Waiting tables, dyeing textiles, separating goats in heat
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When I was a senior in high school, an unfortunate set of circumstances brought me to the regional finals of a Knights of Columbus public-speaking contest in Queens, New York. There, in a banquet hall, I was expected to deliver from memory an original speech on the topic “How Does Youth View Authority?”
The year was 1970. The unfortunate circumstances were these: (1) I was a member of my high-school debating team; (2) as the team’s only Catholic member, I was the only one eligible for the contest; (3) both the team captain and my English teacher strongly encouraged me to enter, and I lacked the will to resist them; and (4) no one else from the entire borough of Manhattan entered the preliminary competition, making me — to my horror — the winner by default, despite a complete lapse of memory halfway through my speech.
The night of the contest, as my mother and I rode the subway out to Queens, I sat in nervous misery, the speech playing like a broken record in my head. Although a senior, I was just fifteen years old, having skipped ahead in school. Short, skinny, and lacking facial hair, I looked even younger than my age, and hid behind my horn-rimmed glasses.
When we reached the crowded hall, my jitters grew worse. Unlike the “competition” in Manhattan, which had taken place before four men in an otherwise empty room, this was going to be a real contest, with a large audience and three other competitors — a girl and two boys. The boys’ dark suits made them look mature and serious. The taller one stood over six feet and delivered his speech in smooth, self-assured tones that would have made a grocery list sound like the Gettysburg Address. Until he spoke, I had, in spite of myself, harbored some illogical fantasy that I might win. Now that fantasy fluttered away, leaving me utterly alone and without hope.
Making my way onto the stage, I looked out at the expectant faces, took a deep breath, and tried to sound as if I believed what I had written about youth and authority. Though I made no mention of Spiro Agnew, Woodstock, or Vietnam, I suggested that “today’s youth” was troubled by the gap between the nation’s ideals and its reality. I encouraged those in authority to help bridge this gap by trying to understand the young. In a pretense of religious faith, I even mentioned Jesus Christ.
I was just starting to gain confidence when the unthinkable happened: my voice shriveled to a croak. I stopped, swallowed, and tried again to speak, but produced nothing more than a whisper. To the audience, I must have looked like a fish gasping for air. Seconds ticked by. Mortified, I pointed to my throat. Finally, someone came to the edge of the stage and handed me a glass of water. I smiled weakly, mouthed, “Thank you,” and took a few sips. A moment later, my voice warbled back to life and I pressed on. When I was done, I sat back down with the other contestants amid polite applause. Mr. Fabulous Speaker won first place; the girl, second.
As a physician, I now know that mysterious maladies are often physical manifestations of hidden emotional distress. The cause of that awful blockage in my throat seems clear: ever the dutiful son and obedient student, I’d undertaken that excruciating task solely because my fear of saying no exceeded my fear of speaking in public. I’d swallowed my refusal until finally, onstage, it choked my voice to nothing. My moment of silence said more about one youth’s relationship to authority than any speech ever could.
New Rochelle, New York
When my father was angry, his voice thundered with the wrath of God, and as a small girl, I was frightened of him. I was especially alarmed by his evening Bible readings. He favored passages about God destroying the earth, and people wailing and moaning and gnashing their teeth. He taught me that God’s punishment was immediate and terrible.
One bright spring day when I was six, I decided to test God’s wrath. I went outdoors to the west side of the house, where there were no windows and no one would see me. Gathering up my nerve, I whispered, “Hell,” and then, “Damn,” and waited for God to strike me dead. But nothing happened. While I stood there waiting, the sun grew brighter, and everything became clearer and more beautiful. So I said, a bit louder, “God damn it to hell.” Still nothing was changed, except that the world retained this strange brightness. I can’t remember ever feeling more relieved, or more courageous.
St. George, Utah
My parents were the first — and, for a long time, only — back-to-the-landers in this rural, blue-collar, Republican township. When I left my idyllic, backwoods home life to attend public school, I became acutely aware of the differences between me and my classmates. I was a misfit — buck-toothed, often not very clean, hopelessly clumsy, always chosen last for sports. I desperately watched the popular girls for clues, at one point even keeping a journal with such headings as “What did Suzy wear?” and “What did Suzy do?”
In fifth grade, I began to win spelling bees. Spelling came easily to me, perhaps because, as a loner, I did a lot of reading. The competitions were progressive; if I kept winning, I would move on to successively higher levels: school, district, state. During the spelling bees, I quaked and blushed furiously, but what really discouraged me — what always won out, four years in a row, over the pleasure of spelling a word right — was the image in my head of my schoolmates mocking me as my name was announced over the loudspeaker as some big winner.
I especially remember the last year, when I stayed in the district bee until it was down to a few remaining contestants. The word I threw that year was chronicle.
Though I performed willingly as a child, at some point in my early teens I became self-conscious and could no longer sing in front of people. Later, at the age of nineteen, I was walking down Long Beach Boulevard in the midst of an LSD trip when I had a revelation: I needed to sing in order to be free. I began singing, softly at first, then louder and louder. Each time I noticed people looking at me, I stopped. But I soon started up again, gradually increasing in volume until people stared once more. After the experience was over, though, I still couldn’t sing in public.
About seven years later, I agreed to teach group guitar lessons at a music store. The first night, another guitar teacher came to help out with my two beginner classes. His name was Mike. “I’ll teach the first group,” he said, “and you can teach the second.”
The students took their seats, and Mike taught them a couple of simple chords. Then I heard him say, “Now we’ll put these chords together and sing a song.” As he broke into “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” I felt sick to my stomach.
During the break between classes, I went to the restroom and wondered if I could return. I wasn’t sure which would be worse: singing before the group, or fleeing.
I wandered back to class, still afraid my voice might just shut down. But I managed to act as though everything was fine, and moments later I was up in front of the group singing, “Michael, row the boat ashore, hallelujah,” and enjoying myself immensely. Within a couple of years, I was singing in a band. The revelation I’d experienced while walking the streets of Long Beach turned out to be true: singing did set me free.
My last blind date went well, until we got back to his apartment. There we were, sitting on his couch, arms and fingers touching, divulging intimate information about ourselves, when he patted my thigh and said, “Be right back.” He walked to the bathroom ten feet away and, leaving the door half open, began to pee. The sound triggered an urgent need to relieve my own bladder. This was a problem.
You see, I cannot bear the embarrassment of having a man I hardly know overhear my bodily functions. This fear has caused me to pee into cups on occasion, and to search out more out-of-the-way bathrooms than I care to remember. Sometimes I’ll conveniently “forget” something in my car so I can pee in the yard. Whenever possible, I’ll hold it until I return home. Only in complete emergencies will I actually use a bathroom within earshot, and then I’ll turn on the fan and the water. And just as I begin to go, I’ll cough.
I don’t get stage fright, but there’s one time I wish I had. A couple of years ago, the Olympic torch was passing through Cleveland, Ohio, on its way to Atlanta, Georgia. I was in the Coast Guard Reserve, and the torch was coming off a boat down the street from the base, so I decided to walk over and watch.
During the ceremony, my uniform attracted the attention of some local newspeople, who were looking for someone to interview. They asked me what I thought of the Olympic torch passing through the area. I looked right in the camera and said, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event that doesn’t happen very often.”
They put me on the six o’clock and the eleven o’clock news.
George A. Gilliam
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
At twelve, my secret desire was to be Annette Funicello of The Mickey Mouse Club. Annette came from Orange County, California, just like me, and she’d been “discovered” when a friend of a friend of a producer saw her in a school play. So as soon as they announced the junior-high spring talent show, I signed up. Maybe a scout for Walt Disney would see me perform and make me a real Mouseketeer.
For the show, my friend Bobby-Jo and I put together a dance duet to “Singing in the Rain.” As we stood backstage, awaiting our turn, the stark reality of an auditorium full of adolescents set in. Peeking through the curtain, I saw a sea of teens bathed in the long, dusty rays of light from the high windows. Then I caught sight of Mom standing at the back wall with her boss, the principal. As his secretary, she was able to keep me under her watchful eye. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to stay, I thought. Maybe she would have to go back to her desk to answer the phones.
Since I was seven, Mom had paid for me to take lessons in tap-dancing, ballet, voice, and acrobatics. My teachers, a retired vaudeville couple, were close friends of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The yearly recitals — which Lucy and Desi often attended — had left me with the impression that I was capable of performing before anyone. Until now.
Bobby-Jo and I wore thick lipstick, blue eye shadow, pink leotards, tutus, and toe shoes, and held ruffled parasols over our shoulders. “Take a deep breath,” Bobby-Jo advised. I inhaled deeply and began choking on the fumes from my layers of hairspray. When the record player blared the first notes of “Singing in the Rain,” we made our entrance.
Ignoring the hundreds of faces staring at me, I executed the dance steps flawlessly. Joy flooded through me, and I felt as if I were floating. So this was what it was like to be really good at something. I began to believe that my dreams were truly within reach.
Then I ventured a glance toward the back of the room, where my mother’s eyes drew mine like a magnet. Her implacable stare obliterated my confidence. Suddenly, my ears were deaf, my position relative to my partner a mystery. Looking around, I saw Bobby-Jo start the turn into our big finish. I struggled to catch up, but my body seemed too heavy to balance on the points of those dainty pink shoes. I felt a twinge of pain as my right foot collapsed inward and the stage floor came up at me.
Somehow I remained upright and rushed to the front of the stage just in time to take the final pose: fourth position, rear, right arm over head, parasol over left shoulder. Oh, God, I’m sorry, I thought. I’m sorry, Annette. I’m sorry, Walt Disney scout. I’m sorry, Mom.
Oblivious to the whispered condolences backstage, I escaped out the side door and made my way through the empty halls to my mother’s office, seeking a hug and some soothing words. I found my mother there alone, nervously straightening papers on her desk.
She didn’t look up.
Finally, she turned to face me, her eyes steely, her jaw set. Through clenched teeth, she hissed, “How could you do that to me? After all the money I’ve poured into you!”
That evening at home was like any other: my parents in the kitchen drinking a glass of wine while Mom fixed dinner; we kids waiting for the call to come join them at the table. As we ate, I wondered whether Mom would mention my failure at the talent show, but she remained silent. Afterward, rising to clear the dirty dishes, she glanced in my direction and said, “Bobby-Jo called. . . . I think she wants the spelling words for tomorrow.”
Mom’s reaction taught me my first lesson about survival: that it was safer to be in the audience, passing judgment on those brave enough to pursue their dreams.
I had invested a year of my life in preparing for my senior recital, and I wanted everything to be perfect. Questions gnawed at me: What if I blanked onstage and forgot my notes? What if I dropped a mallet? What if no one liked it?
Standing in the wings, ready to go on, I could hear the murmur of a full auditorium. My friends and family were all there. My mom was always supportive of my musical pursuits, and my dad was, too, in his own way — though he never really understood why I wanted to be a musician when I could just as easily be an accountant and make a lot of money.
“It’s time,” the stage manager said. With firm resolve, I picked up my mallets, stepped onstage, and made my way to the marimba. The stage lights burned down on me. The audience applauded, then fell silent. I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and began. As the first note sounded, it all fell into place, becoming one: music, instrument, performer, audience.
Afterward, with moist eyes, my dad hugged me and said, “That’s the best damn thing I’ve ever heard.”
Before becoming a registered nurse, I had to attend mandatory clinical rotations in all the fields of nursing. I dreaded the psychiatry rotation the most, picturing straitjackets, hallucinations, and every type of bizarre behavior imaginable. To my delight, however, I was not assigned to the locked unit at the hospital, but to an outpatient rehab center.
My clinical partner, Jeannie, and I arrived for our first morning at the center just as a group of young people were rearranging chairs for a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. When told that we would be sitting in, Jeannie and I exchanged tense glances. We’d battled our own drug habits in the past.
The session began with a typical round of introductions: “Hi, I’m John, and I abuse drugs.” When my turn came, I said, “Hi, I’m Danna, and I’m a nursing student here to observe,” feeling as if I was telling a lie of omission.
After that, each member of the group read out loud a paragraph from the Vision Book, then passed it along for the next person to continue. As I listened, my thoughts drifted to my own years of cocaine addiction: how I’d stayed up for days without sleeping; how my weight had plummeted; how my stomach had bled.
Jeannie’s hands trembled as she read. Then she passed the book to me. All I had to do was read one paragraph, I told myself. Surely I could do that. But my voice shook, and tears filled my eyes, blurring the page. I lost my place. Then I lost my voice. I heard someone whisper, “What’s her problem?” Jeannie grasped my hand firmly. The counselor asked if I had something I wanted to share with the group.
Finding my voice, I recounted my own struggle for freedom from drugs, how I’d overcome my addiction and regained my self-respect, and a young woman of no more than twenty came over and hugged me. This was her sixth meeting, she said, and every time she left here, she went and got high. She knew it was wrong, but she couldn’t stop. She’d never met anyone, though, who had been where she was now and had quit drugs and gone on to have a normal life. “If you could do it,” she said, “so can I.”
One summer, I worked as a camp counselor at a Catskills resort that provided a day camp for the children of its guests. At three, Stevie was the youngest of the campers, but he participated enthusiastically in all activities.
Toward the end of the summer, the children prepared a talent show for their parents, and I taught Stevie to sing “The Eensy Weensy Spider.” During rehearsals, he belted out his song with gusto, finger motions and all, and on the big day, he seemed ready to go. Behind the scenes, I positioned him at the center of the stage, then gave the high sign to my assistant, who pulled open the curtain. Stevie took one look at the audience, pointed to the curtain, and demanded, “Put it back!”
I was puzzled by his sudden shyness until I realized that we had always rehearsed with the curtain closed. Stevie had never performed in front of an audience, and no amount of coaxing could persuade him to do it now. Finally, I gave up and drew the curtain.
No sooner was the curtain closed than from behind it, clear as a bell, came Stevie’s three-year-old voice: “The eensy weensy spider went up the water spout. . . .”
New York, New York
During college orientation, when a speaker announced that 60 percent of students change their majors before they graduate, I scoffed. I was dead certain of my major — music composition — even though I could barely play piano and my dyslexia made it difficult to sight-read. (I could still compose.) In my first semester, I was acing music theory and not doing too badly in my piano lessons — at least, that’s what I thought, until, two weeks before the semester’s end, my piano instructor said, “Well, I’m afraid you don’t have much of a repertoire for your juried performance.”
“What juried performance?” I asked.
“Didn’t I tell you? It counts for half your grade.”
I sweated those last two weeks, getting stomach cramps at night and spending long, hopeless hours in the practice room by day. At the appointed hour, feeling as if I was about to throw up, I walked into a small recital room where three distinguished professors were talking among themselves. “The humidity is terrible in here,” one said. “It’s really making the piano sound bad.”
“Well,” I said, “it’s about to sound a lot worse.”
By the time I got my grade, a C, I had already changed my major to English.
When they told me I was going to see some new doctors, I believed them. What did I know? I was twelve years old and had spina bifida, a congenital defect that results in a severe curvature of the spine. I needed crutches to walk, and my steps were tentative at best. Having just entered puberty, I was highly self-conscious about my less-than-perfect body.
The nurse took my pajamas — my panties, too — and gave me a gown to wear, the kind that ties in back and exposes all. Then she put me in a wheelchair and pushed me, not to an examining room, but to an auditorium filled with young medical students, who were waiting for the next exhibit of a medical anomaly: me.
With all eyes watching and my nakedness on display, I pulled myself up the three steps to the stage. I was announced as “your typical post-corrective-surgery spina bifida with little hope for a normal life.” It was then that my bladder, weak with fright, let go.
Camp Hill, Pennsylvania
As a child, I had a crippling case of stage fright that no amount of encouragement could cure. In my fourth-grade year, a member of the local symphony orchestra came to our classroom to give a demonstration of all the stringed instruments. I overcame my shyness long enough to tell him that the viola made the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. He replied that the reason I liked it was that my own voice had “the timbre of a viola.”
I never saw the man again, but from that moment on, my stage fright was cured. Not only that, I went on to sing, debate, and run for every school office. And after graduating, I jumped into the social movements of the sixties, demonstrating, marching, and chanting. After all, I had the timbre of a viola. No doubt everyone loved hearing my voice!
Around age twenty-five, I finally heard my voice on tape and was surprised to find it very ordinary, with no distinguished qualities of any sort. But by then it was too late. I already had the confidence to express myself without fear, in any setting.
As a youngster, I would have been crushed to learn that the man from the symphony had made the same observation about someone else’s voice. Now I hope there was a child in each classroom he visited to whom he gave the same gift.
C. M. Pascal
It is the Friday before Memorial Day, 1952, and two critical events in my young life are about to unfold.
The more important is my first date: Barbara, the prettiest girl in my elementary school, has asked me to escort her to her dance-school prom this evening. The corsage has been ordered, my mother has agreed to chauffeur us, and I’ve devised a plan to take Barbara out for ice cream afterward, and maybe even hold her hand on the walk home.
But before all of this can happen, I have to perform in my school’s annual Memorial Day assembly. I’ll be up onstage in my Boy Scout uniform, carrying my father’s old bugle and sitting beside several war veterans in uniform. My job: to stand up and play taps after the veterans have told their stories. No big deal, I think. I’ve had four years of trumpet lessons and performed flawlessly in rehearsal.
But I have not considered that, during the actual ceremony, Barbara will be in the audience, listening. Inevitably, as I sit and wait to play my part, we make eye contact, and it occurs to me that I do not want to embarrass myself before her.
When the time comes, I stand to face the flag, put the bugle to my lips, and blow. I am playing for her, I realize. And I am terrified. In short order, I learn two things: First, you can’t play taps when your lips are quivering. And second, once you start playing taps, you can’t stop playing, no matter how miserable the performance.
Later, at the prom, I’m so quiet that Barbara asks me what’s wrong. Reluctantly, I explain my humiliation.
“Oh?” she says. “I didn’t notice.”
“Come on,” I say, “weren’t you listening? I screwed up everything.”
“I was listening,” she insists. “You were fine. Honest.” She sounds sincere.
Afterward, we go for ice cream, then take that long walk home together, but we never have another date. It’s never been clear to me exactly why.
L. B. Chase
Summit, New Jersey
It was a fall afternoon, and I was on my way to a class in the art department. Although I had been teaching writing at the University of Georgia for two years, I was nervous. This was different.
I got to the art building a bit too early, checked in with the secretary, and strolled the halls affecting nonchalance, pretending to look at the exhibits. As the hour approached, I went to the ladies’ room several times and paced in and out of the large studio, where students were beginning to set up their easels. Finally, the energetic professor arrived, thanked me for coming, and began bustling around the room, arranging the studio lights to fall on a raised dais in the center. I could hardly breathe.
I was fifty-three. Being an artist’s model was something I’d never expected of my middle years. When I’d applied for this modeling assignment, at the suggestion of one of my writing students, I had felt adventuresome, strong, and lithe from regular yoga practice. Now, facing the actual moment, I felt fragile, foolish, and fat. I considered fleeing.
After a few opening comments to the class, the professor motioned to me. I walked to the dais, removed the robe I’d been instructed to bring, and stepped onto the cloth-covered platform. I felt faint and shaky with embarrassment.
“Ah,” she sighed, “at last they’ve sent me a model with some shape.”
The hot studio lights exposed my every crease and wrinkle, and I felt the students observing me in a way I’d never been seen before. Then their pencils hit the paper, and motion gave birth to form. The human form. My form.
In high school, I was always too shy to try out for stage productions, but at the seminary I decided it was safe to join the theater company. After all, I was now one of God’s “elect.” Surely he would help me overcome my shyness and become a fabulous actor.
In my first play, George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion, I was cast as “Christian #3.” I had only a few lines, but in eight performances I didn’t muff them once. Then I was cast as George Gibbs, the romantic lead in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. God help me! The thing I dreaded most was not memorizing my lines but kissing a woman onstage. The fact is, I had very little experience in that department (a big reason I’d ended up in the seminary) — and besides, what would God think? I reassured myself, however, that it was just acting and that God could tell the difference.
In my junior year, I was granted my biggest role yet: Jesus, in a musical called Cotton Patch Gospel. Everything went well during rehearsals. I remember being extra conscientious about learning my lines. After all, I thought, if I make a mistake, people might lose their faith!
The first couple of performances were a big success. After the second, we held a party, where I met a young woman with raven hair and inquisitive eyes. We danced and then chatted by the punch bowl. I was very attracted to her, but I kept thinking, You’re Jesus, for God’s sake! Get away from that woman! I believed any dalliance, however slight, would knock me out of character.
And perhaps in some small way I was right, because, during the third performance, disaster struck. I was in the middle of one of my solos when I noticed that my words didn’t match the choreography. I was on the wrong verse. I panicked and stopped singing. My mouth kept moving, but no sound came out.
If I had dropped a line, that would have been rectifiable; if I had blanked out, one of my fellow actors could have cued me; but this was total silence, impossible to fix, my own personal Golgotha. My God, my God, I thought, why have you forsaken me?
I finally managed to get off the stage, and the show went on without further incident, but I kept seeing in my mind the faces of my fellow actors the moment after I had botched the song: I was their leader — I was Jesus — and I had failed them.
My theater days are long past, as are my days in the seminary. I have even left the Church. The silence of God has become deafening to me, and I now realize my moment of stunned silence onstage was just a small taste of it.
Takoma Park, Maryland
Growing up, I was afraid I would never have sex, so I jumped at the first opportunity that came along: Michelle and I on the bathroom floor while her parents were at work. It was a disaster. I was so clumsy I couldn’t achieve penetration, and I repeatedly lost my erection.
My next attempt, with a stranger I didn’t even find attractive, also failed miserably. Then one night when I was fifteen, my girlfriend and I went to the beach with some friends. We all put our blankets on the sand and paired up. Couples on both sides of us were fucking like crazy, but I couldn’t do it. I got stage fright. It was humiliating.
I graduated from high school still a virgin after failing to perform with both the prom queen and Miss Congeniality. By now, I was suicidal. Having sex was all I thought about. Finally, I shared my problem with my mom, and then with a therapist. I regained enough self-confidence to start dating again, and on Mother’s Day, at the age of eighteen, I finally did it — twice, to be sure.
I just turned thirty-two, and I’ve been with my current girlfriend, Cindy, for three years. For my last birthday, she blindfolded me, put me in the car, and drove me to a couples-only swingers’ club. There was a dance floor, a Jacuzzi, and windowed cubbies in which people were having sex. On the initial tour, we passed a ménage à trois in progress with a crowd of voyeurs watching.
After getting comfortable, Cindy and I began to have sex ourselves, and it was great. I really didn’t think I could do it with all those people watching, but I did. It was liberating.
I guess I’ve overcome my stage fright.
I’ve always wanted to act, but I have a recurring nightmare in which I’m in a show that starts any minute, and I don’t know my lines and can’t find the script. I awaken in a panic.
So I felt ambivalent when a friend asked me to appear in an upcoming show. The company had lost one of its cast members with only five rehearsals left. A big part of me longed to say yes, but another part screamed, Are you crazy? What do you think your dreams have been warning you about? I said I’d think about it.
After looking over the script and music, I took the role. I ignored all messages from my stomach (which tightened just at the thought of the rehearsals) and listened only to messages from my heart (which told me this was what I’d been missing all those years). As opening night drew nearer, however, I was filled with fear.
The weekend before the performance, I went on a canoe trip with my husband and our four-year-old son. We were paddling down river, through occasional white water, when we came to some rocks on one side and an overhanging tree on the other. We tried to stay in the middle, but the current was too strong; it pushed us against the tree, and our canoe capsized. When my husband and I got our heads above water, our son was nowhere to be found. We shouted and called for him frantically. Finally, my husband lifted the canoe and found him underneath it. I pulled our son from the water. He cried and clung to me in the icy current.
After that, I knew I could face the stage, or any other fear, with courage.
Kathleen F. Flugel Stone
Alone in the house in 1966, I played Barbra Streisand on the phonograph over and over again and sang along with “He Touched Me” until I had all the words and every last nuance down pat. I was fifteen and knew very little about being touched, but when auditions were announced for our high-school production of The Music Man, I was determined to sing that song. Marion the librarian was me. I was going to get up on that stage in front of Mr. Dingles, the drama teacher, and belt my heart out if it killed me. Every other kid at Beverly Hills High might have had money and connections and expensive cars, but I could sing. I’d show them.
I remember exactly what I wore: a plaid A-line skirt with a tight-fitting peach-colored sweater. I had ironed my frizzy hair and carefully painted on thick black eyeliner. I sat alone off to one side, so nervous I could hardly talk, waiting for my name to be called. Other kids went before me, but Mr. Dingles cut them all short before they finished, saying, “Thank you, that was very nice. Next.”
If he didn’t let me finish my song, I thought, I’d be devastated. I already felt like I was going to pass out.
Then they called my name: Joyce Freedman. God, I hated my name. When I turned eighteen, I’d change it to something soft and pretty and non-Jewish, like Linda McBride, or Katherine Chapin.
I climbed the five stairs onto the auditorium stage and, holding my hands tightly together in front of me in a kind of Joan of Arc pose, began to sing. During the first few bars, my voice trembled badly. I prayed it would sound like vibrato.
Then Mr. Dingles said, “Joyce, I want you to start over and almost talk the lines, act the lines.”
His directions paralyzed me. The only thing I was prepared to do was sing. Nevertheless, I stumbled my way through the song again, trying to act it out. He stopped me.
“Go back to the bridge,” he said. “Pretend it’s happening right now.”
The words of the bridge are “He’s real, and the world is alive and shining. / I feel such a wonderful drive toward Valentining.” But what was happening on that stage was much too real, the dark auditorium anything but alive and shining. I felt distraught and confused, and the next thing I knew I was walking toward the green Exit sign as fast as I could, tears welling up in my eyes. “At least he didn’t cut you off,” said a girl as I passed.
I didn’t get the part. Singing is one thing; acting, another. Given my shy, self-conscious nature, the fact that I had the guts to get up there in the first place was miraculous. By all rights, the experience should have stopped me from ever singing in the future, but it didn’t. I later studied opera, and my mother cried when she heard me sing “Una Voce Poca Fa” at one of my lessons.
“Why are you crying?” my teacher asked her.
“I didn’t know Joycie could sing like that,” wept my mother.
“But,” my teacher replied, “isn’t it wonderful that she is singing now?”
Two of my three children have ample poise and confidence. They love to ask questions of store clerks and lifeguards and policemen. But my third child, Noah, age nine, still holds my hand whenever we’re someplace unfamiliar and finds it difficult to ask a friend’s mother for seconds on dessert.
Put the two confident ones onstage, however, and they become awkward, hunched-over, squirmy children who would rather be anywhere than in the spotlight. Put Noah up there, and you have a born star. He takes performing seriously, straightening his back and projecting to the far reaches of the auditorium. His two most memorable performances have been as a 104-year-old man who keeps falling asleep in the middle of his monologue and as a leftover potato latke who sings about being unappreciated. I sit in the audience and cry sometimes, watching him bloom.
Ever since I read Cammie Doty’s letter in the July 1999 Correspondence section, I have been thinking about whether I would let my thirteen-year-old daughter read The Sun. In this society, we don’t do coming-of-age rituals, or many rituals at all, so it’s hard to say whether a thirteen-year-old is grown up. If I felt my daughter were still a child, I would not give her The Sun to read. If she were a young woman, however, I would give it to her, because its pages are filled with secret adult lore about the deepest joys and sorrows of the human experience. Children might not be ready for such straight, harsh, and dirty truth, but adults need to hear these stories, need to wonder at the beauty and awfulness of life.
Perhaps The Sun isn’t here to enlighten. Maybe it’s simply here to shine on the living and the dying, the drug addict and the alcoholic, the man wrestling with his sexual demons, the woman who fights against her instincts to stay with the abuser she loves, the child learning that while there are bold eagles flying through blue skies, there are also blind worms eating shit.