A couple of weekends ago, I took the girls along with my mom to see a high school show choir performance. What is show choir, you ask? It’s a singing / dancing / costumed extravaganza the comprised the heart of my high school career. This particular performance featured two groups from Janesville Craig high school and two from my show choir of record, Milton High School’s Choralation. Since then, I’ve had all sorts of conflicting emotions; indulge me while I unpack a few of those items and shake out some universal truths.
The show choir kids appeared to be the same as I remembered, but with perhaps slightly more modern hairstyles. While performing they were, as a group, emotive and in your face and completely guileless. While audience-ing they were rapt, supportive, and locked in various stages of platonic and non-platonic embraces in the semi-darkened auditorium. These were My People. Whenever I counsel kids going through a tough peer time in school, I always emphasize the importance of finding Their People. Their People may not be everyone else’s people, and Their People may not be the popular people. Worrisomely, Their People may not exist at their current school and they will have to hold out for the hope of finding Their People later on. I suppose this is a version of the “it gets better” mantra. Fortunately, My People did exist, and they existed in show choir. We shared the need for the drama, the glitter, and the joy of creating something as a group that brought people to their feet and to tears. All while spending inordinate amounts of time draped all over similarly minded people in countless auditoriums, gyms, buses and rehearsal rooms. Finding one’s People should be somewhere in the Maslow Hierarchy; oh wait there it is in the yellow band. I knew I was right.
As much as I’d like to think that I had no pretense about those being truly, honestly My People, that would be crediting my adolescent self with far more self confidence and self awareness than I actually possessed. I had other People too, or should I say other versions of myself. It was a small school, so many of these tribes necessarily overlapped–both for me and other. In fact there was always drama about athletes’ schedules when they found themselves participating in the dramas, musicals, and show choir competitions. I seem to recall a lot of soccer players in show choir… Anyway, there were other versions of myself, too, and the other big version of my high school self was the hyper-academic version. There were plenty of smart, academically successful kids in the arts programs, as I recall. However, for me academically successful was actually skewed to mean being The Best. I found myself caught in the vicious spiral of “successful kid must do approved academically successful things with their life,” like take all of the hardest math classes and declare academically successful career plans. I learned this lesson early on and it stuck. So, these two versions of myself were somewhat at odds, at least in an adolescent mind longing for approval and success. The one area that I could safely guarantee success was academics. I still wonder, if I would have felt more successful in show choir, might I have been open to exploring other facets of my personality, those that thrived on things other than pure academic achievement and recognition?
But I wasn’t successful in show choir, at least not the way that I wanted to be. Oh, I was successful–as the piano player. I was, and still am, a dynamite choir accompanist. Thanks to early piano instruction by a nun hell-bent on turning me into the next version of herself–a working church musician–I could play four staves of parts and switch between that and the accompaniment line, no problem. But I wanted to sing and dance and wear frivolous shoes, which is no surprise to anyone that’s known me then or sense. As I frequently reassure my eldest daughter, people like us with no filters are destined for a lifetime of memorable public displays. I think I’m really nailing this parenting of a preteen thing, by the way. But back to show choir—I tried out to be an on-stage performer twice, which is what I secretly, fervently desired. The first time I was passed over and gladly took the role of pianist just to get a seat at the proverbial table. But the second time? I was hurt to not be listed on the choir director’s door. I had done OK in my audition. My voice was never going to be picked out for a solo, but I could carry a tune, and I could move. So why not me? I screwed up my 16 year old courage and confronted the choir director with that very question. He basically said, it’s the piano or nothing. So I chose the piano again and didn’t audition a third time. People told me that it was because he didn’t want to lose me as an accompanist, which makes sense logically, but since when do teenagers think logically? I knew the real reason that I wasn’t chosen: I wasn’t attractive enough to don the red sparkly dress, I was simply too horrid to look at. My adult brain knows that this is simply ridiculous, but on some reptilian level, I think I still believe it. So, my senior year, I knew all the steps, all the songs. When a girl unexpectedly left to move to another district, I was sure it was my chance, to be slotted into her emergently vacant spot. I can’t remember if I offered the idea or just quietly hoped. Probably the latter; he cast someone else. To make matters worse, the replacement then got to dance two numbers with my boyfriend. Insult to injury.
Looking back on the whole thing as an adult, the lessons are almost trite in their obvious simplicity. I can see now how important it is to not push kids too hard toward who we believe / hope / wish Their People are. And calm down, mother, you never overtly did that. In fact, I actually remember you daring to disagree with Sister Mary, the St. Mary’s school principal, when I suggested in sixth grade that maybe I wanted to be a cosmetologist rather than a lawyer and she rebuked me. That took guts, mom, she was scary, with her helmet of iron gray curls and sensible shoes. Ultimately, thought, the Sister Marys of the world, coupled by a few rejections in other areas as recounted above, left me firmly seeking my future People in the camp of intense academics. But that’s a story for another day.
In my opinion anyone who comes through high school and identifies those years as the best of their life? Something’s dramatically wrong there. The search for one’s yellow band on the Maslow Hierarchy shouldn’t be easy or complete by 18. That being said, while far from my best years, those were good times. For a time, I found My People. So, seeing the show choir was bittersweet. But the sweet must have outweighed the bitter, because I’m currently composing an email to the Franklin high school choir director to see how I can help support this district’s fledgling show choir. Because I know that some kids need that home for them and their people.