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WHITNEY AND ME
The Best Super Power? Immune to Embarrassment
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It is incredibly presumptuous of me to brag that Whitney Houston and I have anything in common. As many of you know, I blog and podcast regarding my passion for better public school education in this country. What you may not know is I am a professional singer. With a background in opera, musical theatre and jazz, I operate a voice studio coaching singers young and old. Fame indirectly shed its light on me over the years. James Valentine of Maroon 5 sang in my choir program in Nebraska. Scott MacIntyre made Top 10 of American Idol. He invited me to attend the night he completed that feat. Scott is blind so watching him navigate the stage that incredible evening continues to be one of my most joy filled memories. He was a student of mine while in Arizona. Nate Zuecher, formerly of Judah and the Lion, sang in my choir program here in Colorado. Not too shabby, right?
But how does Whitney Houston fit into my orbit? She and I share one common thread: we both performed The Greatest Love Of All on stage. Whitney sang the song with spectacular vocals which created an awe-inspiring rendition. I bombed.
It was decades ago but the pain of embarrassment still lingers. My students requested the school’s administration allow me to sing The Greatest Love of All at their graduation. They had to seek special permission since no teacher had performed at this prestigious event before. The principal agreed to my singing, setting in motion the potential of an epic fail.
It was the busiest time of year in my teaching life. I rehearsed the song but just never quite had the time to memorize it. On the day of the rehearsal, I had a music stand so placing the large tri-fold written music on said stand appeared to solve the memorization question. The rehearsal deemed a success.
After school I decided I needed a new outfit for this occasion. Our city had only one real boutique so I ventured in to find that right look. Clothing which flattered my height and weight was challenging. I would never be mistaken as that little lady! The owner of the store brought out a bright canary yellow jacket and skirt. Perhaps now you understand the picture of the canary above. I could have directed traffic at the graduation! No one could miss me. I then paired electric blue heels with a yellow and blue scarf. What can I say? It was the 80’s. I was sure I nailed the outfit. Upon reflection, appearing as a 500 pound canary did not improve my chances for a stellar performance. Nevertheless, I prepared for the evening and felt ready to take the stage.
Unfortunately everything that day created the perfect storm. I took too much time to get ready, encountered heavy traffic and arrived at the school only a few minutes before the start of the ceremony. I peeked at the audience from stage left and my heart stopped. The auditorium held 1000 but now there was standing room only! The flashes of hundreds of cameras going off at the same time immediately brought on nausea. What was I thinking when I agreed to sing at this event?
It got worse. Preparing my entrance, I realized no music stand existed on the entire stage. Now I am in full panic since I never memorized the song. My music was arranged on a tri-fold sheet of music which would be impossible to hold in my left hand since I couldn’t turn the pages a the microphone was in my right hand. I heard my introduction and must make a decision. After all, I’m a professional singer, somewhat well rehearsed and ready for any variable. I entered the stage without the music. I knew I could do this. I must do this. My students expected a performance worthy of their special evening.
The stage was filled with almost 300 students. As I made my way towards the microphone, a zillion flashes exploded at once. It was unnerving. Picking up the microphone from the cradle, I began to sing. I believe the children are our future. Teach them well… That’s all folks. No more lyrics. In a brief blaze of thought, I realized two things: 1. I couldn’t go backstage and get the music because there was no music stand. 2. The accompanist was now surrounded, literally, with a jungle of tall plants so I couldn’t even get to the piano. So I did whatI do best. Improvised. My recollection is something like this:
I believe the children are our future, teach them well and they will understand. Tonight we are gathered here to celebrate these kids. These are very special kids. Nothing rhymed. No example of verse, refrain. The remainder of the song is a blur. I just remember every so often I would sing I believe the children are our future.
Greg Gutfeld of the extremely popular late night show Gutfeld! recently gave a definition of a true super hero: Immunity to Embarrassment. I was a super hero of large dimensions that night, wearing my bright yellow hero suit, attempting to hide my complete embarrassment with a frozen smile. When I completed the song, and I did actually complete it, the audience applauded vigorously. However my students backstage, waiting to perform the next number, were laughing so hard they had tears in their eyes. One was on the floor…laughing and snorting! I wanted to cry real tears but I always told my students not to cry in public. So there was one goal: get to my car as soon as possible so I could let go of the ensuing ocean of tears. Here’s when it gets incredibly interesting.
As I came around the corner from backstage, a staff member stopped me and stated how much she enjoyed my singing. Fake sympathy? My principal, walking toward me, clamored how excited he was to hear me sing.Really pathetic sympathy? I almost made it to the outside door when a parent stopped me, put her hands on my shoulders and told me my performance put her in tears. Finally truth speaks. But wait. She continued her praise of my ability to change the song lyrics so they were more appropriate for the evening’s celebration. I thanked her but she wouldn’t stop with the compliments. At that very instant, I decided running with her interpretation would have the best outcome. So I did. That night I never cried or gave excuses for my poor performance. I simply said “thank you” and agreed my performing the song with new and improved lyrics was shear genius.
There are teachable moments here, especially for my colleagues in the trenches of teaching America’s children. But I believe all of us can relate. You will make mistakes. I always reminded my students “the only mistake you truly make is the one you don’t learn from.” I’ve performed leads and supporting roles in over 40 musicals. I was always memorized and ready for rehearsal. Last December, some 45 years later, I performed for our community’s Christmas program. I memorized my song two weeks before the concert.
It is not how perfectly you teach. Instead it is how well you cover your mistakes. How is that possible? A sense of humor goes much farther than taking yourself too seriously. I laughed at my missteps before students could point them out. Making fun of my faux pas allowed students to realize that perfection was not in the teacher so it wouldn’t be expected of the students. In fact, during an end of the year evaluation, my principal gave me the highest marks because of my ability to own my mistakes, incorporate humor, recover, and move on. I encouraged my students to emulate this behavior.
Mark Twain said it best: The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. In 1971, I discovered my “why” as I began a very long teaching career. Before that date, I traveled aimlessly through high school and college. On that first day of teaching, I knew I had purpose. You do too. If you haven’t found your “why” yet, seek to discover how you can leave a legacy, fulfill your destiny and embrace the second most important day of your life.