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just for Preteens

Big Gifts, Small Packages

Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The day before I started junior high my mother took my older sister and me to a beauty school to let students cut our hair. We both hopped into salon chairs, long brown hair cascading down our backs. The stylist-in-training took one look at my sister and sighed, “Oh, look at this gorgeous, long hair!” She couldn’t bring herself to do anything but trim it. Moments later, my beautiful sister bounced out of the chair, long hair intact, split ends on the floor. The student who got me rejoiced, “Oh, look at this long, gorgeous hair!” and proceeded to have the time of her life cutting it with a razor (which really tugged, pulled and hurt, by the way). I stepped down from the chair looking like a boy. Not a good way to begin junior high school.

To add insult to injury, later that year I was fitted with braces, joining the ranks of kids known as “metal mouths.” But that’s not all. Rubber bands were stretched from my top to bottom teeth so the inside of my mouth looked like a spider web when I yawned. I was also blessed with headgear. Metal bars started inside my mouth, came out, and then encircled my face to the back of my neck, inspiring kids to yell, “When’s the monorail coming through?”

Did I mention that I was short for my age? Very short? Also, my name is really easy to mock. My siblings all have beautiful normal names that can readily be found on key chains or mini license plates. “Toby” is a more common moniker for dogs, horses and boys, so looking like a boy did not help matters. Looking back on it now, I wonder why I didn’t fade into the background and hide until the braces came off, my hair grew, and I got taller.

My mother often said that “good things come in small packages” or whispered, “small but mighty” when kids made fun of me. Being a Girl Scout taught me that everyone is born with unique gifts. All we have to do is discover what those gifts are and utilize them. Girl Scouts also taught us to use our gifts for the betterment of others and the world at large. With all that seemed to be against me, I thought that philosophy was just a nice dream. I was anxious to discover my hidden talents, but what if I didn’t have any? What if God or Nature accidentally short-changed me in that area as well?

I worked very hard in school. I just thought it was the right thing to do. I also loved to sing and had a powerful voice for a little kid. Audiences were surprised when this peanut of a girl, who looked like a boy, belted out a song with melodic accuracy and passion. Music became my life. I played in the orchestra and sang in choirs and ensembles. Then one day my mother took me to an audition for The Sound of Music. It was a huge casting call but I made it all the way to the final cuts. Standing on stage, seven brunettes and seven blonds, we awaited the decision. The call came two days later saying that the director was going with the blond cast.

“Such is life,” my mother smiled. Still, The Sound of Music audition had made me feel comfortable onstage and opened up a whole new world. Back at school, auditions were held for the upcoming Charlie Brown Christmas show. I went for the part of Woodstock, Snoopy’s little bird friend who doesn’t say a word. I was cast as Lucy. No one was more surprised than I, except the bossy, popular girl who had expected the role. She was angry with me and I was crushed that I had been cast to play a mean character. Is that what the director thought of me?

Mr. Jacobs took me aside when I told him I didn’t want the part. “You can do this,” he said. “I know you’re nothing like Lucy, but you can project, you’ve got a great voice and you’re a good actor. It’s not about being you on stage. Bring Lucy to life. It’s because you are not like her that you will be able to do her so well.” Clearly, he saw something in me that I did not.

He was right. It was fun to be bossy on stage and behave in a way I would never dream of in real life. People were shocked. I was shocked. “Small, but mighty,” my mother whispered. The little girl who looked like a boy, with braces and short hair, had found a home on stage. In high school I went on to perform in every show and in the summer community theatre, then went on to earn my degree in theatre, studied in London and have been acting, singing, dancing and directing ever since.

Theatre can be so arbitrary. Things over which you have no control may determine whether or not you are cast: height, weight, hair color, vocal range, a “certain look.” It’s similar to what it’s like being a teenager. So many things seem to be out of your control — everything from bad haircuts, zits, and homework, to bigger things like moving, or having a crush on someone who doesn’t like you back. It’s tempting to want to hide in the background until you grow out of it, but instead you can search for what really makes your soul soar. Getting taller was a dream that never quite came true for me. So I’ve hung onto my mom’s old saying that good things come in small packages and made it my life’s work to help children discover their gifts.

~Toby Abraham-Rhine

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