It’s a beautiful sunny morning in San Antonio, Texas. The weather is unseasonably warm (highs of 80 degrees in February- paradise!) and I decided to walk along the River Walk to reach the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center. As I neared the massive building, I found myself walking with many members of the All State Choir. Clad in black dresses and tuxes, chattering like magpies, clutching black folders, I could sense their nervous excitement. One young lady who walked up the stairs in front of me had two enormous patches on the back of her high school letter jacket, one proclaiming her a member of the 2014 All State Choir, another the 2015, and she had left one big hole on the bottom right side for this year’s patch, which she’ll get to pick up while she is here (that’s confidence in one’s own ability, that is).
I get so melancholy when I am here. It’s my third time at this remarkable convention, a gathering of music teachers of all stripes: elementary through collegiate, vocal and instrumental. An estimated 25,000 people are here. Rumor is that the city doesn’t charge TMEA for the convention center because with every downtown hotel bed booked, they make enough in hotel taxes to offset the convention center rental. We do things big in Texas, y’all.
I get melancholy because I didn’t get to attend as an All State second soprano, which was my number one goal from the day I set foot in my high school choir room, a dark room in the basement of the performing arts center in my suburban high school near Dallas. My choir director didn’t let freshmen audition, I got laryngitis on the day of round one auditions my sophomore year. My junior year, I made it through every round, then when I got to the finals, my nerves got me. I can deal with all of those circumstances.
The one I have never quite recovered from was my senior year. I made it to the final round again. I did. But I blew it. And every year now at this time, at this conference, I beat myself up privately.
But this year, I am going to try a different tack: forgiveness.
I had a really fantastic voice. With a beautiful clear tone and a sharp ear for tuning, and the acting ability to help me do more than just hit the right notes, I had a lot of promise.
But my senior year, I was a mess. I lived in a mess. My mom was tormenting us, violent and dangerous, she would spy on us or break into our house and steal things. She would come see me at school and scream at me or hit me in front of my friends. Once, she visited me at work and my boss locked me in the stock room to protect me while he called security. I was in a relationship with a guy who turned out to be abusive, sexually and emotionally, who also spied on me and demanded all of my time, didn’t allow me to have friends, and threatened to commit suicide if I broke up with him.I had to work because my dad was strapped, so if I wanted clothes or voice lessons, I had to pay for them.My house was not a safe haven. Rehearsal in my bedroom was impossible with younger brothers who didn’t exactly enjoy listening to me sing.
There were a lot of strikes against me.
Now, I know there are so many inspiring stories of young people who overcome overwhelming odds to become genius academics, superb athletes, or stellar performers. But I wasn’t one. I just couldn’t get my mind clear and my shit together enough, and when my less-than-adequately-prepared-self got to the identical room where my nerves had betrayed me in the final round of auditions my junior year, I just could not pull it off. My heart was not in it.
Soon after, I tried to be in the chorus of my high school musical, but missed the second night of the show because of the demented boyfriend’s prom (there was no way I could explain to my directors why I had to go to his prom, they just had to assume I was choosing a boy over my art. Which I was, but not for the reasons one would think).
I managed to struggle along until May, when I finally told my dad what was happening with my boyfriend and he gave me the courage and protection I needed to end that relationship. Things with my mom never did improve, but when I left for college and met and married my beloved husband, I had the security and distance to cope with her.
So when I am here, and I see all these tremendously talented student musicians, whom I know have worked so hard to be here, I feel guilty and sad. But I think this year, I have to put that aside.
So, here is what I will say to that 17 year old girl:
- You did the best you could, without enough life experience to help you make better choices. And pretty much, that’s all we can hope for on any given day.
- All state patches are great, but they don’t make you a whole person. You won’t have a giant chenille Texas shaped hole in your soul just because you didn’t make the choir.
- Your own failures will help you be a better mom and teacher. When your own sophomore daughter gets sick the week of the district round, or when the soprano who stakes it all on making All State her senior year doesn’t, you’ll understand.
- You can still sing for joy. Not for a chair.
And to my grown self, I will say keep singing in the car, Babs is still the best singing partner for the car (her cover of “Make Your Own Kind of Music” is the best anthem), and really, not one of your friends or family love you less because you didn’t make the All State Choir in 1985. A magical life does not require certificates and accolades.
It’s easy to wish we had taken different paths, usually the ones that would have brought greater glory or less struggle (two completely opposite ideas). But I wouldn’t trade who I am now for anything. I love my husband, my kids, my extended family, and my job. I have a house that I am comfy in, and health that allows me to do lots of stuff I love (as long as I don’t do deep lunges- those are hell on my knees). I’ve gotten to study theatre, do theatre, and take a break from theatre. I have the introvert’s ideal- just enough friends that I treasure. Life is good. Maybe I should just start singing here at my booth. It can be my own TMEA debut. Tra-la!