One day when I was a six-year-old first grader at William L. Cabel elementary school in North Dallas, our music teacher, Mrs. Adams, marched the whole class into the auditorium and sat us on the first two rows. I remember how tiny I felt in that cavernous room with its towering ceiling and wide stage hidden behind a curtain that looked to be at least two stories high.
The folding wooden seats dwarfed my classmates and me, our feet sticking straight out as though to parade our assortment of scuffed hush puppies and mary janes, like a squirming display in a second-hand shoe store.
Mrs. Adams stood in front of us and pointed out the auditorium’s features. Then she said, “Would anyone like to go up on stage and perform?”
I’m fascinated by the ways confidence, self-awareness, fear, and ambition develop in young souls–how the praise or criticism of significant adults helps to shape self-image. In my life I’ve fluctuated up and down the self-consciousness scale, at times eager to take the spotlight, at others mortified at the very thought. That day in first grade was one of the eager times. My hand shot up.
Mrs. Adams led me backstage and out to the middle of a vast, polished hardwood expanse where I stood alone, a tiny slip of humanity in a sleeveless dress, white anklets, and sensible suede oxford shoes, my long blond hair pulled into a pony tail. I can still see the dusky darkness, the thick folds of the closed curtain, the thin line of light peeking under it. I can still feel the thrill of waiting for the curtain to part and the quickening of my heart as it did.
Of course, having arrived at school that morning not knowing this day would mark my theatrical debut, I hadn’t prepared anything in advance. I can only assume it was a stroke of artistic genius that I decided on the spot to sing, “I am a Pretty Little Dutch Girl.”
The curtain jolted to a stop and swung gently several times before settling. I scanned the faces of my audience, cleared my throat, and sang.
I am a pretty little Dutch girl
As pretty as pretty can be
And all the boys on the baseball team
Go crazy over me.
I have a boyfriend Tommy
Who likes to eat salami
With a pickle on his nose
And strawberry toes
And this is the way my story goes.
One day as I was walking
I heard my boyfriend talking
To a pretty little girl
With a strawberry curl
And this is what he said to her.
I L-O-V-E love you
I K-I-S-S kiss you
I K-I-S-S kiss you
On your F-A-C-E face, face, face.
I curtsied to the sound of thunderous applause. (Okay, so it was only as thunderous as twenty first graders and one teacher can muster.) My classmates were probably as impressed with my spelling skills as my singing ability. I stood there a little longer, basking in the moment. Then the curtain began its journey back across the front of the stage, shutting out my public, returning me to the dusky reality of my ordinary life.
There was a boy in my class named Tommy. When I’d sung the line with his name, I’d looked straight at him, and he’d grinned at me, crinkling his freckled nose. I’d grinned back, feeling not the least bit of awkwardness. I don’t remember anything else about Tommy. Not his last name. Not a single other incident when I noticed his presence in my life. Ours was a brief romance based on a line in a song and lasting only until the curtain closed again. But I remember what it felt like to meet his eyes, to sing my song and be accepted. Would I be someone different today if he’d stuck out his tongue instead?
Perhaps it’s insignificant. Perhaps it’s huge. I honestly don’t know. If nothing else, though, it reminds me that everyone needs to shine, be seen, and to see acceptance in another. We get older and more careful. Less spontaneous and free. But the curtain keeps opening, and–no matter how small we may feel–we still have to sing.
Happy singing, my friends. May your public grant you the thunderous applause you deserve, simply because you’re you.