I was twelve the first time I really heard myself.
Ms. S. is what we called the choir director at school. She was a sharp, interested woman, tasked with breathing art and fantasy into a rather vanilla set of school standards. She managed to pull four-part harmony out of twelve-year-olds, and I was grateful. Choir was the one fleeting hour of the school week where I could forget about how little I understood algebra and photosynthesis and where I could fall into myself through something inspiring, right there from the third chair on the front row.
At the end of eighth grade, Ms. S. announced that I would sing “Tomorrow” from Annie as a solo at the school fair. I’d sung at all the school masses and was notoriously placed in detention for humming in class, but a solo? I valiantly accepted the role, but by the second or third rehearsal, my confidence was shot. I’d start out strong, my prepubescent soprano coasting along until “come what may.” Then my voice fizzled to little more than an awkward whisper. I didn’t know why she gave me that solo. I couldn’t hit those notes without cracking, and forget about the next eight bars when the melody went up a step. I’d choke and the entire school would watch.
With just two rehearsals left, Ms. S. called a private session.
She turned to me from the piano bench and asked, “Annie, why are you holding back?”
“I don’t know,” I said, the toe of my saddle oxford rubbing an imaginary smudge into the carpet. My eyes felt heavy and if I looked up, the tears inside would spill out.
“Are you afraid?” she asked.
“What are you so afraid of?” she asked.
I finally looked up, the tears tumbling down.
“I can only hit those notes if I’m loud.”
I had sung those notes a million times at home, belting like a regular Andrea McArdle. But belting was brassy, bold, and something that once out, I couldn’t put the lid back on. My friends wouldn’t just hear me, they would see me, a me I’d never shared with anyone but family. It was like opening a window into my soul. I just didn’t know if I had the nerve.
Ms. S. wasn’t convinced.
“Annie, I’ll be the one to break the news to you,” she said, sizing me up. “You’re a singer. It doesn’t matter how much you hide it, it’s inside you and won’t go away because gifts like that don’t stay trapped forever. Be loud. Be proud of what you’ve got.”
“What if I look stupid up there?” A valid question from a budding teenager.
“Stop being so afraid of looking stupid because what you’re hiding isn’t stupid.” She pointed to my heart. “Let’s get that girl out.”
With that, she flipped the sheet music to the beginning. “From the top!”
Growing up, Mom and Pop gave us kids the tools and the green light to create at whim and with our whole hearts. But school was different. Questions had right and wrong answers. There were proven steps to get there. School required work that musn’t meddle with whimsy. Grades were not curved for creative types. The view outside the classroom window wasn’t there so the artist could wonder without obstruction. I did not believe I required exception to the rules, but up until Ms. S. put me in my place, I had never really had a place at school. I had never been given permission--at least not by a teacher--to embrace all I kept inside. She validated me beside the piano. I didn’t know it at the time, but she also saved me.
When I finally sang the song at the fair, I belted it with my full voice, my whole heart, eyes wide shut, arms open for all to see without hesitation, and was met with rounds of applause. But that’s not how Ms. S. saved me. If the story ended there, it would be just another sweet chapter of self-discovery in a memoir.
You see, Ms. S. provided a safe landing—a safe space through which I would grow out. I needed to know what I was afraid of and why. I needed to wrestle demons of doubt, and I also needed to be given a free environment in which to figure it out. My insecurities weren’t sorted in a day or in a single performance, but the discovery that I could have a place within a larger place where I had previously felt outnumbered, different, and weird began the afternoon I finally heard my voice, loud, and for all to see. I was gonna be okay.
Twenty-five years ago a close, dear friend shot himself in his jeep just a couple of blocks from his home. This beautiful boy, with a laugh I’ll never forget and a smile that lit up a room, had secrets like the rest of us, pain like the rest of us, doubt and confusion and panics of hopelessness just like the rest of us--only his pain took its final bow. Throughout high school I didn’t know how to live with this loss. I coped with my grief through the jaded glasses of a kid. I looked for someone to blame in those tormenting times when I was forced to grow up in order to comprehend what happened. Now I have a son with a bright smile, approaching his coming of age. If he doesn’t feel the pangs of self-doubt now, one day he will. Soon he’ll feel that pull inside him, strong, overpowering, the real him ready to be fully realized. Through what means will he come to grips with who he is and what he will become? I find myself looking to the various outlets, the extras beyond the standard, with intense purpose. He’s a swimmer and a damn good sketch artist. I know they’re more than activity. They’re vital.
My friend was an actor, and today I wonder what might have happened if he had been rehearsing Richard III or Death of a Salesman or Man of La Mancha when he hit rock bottom. If he had been tasked with understanding the pain of the characters in these plays, what of his own pain would have made sense? If he understood the motivation behind the impossible dreams of those men, what of his own wantings might he have stayed around for? I don't know. Maybe it’s ridiculous to suggest that theatre could have saved him, but I’m sure his mother would have rathered he come to grips with his pain clutching a script, not a gun.
My daughter danced in another ballet recital this weekend, under the blue lights and the mission style arches of the Marigny Opera Ballet’s theater on St. Ferdinand Street. From the aisle I watched the final rehearsal. I observed the soloists in the wings, steeling their nerves before coming on stage to turn a whopping twenty pirouettes. I recognized the concentration in my daughter’s eyes as she met the challenge of the hardest choreography she’s been given yet. I looked on as her director instructed pointed toes, airy yet strong port de bras, and then clapped the loudest and proudest when the coda commenced. They were all kids dancing that afternoon, some as young as three, just starting out, enjoying the fun of it all. Others were older, at that turning point, like me at the piano with Ms. S. Would they still find the fun of it when it got hard? Would they allow their inner light to shine through? The rest were teenagers, adolescents learning to compartmentalize their emotions, their questions, and their pain through the craft. And I teared up as I always do watching any beautiful performance. Only this time, I lifted up a single prayer.
“God, Iet my daughter embrace this gift with all her heart, but more than anything, don’t let her be afraid of who she is. When she finally surrenders to what’s inside, let her surrender loudly, with a full heart, eyes wide shut, arms open wide.”
Were it not for choir rehearsals, dance classes, drama club--all those hours creating beauty from the angst, self-pity, sass and contradiction of growing up--I don’t know where I’d be, if I would be here at all. I am no different than you, and we know enough to know that time and again we were saved by angels, like Ms. S.--directors, coaches, teachers, mentors who discovered us hidden within our talent and beckoned us to come out. We know that our future depended on them, and we can’t imagine a world void of their influence.
If I saw Ms. S. today I would apologize that I don’t sing like I used to. But I’d tell her that I’m still okay. After my friend died, my high school English teacher gave me the prompt, “write the truth.” Like singing “Tomorrow” at full force, it’s made all the difference.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.