By Nancy Schatz Alton
Last night my family skipped the spring music concert at school. For years, we have secretly dreamed of skipping this event. My ten-year-old has always had stage fright. It’s hard watching Annie look like she’s about to fall off the risers and throw up her dinner as she stands there—wide eyed and unblinking—staring down something we all can’t see.
People tell me these concerts are important. Showing up for what scares Annie may be powerful and life changing—an affirmation of our bravery. These events can also suck, like the time when all the lights from the clicking and filming iPhone and iPads and i-what-the-hell-is-anyone-actually-living-in-the-moment-here made my Annie turn her entire body sideways and remain silent. That concert was during the year she repeated kindergarten due to her dyslexia. It kills me that my girl not only faces learning difficulties all day at school, but she is also filled with angst at an evening program that could show off one of her gifts. Because even though my girl has anxiety, singing is actually one of her favorite activities. She’s always sung in tune and memorized songs within one or two listens. She sings for fun, by herself, in her room, where she thinks no one is listening.
So, yes, I gave a big sigh when my mom asked me, “Is Annie going to be graded on the concert tonight?”
Since I didn’t have the energy to face a potential hard evening, I’ll take an F for the family team. But no, she’s not graded on this. I’m not graded on being human either. I’m not graded on my wish to relax instead of helping Annie pick out something appropriate to wear when she’s most comfortable in sweats. I’m not graded on my waffling between going and not going and asking Annie for her opinion before deciding we’ll stay home and enjoy homemade pizza instead of facing our fears. Annie didn’t give me an F because she popped out of a day dream after dinner to ask me if the concert had happened yet.
“The concert is over, Annie,” I said.
“It is?” she asked. Then she started to cry.
She climbed onto my lap and we talked about how I had just heard her sing at her biggest performance success yet. She takes voice lessons from our neighbor, who hosted an intimate spring event in her living room. Just two rows of chairs made a small arch around the baby grand piano.
Annie went first. She walked up front and turned to the audience. She moved her eyes from left to right, sweeping the room as her head came along for the ride. And then she burst into tears.
Her teacher didn’t treat it like a big deal. “Oh, OK, Annie, take a moment. There’s Kleenex in the back of the room,” she said. “And while you do that, we are all going to start singing your warm-up exercises. You can join in when you are ready. And when you sing, you can face me at the piano.”
I asked Annie how I could help while holding her close. “To make it not happen. To not sing,” she said through tears.
“Let’s just calm down,” I said.
But I sounded anything but calm. My insides clenched as I worried about whether or not she was going to sing.
I turned my head away from Annie to the owner of the deep voice next to me. This grandfather held the room’s lowest notes with joy, his whole face beaming with helpfulness and song. His voice during the warm-up exercises began to buoy me. As my body began to relax, Annie quietly joined in. I couldn’t sing a note, but Annie could and did. And when the warm-ups ended, Annie walked to the piano. She placed herself with her side to the audience and faced her voice teacher’s back.
“Annie, I’m going to play a short warm-up, and then you’ll begin,” said her voice teacher.
The teacher played the first notes of “Belle’s Reprise” on the piano and Annie began to sing. “I want to venture in the great white somewhere. I want it more than I can tell. For once, it might be grand to have someone understand I want so much more than they’ve got planned.”
And there I was, my heart aching at all it took to get right here, with Annie sharing her gift with everyone in the room. Just past the ache was the soaring joy. I never imagined this moment when I watched Annie suffering on those school risers. Back there I couldn’t fathom Annie would actually show off her talent in a tiny living room three doors down from our house.
When I used to see her scared up onstage, all I felt was my fear. I saw how different she was from the kids singing with joy and posing for cameras. Why couldn’t I have that kid? As she sang “Belle’s Reprise,” I could see her walking in the wilderness, voice lifted in song as she took in nature, her life on her terms, not mine.
After such a performance, I couldn’t fathom going back to a spring concert to watch a possibly quaking Annie standing on the risers. She gave up her spot in a group solo last week. When I sounded disappointed about her not wanting to sing the group solo, Annie’s teacher told me, “We are proud of Annie for knowing exactly what she wants. She has years ahead of her to use her singing voice the way she wants to use it.”
“Mom, I don’t want to do the group solo.” “Mom, I don’t want to do the jumpathon.” “Mom, all that noise gave me a headache.” “Mom, I don’t want to go to the birthday party with all the girls from my class. It will be too loud.”
Mom, see me, love me, accept me. Last night we finished reading a book together about a sixth grade girl that has dyslexia when we should have been at the concert. We read it because my girl has dyslexia and many of the strange side effects that kids with learning differences have. It’s not strange in this world to have parents reply, “My kid can’t jump rope either. Does yours ride a bike? Mine doesn’t.”
So I work every day to accept my girl the way the girl in the book we read is finally accepted by her classmates as they all realize she isn’t stupid, she simply has dyslexia. I smiled so big as my girl jumped off the couch and did an impromptu dance for me when the girl in the book realized she was smart despite her dyslexia.
My girl, I see her so much clearer in our living room than when she’s up on those risers so far away from me. Front and center, singing for only me, she’s all herself.
Seattleite Nancy Schatz Alton is the co-author of The Healthy Back Book and is a regular contributor to ParentMap.com. Read her blog at withinthewords.com.