The sweltering central Texas heat could do nothing to quell the involuntary shivers as I cowered in the corner. The music room at Nolanville Elementary was on the second floor: brilliant. Even as a six-year-old I had learned that it was always hotter on the second floor, especially at the end of May. Combine the conspicuous lack of air conditioning with the sixty Kindergarteners who crowded the tiny room and the sweat pooling at the small of my back: there was no reason I should be shivering. Why were we getting dressed in here again? The stage was on the first floor and my costume wasn’t exactly mobile, the stupid thing. I sat in my corner cross-legged and head propped on my hands just glaring at it, praying I would miraculously develop heat vision and manage to reduce the monstrosity to ashes before my dad could see it. How. Embarrassing.
“You’re lucky to have a part in the play at all, it’s such a fun opportunity!” said my mother. Lies. “You should be thanking me for graciously offering you this role after the winter concert fiasco” squawked my rail-thin ostrich of a music teacher. I don’t care what anyone says: Kelsey Streagle deserved what she got and my punishment was totally worth it. And her hair grew back eventually, why is everyone still holding this against me? I guess I bought into it for a little while: after all, the end-of-year play was the most prestigious event we could ever…ok, you know what? I’m not fooling anyone. I wasn’t gracious. I wasn’t excited. I would go so far as to say I was dreading this evening and had been for a good two months. Sure it was great to be part of Jack and the Beanstalk but THE HARP? SERIOUSLY? I auditioned for the most glamorous part (the hen who lays the golden eggs, obvi) and somehow managed to land the only role of a clunky, singing inanimate object a la Beauty and the Beast. (I would go on to play a singing carpet in Beauty and the Beast 12 years later, talk about coming full circle.)
Did they not realize just how damaging this role would be for my fragile self-esteem? I already had a bowl cut (thanks Mom) and now this? All I wanted was to be on stage and dazzle the audience, not humiliate myself in front of the entire school. And my dad.
At the time, Dad was a Major in the U.S. Army. He was the Executive Officer for a Field Artillery Battalion and he was damn good at his job. As so many military families can understand, this meant that Dad was rarely at home, soccer games, or Girl Scout ceremonies. Whenever I asked Dad why he worked so much he would tell me “You have to go after what you want. When you get where you want to go, you work hard to stay there. When you end up somewhere else instead, you work even harder to make it into something you want.” Or something like that. It was advice that just couldn’t penetrate my six-year-old psyche, no matter how sharp my mind already was, and I still threw a tantrum when I found out I hadn’t gotten the part I wanted. This was my lone chance to impress my dad and I now had the added challenge of doing it from inside a shimmery cardboard fortress. Great.
And then we were backstage. The harp was so large that I couldn’t possibly move while inside it. The stage instructions had been written (quite brilliantly) so that the curtain dropped before my big scene, thus allowing us to drag the behemoth onstage with time to spare before it was revealed to the audience. I don’t remember most of the play, unsurprisingly, but I do remember that scene. MY scene. Curtain dropped, costume was in place, and I shimmied between the harpstrings mounted on the side. I poked my head through the oval cut out of the front, ready to go. The curtain lifted. It was on.
I knew exactly what to do. The sweet soprano would begin to croon in Italian from the speakers flanking my costume and I would pretend it was my own voice. Aaaaany minute now the music would start and I would raise my arms like I had seen opera singers do in the photographs my teacher showed me. I was going to make my dad proud, I was, but where the hell was the music?
Somehow, even back then I understood the concept of an awkward silence. I’m not positive how many seconds passed before I took the leap: fifteen or twenty, possibly more. Regardless, it was enough time that people began to whisper, wondering among themselves about the cause of the silence. I scanned the crowd for Dad and found him, his beautiful smile radiating love and adoration despite the grim circumstances. How could he be smiling? Couldn’t he see that I was being humiliated up here? But he just kept smiling. It was in that moment that my insecurities melted and I knew what had to be done. I started to sing.
And it was… terrible. On a scale of one to Andrea Bocelli, I was William Hung. For a long time I maintained that I had sung a beautiful Italian ballad but, let’s be real, it was gibberish. There were no words, only squawks and long, drawn-out vowels. I sang opera music on that stage until my vocal cords were no longer capable of vibrating. There probably wasn’t any applause when the curtain dropped, I can’t really remember. All I recall is the look on Dad’s face as I sang to him, for him, and the warm embrace I was given as I ran to him backstage after the show. “You were wonderful,” he said. And that was all I needed.
My father’s support in that traumatic endeavor more than 17 years ago gave me the green light to pursue my interests with full confidence that I would always have a backer. I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons from him since then, namely:
-Baseball is the greatest game and the Red Sox are America’s team.
-“Take your daughter to work day” takes on a whole new meaning when it takes place at the Pentagon.
-When you run away from home, a suitcase full of Barbies won’t get you any further than the end of the driveway.
-Whether it’s standing on his shoes at the Father/Daughter dance or twirling to Mambo Number 5 in the living room, I’m always a better dancer when I’m dancing with him.
-You can be a nerd and still be totally awesome. And “The Hobbit” is a perfectly reasonable first novel when you learn how to read.
-Nothing mends a broken heart better than a mug of tea and Daddy’s shoulder.
-The more embarrassing your parents are on the sidelines, the better athlete you’ll be on the field.
And finally, my dad taught me the value of sacrifice. His 30-year career was the definition of sacrifice, leadership, and selfless service. In the beginning, he had to sacrifice time with his family in order to mentor and shape countless junior officers, many of whom are serving in prominent leadership positions today. In the end, however, my father sacrificed his career for his family. He is a loving father, an adoring husband, and the life of the party. He is the caring brother of two brothers and five sisters. He is the perfect son-in-law to my Grandmother, not always an easy task. My father is the smartest, kindest, and most generous person I have ever known: he is the standard to which I compare every man I meet and I have yet to find his equal. So yes, Dad, it’s your fault I’m still single.
Happy Father’s Day.