Sharing the Burden of the Pedestal: Renee’s Story
Sharing the Burden of the Pedestal: Renee’s Story
Renee was a student instructor on the 2004 Communicators for Christ tour.
I toured with CFC (now ICC) in 2004. It was a fast-paced, high-stress whirlwind of a tour, and it was one of the best of my highschool experiences.
Let me give you some context. I chose to start debating competitively in the HSLDA/NCFCA at the age of 12. I was introverted and shy, but learned how to be outgoing and adopt a care-free attitude. I trembled with fear at every cross-examination, but learned to project confidence. I had some natural ability, a lot of determination, and a successful older sibling who was well liked and respected in the league. I made it to octafinals at Nationals by my second year.
The following year began well: my partner and I (a girl/girl team) did well at several tournaments. People I barely knew started coming to watch my partner and me “in action” in preliminary rounds. They stopped cheering as loudly when we made it to the finals, because it was just expected that we would be there. They predicted that we would win the national tournament. We didn’t. Instead, I had a losing record for the first time in my life. The crowds disappeared in awkward silence, and I was left with a staggering sense of very public failure. I was 14. I developed an eating disorder and severe performance anxiety.
The fear of a repeat failure spurred me to greater competitive success, bringing with it friends, popularity, and far too much of a spotlight. The increased attention raised the stakes of failure, and within a month of the new season’s start I had turned to self-injury to manage and escape the anxiety. My parents recognized the signs and intervened in the summer of 2004; by then I was 17 and had already been accepted to be a CFC staffer for the fall. At their insistence, I called Teresa and confessed that I struggled with anorexia and self-injury, and waited with a knot in my stomach. Was I too broken, too dysfunctional to teach? She asked whether I thought it would be a problem on tour, emphasizing that it would be a very stressful environment; that we would be under scrutiny almost continuously. I said no. She trusted me, and in August I joined the team.
What I didn’t know, or didn’t fully appreciate at the time, was how much different the homeschooling culture I knew was from those in which I would teach. NCFCA had a normalizing effect on the parents in my community. My parents, and many others in California, made it clear to me that they hoped I would pursue a high-power career, encouraged me to take leadership positions in the club, and were receptive to criticism or advice when I gave it tactfully. I wore ties and pantsuits, had one of the most aggressive cross-examination styles in the region, and was used to people being more or less okay with both. I would learn, over the course of the tour, that some people think all women who wear ties are lesbian, that it is ungodly to encourage people to read books that aren’t explicitly Christian, and that women should in no context teach men (or boys over 13). Tour was eye-opening.
For the most part, I thrived on tour: I got to see friends across the country, coach fledgling speakers, comfort & reassure terrified parents, and teach the activities I loved without the constant pressure to be the best. When conferences went well, my performance anxiety was almost non-existent. When they didn’t, it was rarely because I had taught badly: the tough days were when a parent would complain about me. For some reason, such complaints rarely came directly to me; instead, the offended party would approach Mrs. Moon, who would then meet with me to relay the concern. The first few times, I fought back the tears, feeling like a failure, and went back out to finish the day as though nothing had gone wrong. Then one day when she pulled me aside, Teresa noted that she didn’t share the concerns, but that in the scale of things the project we were working on was worth the pain of accommodating the whims of the conference attendees, when not unreasonable.
There were several more complaints throughout the tour; there always are. It was still crushing to hear that I had offended or disappointed someone so badly as to make them complain, and it still kept me up at night, but it was easier to bear knowing that Teresa didn’t condemn me for it. Once I made a judgment call in the moment that offended some parents, but when they complained, Teresa took responsibility, saying it had been her call, and diffused the situation for me. Hearing her handle the situation, I realized then that whatever strains and stresses I had suffered as an intern, it was likely she had undergone them a hundred-fold, each and every tour.
Occasionally, on the long drives between conferences, while we each sat up working late into the night, we would talk: about the stresses of living such a public life, about the delicate balance between truth and tact, about politics and people, exhaustion and motivation, and, of course, about failure. Sometimes we talked about adjusting to life after tour—I was relieved that I had only one more season to compete. If I had been popular before, tour transformed me into a homeschool celebrity: students would ask for pictures, shoving binders and shirts towards me for me to sign. I loved being loved, but hated the pressure. On bad days, I could hold onto the thought that soon tour would be over, and in a year I would graduate, and I could leave the limelight. I knew that Teresa did not have this comforting thought: for her, the years stretch out unending, all under the title ‘Director of CFC’. When we had our differences, it was this thought that helped me to understand, at least a little bit, the kinds of strains that she must be under, and marvel that she was as even-handed and controlled as she did manage to be.
Teresa Moon is far from perfect, but I worry that too few of her critics stop to understand how difficult it is to live the life that she leads. Teresa lives on an awfully high pedestal: she must routinely make decisions that have weighty consequences, and must decide based on very little information, or in a very short period of time, and all under unforgiving scrutiny from all of us. The perverse thing about the sort of fame that she endures is that mistakes and missteps get more attention than all the right decisions she makes. There’s a logic to it, of course: we notice outliers, so if things generally are going well, we are likely only to notice when things go wrong, taking the successes—and all the effort required to achieve them—for granted.
It would be misleading to say that Teresa and I were close friends by the end of tour. One of the costs of living a life as public as Teresa Moon’s is that she cannot afford to open up to many people; confidants must be few, carefully selected, and stable. Interns just don’t fit that bill. We did part on good terms, and I returned to assist with the annual Masters’ conference every year until the demands of my college coursework precluded such activity.
Tour was not a panacea: it did not fix my self-injury problem (it took years of counseling in college to even get close to doing that). Nor did it eradicate my performance anxiety; unfortunately that may be here to stay. What tour provided was an outlet for my energies, a chance to do what I loved in a way that mattered, to help people rather than just collect trophies, and a group of close friends who understood and could share the burden of the pedestal together with me.
At 17, that was exactly what I needed.