When I was in third grade, I wasn’t popular. Having started school at five, I was almost a whole year younger than the other kids. I was also left handed, small for my age and shy; distinct disadvantages that drew, like a magnet, the unwanted attention of bullies. It didn’t help that I couldn’t tie my shoes, cut with scissors or color between the lines.
That I would blossom in some distant future, a “late bloomer,” was unknown and irrelevant to the third grader who wished she could sit concealed in a box, out of sight of the girls who tormented her and the teachers who looked benignly on.
I tell these things to let you know what a strange and out of character thing I did when a talent scout knocked on the door of our third grade classroom.
“I’m looking for children who have talent and can be in our talent show,” he said, cracking the door slightly and smiling at our teacher. I watched as the prettiest girls, the most popular ones, my biggest tormentors, pranced to the door, all giggly confidence and fetching smiles.
Then I, a child who literally wanted to disappear inside a box, hopped up and walked to the door with them.
From the perspective of a third grader he was a tall man, taller than a giant. He stooped to hear our answers to his question, “What is your talent?” The other girls, all in ballet, replied in unison, Dancing. He asked their names and scribbled something in a notebook.
Having taken no lessons of any kind, I cast frantically about for a talent. When he turned his gaze and his notebook my way, I blurted Singing, without expecting a follow-up question.
But he did ask another question. “Do you sing alone or with a group?”
“My sister will sing with me,” I blurted again, surprised at my own audacity.
My sister, a sixth grader, was very popular. Our school held an annual contest called SUPERLATIVES when attributes like best looking, best dressed, wittiest, smartest, most likely to succeed and most athletic were voted on by students. My sister always won at least one superlative.
She wasn’t upset at all when I told her and my mother what I had done.
At least, she wasn’t upset until sheer terror kicked in.
We were fine for weeks after my announcement, putting the whole thing out of our minds until our mother said “The talent show is less than two weeks away. You girls had better pick out a song and start practicing or you’ll be standing on stage with nothing to do.”
With her words, a tidal wave of fear and dread washed over us. What had I done?
“We don’t want to do it! Call the talent man and tell him we can’t!” We cried, pleaded, wailed, joined for once in common misery. To my sister’s credit, she never blamed me for volunteering her. She had probably convinced herself it was her own idea, since she was a ringleader and instigator.
“If you say you’re going to do something you have to follow through with it,” said our mother, merciless and implacable. But she threw us a lifeline and called in reinforcements. The next day my aunt, creative and dramatic, billowed in like a ship in full sail and took charge. She told us we would sing I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, and began drilling us in lyrics, harmonizing and choreography.
“You have to act out the song as well as sing it,” she said. “Add some humor. Some expression. Move your hands. No, no, no, not like that, you need to be in sync. Move together!”
We grew weary, but like a drill sergeant she pushed us on. Every day after school our mother and aunt were waiting to push, prod, coax and threaten. They pulled together our costumes, developed our choreography and listened as we sang over and over until I’ve Been Working on the Railroad thrummed through my mind at night, in my dreams and in every waking hour.
The night of the talent show arrived and stage fright assailed us. But unlike the stark terror of dread, this was a different more exhilarating kind fear, because we knew our song as thoroughly as we knew our own names.
Dancers danced, jugglers juggled, baton twirlers twirled, singing troupes sang, and finally my sister and I were called to the stage. Bright lights blinded us, an auditorium full of people waited expectantly, and unaccompanied and unaided by anything except those relentless demanding rehearsals, we performed.
We harmonized. We acted. And we sang. The crowd cheered, the clapping went on for a long time, and when we won third place we looked at each other in joy and disbelief.
The seed of an impulse had born fruit. The glow of that night stayed with me a long time, and the lyrics of the song forever. But another seed was planted that night; the seed of a song in my heart. It was a seed that blossomed as time went on into the knowledge that I could sing through dread and fear and inadequacy until my song burst forth in full bloom, and no one could silence it.