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Oh, Say, Can You See?

This past September, I had the opportunity to be a “teller” at our local Storycatchers event in Appleton. The theme was “Music That Made Us” and I shared a story (below) which I’ve come to believe has led me to my current career aspiration of being a professional speaker. And it all came from unintentionally stealing a gig from my mom.

I was sitting next to her in the bleachers of our high school gymnasium in Kingsley, Michigan. The junior varsity game had ended and the varsity boys had just run out onto the court to warm up. The irregular staccato beats of the basketballs hitting the parquet floor was punctuated by kids hollering, loud conversations, and the occasional crying baby. It was Friday night in a small town and basketball was THE entertainment. I glanced up at the schoolhouse clock on the wall, covered by a metal grate to keep it from getting smashed by some errant half court shot. It was time for my mom to be making her way to the stage. The key indicator being the two junior high boys who were rolling the upright piano into the gym through the heavy doors propped open to bring in the occasion gust of winter air. Following behind the boys and the piano was Mr. Kaule, our elementary band teacher and resident pianist, whose enthusiasm generally exceeded his talent. I looked over at my mom and noticed she was rustling through her purse.

“Mom, what are you looking for?”
She barely looked up and kept digging, “My notes.”
Confused by her response, “Who do you need to write a note to right now?”
“Not a ‘Thank You’ note! My notes – for the National Anthem.”

For as long as my 10-year-old self could remember, my mother had been singing the National Anthem at all of our our school’s home basketball games and never once had I noticed she referred to notes. The comment I made next is forever etched in my memory – and hers too, for that matter.

“Pppfff. Who needs notes for the National Anthem?”

It may have been the way I snorted out my question that made my mom stop digging and turn to look at me, I’m not entirely sure.

“Look, I still get nervous up there and just in case, I want my notes.”

I don’t always catch on quickly (something my older brother still enjoys pointing out) so what came next was yet another stupid question, “Do you really think you’re gonna forget the words?”

There’s a face my mom makes when you say something that rubs her the wrong way. I’ve seen this face many times in my lifetime – I saw it then. She’d found her notes, four index cards with neat rows of her small and tidy handwriting, had stood up, tucked her purse under her arm and took a deep breath – that’s never a good sign. Then she turned back to me, “You know what? Next Friday night, it’s not gonna be me up there. You’re gonna do it. And then we’ll see how you feel about my notes.” And that was it.

It wasn’t a suggestion or a request. There was no discussion, no ‘give it some thought’ – it was just decided, right then, right there. Not surprisingly, I don’t remember hearing her sing that night. I just remember sitting there, with a half-eaten licorice rope in my hand realizing I had no way out of this. Two minutes later, Mr. Kaule and my mom were walking across the gym floor and the big smile on his face told me she had already shared the news of next week’s plan.

Next Friday night, and every Friday night afterward plus quite a few Tuesday nights too, for the next seven years, I sang that song – without notes. And though I’m nothing beyond church choir caliber, I was decent enough to be asked to sing now and again at schools nearby – basketball and football games, and even a track meet once or twice. I don’t recall exactly, but I’m sure I probably day-dreamed of becoming a professional singer, though I most likely just imagined what it might be like to be on Star Search or meet Ed McMahon because when it came right down to it, I think I knew I didn’t have what it would take.

However, the experience of singing that song at such a young age made me appreciate the stage in a different way. It taught me presence. It taught me how to walk onto a stage in front of hundreds of people, to breathe and smile even when my insides were doing somersaults. The stage taught me how to pause for a moment to take it all in, while a noisy room settled down because even with a microphone, those first words matter. Not for the audience, nearly as much as for yourself. Confidence comes when you knowingly put yourself into a situation that requires you to project a sense of calm. The stage teaches you how to quiet the voices in your head that often speak loudest the words that make you question your ability:

“You’re not good enough.”
“Who do you think you are?”
“You don’t deserve it.”

Those voices can be so loud.
But after the experience, the gift really, my mom handed down to me that day, I’ve learned my voice is louder.

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