Posts Tagged 'childhood'

High School Singing

In middle school, I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of college. I wasn’t wild about school, and wasn’t looking forward to another four years of school after high school, especially if I had to take math. But I was beginning to think that if my parents and teachers insisted I go to college, I would study music. In my immaturity and blissful ignorance of reality, I figured that after college, I could then audition for a paid singing position in some prestigious choir that travels the world. There’s that subconscious longing for the restoration again. I longed for something more than the boring day jobs the adults around me talked about and thought that a unique and prestigious life was what I longed for.

But then I found out that if I wanted to really pursue a music career, I would need to learn to read music. All of my life, I had been learning choir songs by ear. I would just sit and listen to the rest of the choir sight-read a new song the first few times and then gradually join in. If I had trouble deciphering the words to a song, either because the song was in a foreign language, or the words were old English words I wasn’t used to, or the words were stretched out over many notes making them difficult to decipher when sung, my mom would read the words from the print music to me and I would transcribe them into braille. If practice CDs were available, I would take one home to review. The school choirs never had practice CDs, but the Milwaukee Children’s Choir often did, as does the choir I sing in today. I wish all choirs put together practice CDs because even for sighted people who can read music, they are helpful. Of course, nowadays, it is so easy to find another choir singing any song on iTunes or Youtube. There is a braille music code, and in eighth grade when I expressed interest in a music career, my vision teacher gave me a little introduction into it. A couple months later, I ordered a braille music tutorial from National Braille Press with the intention of teaching myself. But it was so complicated with many different symbols to denote every detail of a note—like whether it was a quarter note, half note, eighth note or sixteenth note, and the dynamic of the note (loud or soft)—that I quickly became overwhelmed. And even if I persevered and mastered this code, I couldn’t see how it would be practical in a real choir setting. When choir directors introduce a new song, they start by having the choir sight-read it, meaning that the choir has never seen that piece of music before but just reads it and muddles through the best they can the first time. I couldn’t see how I would be able to keep up with the choir when sight-reading it, so I would need to get the music ahead of time, study it at my own pace and maybe plunk out the notes on the piano, which I could have done if I really wanted to. But learning by ear the way I always had seemed so much more efficient and so I still learn my choir music by ear today.

As a side note, while sheet music is useful for learning a new piece of music, I wish that memorizing the music before concert time was a requirement in all choirs. In elementary school and middle school when the songs were relatively simple, memorization was required, but in high school when we started singing more challenging music, both my school choir and the Milwaukee Children’s Choir directors started allowing the choir to bring concert folders onstage so they could refer to their music. The choir I sing with now also brings their music onstage. I will confess that I don’t always practice what I preach myself. In fact in our most recent choir concert this past May 5, I referred to the words of two german pieces we sang that night because letters are pronounced differently in German and when I tried to sing from memory during rehearsal, I forgot the words and feared goofing up royally if I tried to sing from memory at the concert. But when I don’t refer to my “music” I find that I enjoy the concert experience more. For my fellow sighted choir members, singing a concert using music is a carefully choreographed art that the choir director has to discuss with the choir at every dress rehearsal before a concert. They must find that balance between looking at their music enough to help them, but not so much that they aren’t watching the choir director and thus miss important cues. They must also practice quiet page turning, and make sure they are still engaging with the audience, not just burying their faces in their music. With all these logistics they have to focus on at every concert, sometimes, I fear that my choir mates are nervous and view the concert as something to survive without any major blunders, and thus cannot truly enjoy the experience of engaging with the audience, or letting the beautiful words and melodies of each song transport them.

In high school, music theory, which meant practicing drawing notes on a musical staff and sight-reading took on a larger role in choral classes. I was delighted when the director of the Cantorei Choir created a Cantorei Chamber choir for older students which I was able to join my junior year of high school. But for this choir, the director gave everyone music theory workbooks and time was set aside in most rehearsals to do exercises out of this book. The high school choir director gave music theory assignments as well. Fortunately both choir directors were fine with the fact that I did not read music and let me sit these exercises out, but I kind of felt bad for my sighted choir members as I felt it took something that was supposed to be a joyful pursuit and turned it into drudgery. So in high school, I began to have second thoughts about majoring in music when I got to college. Then, in my sophomore year, I visited the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee which had a special event for prospective college students with disabilities. After a general large group meeting, we had the opportunity to split up and go to presentations about admission requirements for programs we might be interested in, so my vision teacher took me to the presentation for the music program. During this presentation, when the director outlined the requirements for submitting a portfolio with samples of work in areas that included musical theory and performance, I decided I did not want to major in music after all. I had this fear that the stress of trying to assemble such a portfolio, and just the drudgery of four years of music theory and performing recitals for a grade would burn me out to the point that I would lose my passion for music. I was all for challenging myself and learning new music, and I absolutely still wanted to sing with people who took music seriously and wouldn’t goof off and be disruptive, but ultimately I just wanted to sing for the joy of singing and keep that child-like flame of true passion for music alive. I ended up studying journalism, something I enjoy, but in a different way, and I am not as emotionally attached to it as I am to singing.

Unlike middle school, music was not a requirement in high school. I think only one semester of fine arts was required in high school, and students who had no interest in music could fulfill this requirement with things like art, photography, or woodworking. For this reason, although there was still disruptive behavior on occasion, it didn’t reach the level that it did in middle school because everyone who chose to join the choir had at least some passion for singing and was thus willing to take rehearsals seriously. Freshman year, all girls who wanted to be in choir started in a choir solely for freshmen girls. At the time, I was a little miffed that I couldn’t go right to the big leagues when after all, I had already sang with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and been to Italy, but I ended up really enjoying this choir. Because the choir just comprised freshmen women, it was a smaller choir, only around thirty of us, which meant that the director could give us one-on-one attention. I thought we sounded like a children’s choir at the beginning of the year, but over the course of that year, the director worked with us a lot on having a fuller, more mature sound. Now I realize this choir was a good idea as women’s voices change at this age and it was a great way to get used to singing in the high school setting. At the end of freshman year, we could audition for Chamber Choir, the most advanced choir which was open to both men and women sophomore, junior and senior year. If we were not accepted into Chamber Choir, we could still sing in Concert Choir, an excellent choir that just sang less challenging music. I auditioned for Chamber Choir at the end of freshman year and to my delight, I was accepted!

Chamber choir rehearsed the last hour of the school day which at first I thought would be wonderful. After a hard day of academic classes, I would end the day with singing. But the demands of my other classes kept me up late every night, and some semesters I did not have a study hall to work out math or technology challenges, so I had to have a working lunch in the library or the office where my teacher’s aid produced class materials for me. So by the end of the day, I was absolutely exhausted. I also had a lot of headaches at that time of my life. Usually they were not severe enough that I had to stay home, but they were just those relentless nagging headaches that sap you of all ambition. Looking back I realize this was probably the beginning of my body’s intolerance to gluten. The headaches increased in frequency and severity over the years until I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease shortly after college graduation. Anyway, this combination of factors made it very difficult to maintain a positive attitude when we had to tediously drill notes day after day, and were stopped constantly by the choir director to correct a stylistic mistake or wrong note. To add insult to injury, instead of sitting in rows of chairs to drill notes, and standing intermittently to sing, this director had us stand on rows of risers pretty much the entire rehearsal, so by the end of class, my feet hurt. This was probably a good thing though because if we had had chairs, I am sure I would have fallen asleep. My energy level was usually much improved by evening when I would often recline on the couch intending to watch a television program but would end up falling asleep. I had Milwaukee Children’s Choir rehearsals once a week, and even when I had to go back to school for the occasional evening rehearsal before a couple big concerts, my energy level and attitude were much improved. I was scared and sad when during my junior year, the choir director noticed this negativity, especially when I started leaving a little bit too early to catch the bus. How had I come so far from that little kid with such passion for singing? To my high school choir director if you ever find this blog: I want you to know I am sorry for my negative attitude back then. I still hate the process of drilling notes (who doesn’t?). But I am still singing in choir today because when the drilling is done and a beautiful concert comes together, the child within me comes alive again.

One particularly difficult rehearsal when the director got the sense that the whole class had a negative attitude about all the drilling and nagging about stylistic mistakes, the director said that although it seemed like she was being mean, she was being tough on us because she loved us and wanted us to be the best we could be, and in the long run, we wouldn’t really want a choir director that didn’t push us when she sensed we could do better. That’s when I really understood the importance of teachers setting high expectations. The teacher who settles for “good enough” in the moment may seem kinder, but it is the teacher who pushes you to be better who really cares about her students. Perhaps to drive this point home, this choir director required us to attend a choral concert at another high school in the area each semester and write a paper critiquing their concert. Most of the schools I went to also had excellent music programs. I still thought our choir was the best, but I was a bit biased. But a couple schools left me feeling sad because I got the sense from the song selection and the kind of mistakes that were made that these programs did not set high expectations for their students, and I actually felt kind of sorry for these students who weren’t getting the incredible rewarding experience of singing challenging music.

This hard work yielded wonderful opportunities. My sophomore and senior years, all the school choirs participated in a choral competition: sophomore year the competition was held in San Diego, and senior year it was in Williamsburg, Virginia. We swept both of these competitions, and got a nice vacation from school as well. Sophomore year, all of the choirs also had the opportunity to perform a holiday concert with the Waukesha Symphony Orchestra. I was so excited for my peers to have the amazing experience of hearing songs come alive in a whole new way with a full orchestra as I had already gotten to experience with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. I loved getting this experience again too as that kind of magic never gets old. My junior year, just the Chamber Choir was invited to sing in a choral festival at Saint Olaf College. Our choir was the first to perform and every time I listen to the CD from that festival, I still feel amazed and blessed that I had the opportunity to be part of a choir that sounded so amazing. There were also a few songs that all of the choirs in attendance at the festival sang together. Since there were around a thousand of us in all, we could not all fit onto a stage, so we sat in rows of folding chairs in a gymnasium while individual choirs performed onstage, and then stood up for the combined songs. This was the most amazing and truly joyful rendition of Joy to the World that I have ever or probably will ever sing this side of the restoration. Since we were spread out instead of crammed onto a small stage, our sound filled the room. It felt like a big happy church service, except unlike church where a lot of people are too shy to sing, everyone in that room was a choir singer, and we sang loud and joyful. It really was heavenly!

My sophomore year, the Milwaukee Children’s Choir was invited to sing a Christmas piece in Carnegie Hall. The piece was called the Christmas Sweet, and it was so much fun to sing. When I first heard a recording of this piece, I was enchanted because it sounded so “New York during the holiday season” even though at that time, I had never been to New York, during the holidays or otherwise. But when an adult soloist accompanied by a soft orchestra in the background sang “when the frost starts to glisten, and the nights flush with cold, and the streets shimmer gold, it’s Christmas,” I was transported by this song. From that first movement, through movements about shepherds in the field, to a movement about children playing in the snow, and even a silly movement in which we simply sang the words Merry Christmas to different melodies, this choral work was magical from the first note to the last, capturing the essence of everything that makes Christmas so special. The last concert I ever sang with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir was the holiday pops concert my senior year. I actually didn’t know this would be my last concert with this choir, at the time, but second semester, there were several extra school rehearsals to prepare for the competition in Williamsburg which conflicted with Milwaukee Children’s Choir rehearsals. But looking back, I couldn’t have asked for a more magical last memory of my children’s choir days. Part of the reason I think it was so magical was that I could truly enjoy it as school was going smoothly and for once I understood the math concept we were studying so homework didn’t take me quite so long. At the same time, I had just come through a really difficult math unit and singing a joyful concert was just the breath of fresh air I needed. But I also loved it because Bill Conti, the guest conductor of this concert selected the most amazing set of songs that captured the childhood magic of Christmas. The Cantorei Chamber Choir started the concert with Candles in the Window from Home Alone the words of which are beautiful by themselves, but come alive even more accompanied by the full orchestra, especially the beautiful silky tones of the violin. Then we collaborated with the adults of the Symphony Chorus and sang all the Christmas favorites including Jingle Bells, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Sleigh Ride and Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, complete with instrumental sound effects for the horses and toys from the orchestra. For my last concert with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, and my second-to-last concert as a minor—I turned eighteen the following March—I could not have asked for a more magical farewell to childhood. But the beautiful thing about music is that unlike athletic pursuits which can only be enjoyed in youth, choir is a passion that I can enjoy my whole life. In the next post, I will talk about my college choir experience and the choir I sing in now.

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Taking My Passion to the Next Level

Fifth grade was a tough year academically for me, but when it came to my chorus experience, I would have loved to stay in fifth grade forever. But I was optimistic about the transition to middle school because in sixth grade, choir was a class, not an extracurricular activity which I thought would give it more legitimacy. In sixth grade, music was a required part of the curriculum, but students could choose to meet this requirement with band, orchestra, choir, or general music. Of course, I chose choir. What I hadn’t anticipated in my young mind however was that choir would attract students looking for something more interesting than general music, and perceived choir as an “easy” class. The choir teacher was planning to retire after my sixth grade year, and I think our class re-enforced this decision. Some students were so disruptive and made choir rehearsals so chaotic that she lost her cool a couple times and shouted at the top of her lungs “Stop talking.” Maybe this wasn’t the most professional approach to the situation, but I cannot blame her for this reaction because if I were her, I might have reacted the same way. Just as I am sure classmates who took sports seriously and loved gym class must have hated having me on their team because I am not the slightest bit athletic, I was the athlete of choir and longed to be with people who took singing more seriously. My dream actually came true temporarily that year the Wednesday after Labor Day when the teacher announced an event called Singing in Wisconsin where serious singers from all over the metro area would rehearse a set of songs, and then we would meet on a Saturday morning that November at Carroll College, rehearse the songs together all day and then give a performance that evening. I signed up for this opportunity right away. The small group of us interested in this event rehearsed these special songs after school, so while I still had to put up with my disruptive peers during the regular class, these rehearsals on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school were so peaceful and productive that they became the highlight of my week. I don’t remember all of the songs we performed that day, but I do remember this was the first time I ever sang For the Beauty of the Earth, a song I would sing a lot in the years to come and which is still one of my favorites for its simple beauty and inspiring message.

On that Saturday at Carroll College, all of the groups represented were introduced and I heard them announce the Waukesha Children’s Choir. I perked up when I heard this choir announced, not because I knew anything about them but because that was what planted the idea in my mind of how exciting it would be to sing in a choir not affiliated with school, a choir for serious singers, just like my brother’s club volleyball team. Shortly thereafter, I expressed this to the choir teacher who suggested auditioning for the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, as it was bigger and would give me all sorts of exciting opportunities, including the chance to sing with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. So on a Monday night in August before my seventh grade year, Dad took me to an office downtown where I auditioned for the Milwaukee Children’s Choir.

Although it was called an audition, I remember the director saying that no one is rejected. After all, if you didn’t care for singing, why would you audition for this kind of choir in the first place? The purpose of the audition was more about the director evaluating our voice and vocal range to determine what part we would sing. Because it was my first year with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, I was accepted into the Concert choir, which was the middle ground between the choir for really young children, and the advanced Cantorei Choir, or as the director said once when reminding us of proper posture for standing on the risers which included not fidgeting or scratching itches nervously, “you are in between the scratchers and the statures.” At first I was embarrassed because at the first rehearsal when we went around introducing ourselves, I realized I was the oldest one there, with most students being in the fourth and fifth grade, and a few students as young as third grade. But I quickly came to realize that unlike school where everything is so segregated, age difference really didn’t matter in this choir and I quickly made friends.

But despite being a choir for younger children, the director was not soft on us. I will never forget the first rehearsal when the director was teaching us the choir scale “do re mi fa so la ti do.” She wanted us to sing the scale and do hand motions to go along with it, but of course I couldn’t see the hand motions. So I practiced the advocacy my teachers always encouraged at school and raised my hand to ask the choir director to show me the hand motions I was supposed to be doing, to which she responded “that’s your homework.” I think this shocked me into silence the rest of rehearsal. That year, the choir rehearsed at a church downtown and that first year, Mom sat quietly in the back during rehearsals. This was partly due to the fact that it didn’t make sense for her to go home since rehearsals were only an hour and a half once a week. But she also just wanted to be available in case I needed anything, especially if I needed the restroom, which by evening I often did due to the medication I had to take at the time. So Mom heard this exchange between me and the choir director, and in the car on the way home, she explained that in the public school setting I was accustomed to, the teachers had to accommodate me, but in a private organization like this choir, they did not have to. This didn’t mean I couldn’t be in this choir. It just meant that I would need to handle things more on my own. So Mom showed me how to do the hand motions that week, and while my teacher’s aid would transcribe the words of the songs for the school choir into braille for me, Mom read the words of the Milwaukee Children’s Choir songs to me and I transcribed them into braille myself. At the second rehearsal, the choir director asked me a question about something we were singing and in this way caught me dozing off as I was not used to evening activities yet. But after that, I found my footing and Milwaukee Children’s Choir rehearsals became the highlight of my week.

Disruptive behavior was extremely rare in this choir because everyone in it was serious about singing and wanted to be there. On the rare occasion someone did get carried away and misbehave, the director would march over to where they were sitting and reprimand them sternly. Even when no one was misbehaving, this director had a stern demeanor, and I remember one Saturday when Mom had to work and Dad took me to a special rehearsal, I heard him tell Mom later he couldn’t believe how stern she was with us because compared to the Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops my parents used to chaperone, cthese choir students were angels! This director actually was a lot of fun. You could tell she loved working with young people and as the year progressed, she seemed less stern to me. Maybe it was because I liked this sternness and had gotten used to it as it was refreshing compared to the chaos that often defined school rehearsals. (The Milwaukee Children’s Choir had a policy that if your school had a choral program, you were expected to participate in it as well because we could be valuable assets to the choir with the advanced training we were getting, and because they didn’t want us to develop a snobby attitude and think of ourselves as being too good for our school choir.) But I also think this director was intentionally more stern than usual at the beginning of the year to scare off any singers who weren’t going to take singing seriously, and to establish high expectations.

I didn’t get to sing a full-fledged concert with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra that year. That opportunity was reserved for the “statures.” But I did get to sing with the symphony for an educational program they put on for second graders all over the metro area. I actually remembered going to this program when I was in second grade, so it was exciting to come full-circle, knowing that quite possibly, there were future choir members sitting in that audience just as I had been five years earlier.

The following year I auditioned for and was accepted into the Cantorei choir, and this is where my passion for singing blossomed the most. The director of this choir worked for a music publishing company and thus was nationally renowned. My aunt who was a music teacher in Indiana at the time knew of her. I loved how this director made us feele grownup by giving us fancy leather folders for our music, and when it was time for rehearsals to begin, all she had to do was raise her hand and hum the C above Middle C and the room would snap to attention. Many singing dreams were realized that year, including the opportunity to perform with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. That holiday season, we collaborated with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the adult Symphony Chorus to perform Hansel and Gretel, and the Holiday Pops concert which was conducted by Doc Severinsen. In the summer following that year, I went to Italy with this choir where we had the privilege of singing at Saint Peter’s Basilica. I was always appreciative of the sacrifices my parents made for me to have these opportunities. In addition to driving me to the many rehearsals these opportunities required, I remember Mom picking up a lot of over-time shifts so that we could go to Italy. I tried to convince her to let me go by myself so she would only have to pay for one person, as traveling abroad was never a draw for her anyway. But she didn’t feel comfortable sending me alone given my special medical situation, and she wanted me to have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But it wasn’t until I was older that I found out how expensive the tuition was for each semester in this choir, and now that I am more aware of how much poverty and inequality there is right in my metro area, I have a deeper awareness of how blessed I was to have these opportunities.

The church we rehearsed in that year is still my all-time favorite rehearsal site as well. It was an old Lutheran church that had that old wood smell that I love. But what was most interesting about this site was that on the wood floor of the room where we rehearsed was a painted labyrinth. At one time I knew what the labyrinth signified, but now I forget. Anyway to protect this labyrinth, the church leadership did not want anyone wearing shoes in this room, so before rehearsal, we all took off our shoes in an entry-way on the lower level before climbing a flight of stairs to the rehearsal room. I don’t know if I ever mentioned this in past posts, but I love being barefoot. The first thing I have always done when returning home from school or work is take off my shoes, and I switch to sandals as soon as the snow melts, and wear them until the first snowflakes in fall. I would wear them in the snow too if Mom allowed me to. If I were a prairie girl living in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s time, I would not have liked the bugs coming right into the house through windows with no screens, but I would have loved being barefoot all the time! I just feel so much lighter and freer without shoes, or when I can at least wear shoes that let my toes breathe. Now that I am in an adult choir where most of the other singers are senior citizens, we are seated the entire time on a typical rehearsal night, only standing for long periods of time at the dress rehearsal before a concert, and for the performance itself. But in the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, the director had us standing a lot, and I honestly think my feet hurt less after rehearsal that year than in the years that followed. But more importantly, I loved this rehearsal site because I think the room had a high ceiling because our sound echoed beautifully in this room, so I essentially got to sing in a cathedral once a week that year.

This choir also made my eighth grade year an amazing year from a social perspective as well. In elementary school, there were a few bullies in the before-school daycare I had to go to a few mornings a week from third grade through fifth grade, but overall, I had a lot of friends. In fact, since I was the only blind student in the whole school at the time, I sort of had celebrity status with even students in other grades asking me questions about being blind, and sometimes if I was walking somewhere by myself and another class was processing down the hall on their way to gym, art or music, the whole class would say hi as they walked by. I didn’t know what to make of this celebrity treatment at the time but looking back now, the teachers must have found it adorable and maybe even kind of funny. In these years, I never had a problem finding a partner when we had group assignments. But in middle school when puberty strikes, it was as if a switch flipped. I still had a couple of close friends, but mostly I was ignored. Teachers would have to assign students to work with me for group projects, and I could go whole days in a kind of silent bubble, walking from class to class quietly minding my own business but not speaking to a single peer all day. One of my close friends was in the school choir with me, and we both helped each other. She was new to the area, and because cliques were already well-established by seventh grade, I got the impression she felt ignored to, so we provided mutual companionship and moral support. She was also extremely helpful with logistical things like getting me to my spot on the risers at concert time which was a huge relief for me because the choir director was new to teaching and was not helping me as much as past choir directors had. So I have good memories of school choir in middle school too. But eighth grade in Cantorei choir was like stepping into another world. Once a week, I got to be with “my people!” I felt like a rockstar again surrounded by a happy group of friends at breaktime, and when we would take bus trips, I wasn’t the only one singing on the bus anymore! Even the boys were more mature in Cantorei choir. There was one boy in particular whom I especially enjoyed spending time with. We never officially declared ourselves a couple, maybe because we were both mature beyond our years and didn’t go for the silliness associated with this declaration. But he always came to talk to me at break times and if there was a special event, we would often sit together at lunch or on the bus and talk about religion, politics and music. Life took us in different directions and I haven’t kept in touch with him, but the time I spent talking to him in this choir was the closest I ever felt to having a boyfriend.

Perhaps because this director was nationally renowned for her work publishing music for children, I loved most of the songs she selected for us to sing. Perhaps because she came from Texas, her taste for gospel music was especially amazing. There was one song especially, Music Down in My Soul composed by Moses Hogan that was a favorite of the choir, and on concert days when this song was in the program, we raised the roof and got audiences hollering with joy. Rehearsing this song and others similar to it also filled me with joy that carried me through the week even if school was tough. My parents never had to worry about me turning to drugs or alcohol for happiness, because who needs drugs or alcohol when you can be high on song, floating down the hall between classes singing “Love in my heart! Oh yes I’ve got peace in my soul! Oh yes I’ve got joy in my heart! Joy today!” I even started a new tradition with this song. One rehearsal shortly before the spring concert when we were going to perform this song, I remember singing it and thinking that adding clapping into the refrain would be the icing on the cake of this amazing song. But this wasn’t part of the music, and there is an unwritten rule all serious choral singers know. That rule is that you don’t dare do anything to upset a choir director when concert day is near. I love and respect choir directors, but they are as a rule perfectionistic, especially the last week or two before a concert, and therefore, their fuses are very short. I feared incurring the wrath of the choir director more than I feared God. But a week after the concert, there was a final send-off rehearsal where the choir director would recognize the students who were aging out, and also give us a chance to sing the songs one more time, just for fun. This I decided would be a safe time to clap. So when we got to the refrain, I started clapping to the beat, and then a couple friends around me started clapping, then a few more, and before long, the whole choir of 100 or so singers was clapping! At first I was a little embarrassed when I asked and a friend confirmed that I had indeed instigated this, but that embarrassment didn’t last long as we were all having a blast. The choir director must have loved it too because the following year when we sang this song, the director told us we could clap for part of the refrain when the piano stops playing.

I would continue to sing in this choir my freshman year of high school as well, but unfortunately some of my best friends, including my almost boyfriend aged out of the choir as they were a year older than me, and the director quipped at the time that she did not want to teach students old enough to drive themselves to rehearsal. In addition, my freshman year, the choir rehearsals moved to a newly built Youth Art Center which most saw as a better rehearsal site, but I missed the acoustics of this old church, and the chance to rehearse barefoot. But I still had friends in the choir, and the director was still amazing so I had a blast my freshman year too.

Well I thought I could talk about my childhood choral experience in two posts, but I had so much to say that this post is already long and I haven’t even gotten to my high school experiences. So I will need another post or two. I think I ended my previous post with the director of the fifth grade chorus saying “I hope this is just the beginning for you.” I think it hit me when singing in Saint Peter’s Basilica that this teacher’s hope for me had been realized. Three years earlier, singing for parents in the school gym was a big stage, and now here I was singing in the most famous and beautiful church in the world. And I was still young, with many more opportunities and years of singing ahead of me.

Convicted: The Mother’s Day I Threw the Book At Mom

I know I said I was going to write two posts about choir, but the second post is not finished yet, and with today being Mother’s Day, I felt compelled to re-post an essay I wrote on Medium for a contest in 2014. I heard about this site from a Facebook friend and then shortly thereafter, I saw an article in Reader’s Digest that was originally published on this site, so I decided to give it a try. I decided I much preferred writing here, and my Medium posts didn’t seem to get much traffic. I am not going to re-post the other essays I wrote there, but you are welcome to read them here. But below is my favorite of the essays I wrote on Medium, and a perfect one for Mother’s Day. The theme of the contest that week was “I shouldn’t have written that.” Enjoy!

The year I was in third grade was a difficult year for my mother. She had started a new job in October that required her to work rotating shifts, one week of days and one week of nights. Just when she had adjusted to one shift, it was time to switch again so she was always tired. But my mother never complained. Despite being exhausted, she plugged right on, cooking dinner every night, never missing my older siblings’ school activities and still finding time to play with me. But the week leading up to Mother’s Day, my mother caught a nasty cold that normally might not have stopped her, but on top of day-night rotation, almost knocked her down. She did the household stuff she had to do, but was too tired to play. “I’m really tired right now. I promise I’ll play with you later,” she had said every day that week as she took another sip of tea and continued watching some boring grown-up TV show.

This disappointment was all forgotten, I thought when toward the end of the week, the teacher announced that we were all going to make special picture books to give to our mothers for Mother’s Day. I loved my mother dearly and despite how much I probably drove her crazy whining for her to stop watching those boring grown-up shows and play with me, I knew she loved me too. I couldn’t wait to tell her through this book how much I loved her and how much she meant to me. The teacher gave us prompts to fill in for each page of the book like “my mother enjoys ____,” or “if I could give my mother anything in the world, I would give her ____.” The teacher’s aid helped me write my messages in both print and braille, and helped me make line drawings with puffy paint. Then the books were sent to an office in the school called the publishing center where they were given beautiful glossy covers.

I was so giddy with excitement over giving my mother this beautiful book I knew she would treasure forever that I couldn’t stand waiting any longer than Saturday night to present it. I ran up to her the way little kids do and threw it in to her hands and said “Happy Mother’s Day,” in a voice quivering with eager anticipation. As I expected, she gushed over the beautiful book when she peeled back the wrapping paper, but I didn’t expect what happened next. With all my siblings around the table, she opened it up and started reading, and laughing, hysterically. “What’s so funny?” I asked, a bit confused. It turned out that without even realizing it, I had written a book that was really more of an indictment. “My mother enjoys drinking tea and watching TV on the couch.” (picture of a tea cup) “My mother looks prettiest in her soft silk nightgown.” (picture of a nightgown) “If I could give my mother anything in the world, I would give her a cottage and a boat on a lake so she can relax.” (picture of a boat on a peaceful lake) I forget what the other prompts were, but basically every page made reference to how lazy I thought she had been lately.

I apologized repeatedly for that book over the years as I matured and came to have a better appreciation of how hard she worked and how selflessly she tended to us. “I could throw it on the next bonfire I attend,” I said once. “Don’t you dare,” she said, “I love it. It is a cute book I will treasure forever. I just laughed because all of your teachers who helped you with it probably think I am a lazy bum, and because I had been convicted.” Perhaps the lesson my third grade teacher had intended was for us to practice our writing while also learning about the joy that comes from a hand-made gift a mother will treasure forever. But the lesson I came away with that I still keep in mind today in everything I write is that the subconscious mind is a powerful thing.

The Beginning of My Passion for Singing

This past Saturday, I sang in my final choir concert of the season. It was a wonderful concert with a diverse set of music that included a couple songs in latin, German and French, but the theme of the concert was Girls Night Out because all of the songs were written by female composers. After this concert, it occurred to me that while I have briefly mentioned my love of singing in posts about other topics, considering how passionate I am about this art form, I have not given it the attention it deserves on this blog. So for this post, I want to share how my passion for singing began, and then in the next post, I will talk about the joys and challenges of choir as I got older.

My mom told me that before I could even talk, I was singing. She recalls listening to a Christmas album when I was about a year and a half, and she noticed that when the singer sang “Walkin’ in a winter wonderland,” I was “singing” too. “Webah wabah webah wabah woo!” I sang emphatically. I didn’t understand the words yet, but I knew the melody. That was just the beginning of what would become a lifelong passion. Right from kindergarten, music class was my favorite class. My first concert of sorts was a kindergarten Christmas program. The theme was “Christmas in the Forest.” Unfortunately I don’t remember much about the concert itself because I feel like I was coming down with a bad cold that day. But I remember we were all asked to bring teddie bears that we held for one of the songs, and the rehearsals leading up to the concert were an absolute blast! The one song that has stuck in my memory from that concert that I still laugh about today was “we fish you a hairy chris-moose and a hippo new year.” One of my many favorite Christmas songs today is a song from the country music band Alabama called Thistlehair the Christmas Bear because it reminds me of those kindergarten Christmas songs from a time of magic and innocence.

Outside of music class, I was singing all the time: on the bus to and from school, walking down the hall at school, and around the house. But at that time, my dream was to sing in the school chorus. Unfortunately, while band and orchestra were open to third, fourth and fifth graders, the chorus was only open to fifth graders. That was when I first realized the truth of that adage that life is not fair! Twice a year, once just before Christmas, and again toward the end of May, the whole school would assemble in the gym for a concert. I remember sitting in the bleachers thinking how loud and obnoxious the band pieces were, and during the orchestra pieces, I would get bored and the teacher’s aid who worked with me would have to reprimand me for fidgeting. Since then, I have come to appreciate the fun nature of band pieces, and the beauty of orchestral pieces. But when the chorus came onstage, I was thrilled and mesmerized. To hear so many kids singing and sometimes clapping in unison sounded like heaven on earth, and I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to join this party onstage. Fifth grade seemed like an eternity away, but at last that wonderful year arrived and when the music teacher asked who wanted permission slips to join the chorus, my hand was the first to shoot up. I received this permission slip on a Friday and while most other permission slips would not have been signed until Sunday night, if I even remembered to give them to Mom or Dad then, I remember handing the permission slip to Mom Friday night, and I made sure to turn it in Monday.

In my elementary school, the chorus was considered an extracurricular activity, so rehearsals took place Tuesdays and Thursdays during the second half of lunch in lieu of recess. This was both a blessing and a curse for me. It was a blessing because I was one of those rare kids that hated recess. If I could have spent recess doing a craft or playing a board game with a friend indoors, or even reading in a quiet corner outside, I would have enjoyed recess. But because teachers said I needed exercise, I was forced to go down slides, climb jungle gyms and play stupid running games with shrieking classmates during this supposedly free time. So with chorus, I finally had a valid excuse to get out of recess, and unlike first and second grade when there were two other recess times during the day, and third and fourth grade when there was an afternoon recess, lunch recess was the only one in fifth grade! But it was a curse because I am a slow eater. When I was younger, the classroom teacher and aid made a deal with me that if I could get outside for at least five minutes of the 20 minute lunch recess for a certain number of days—I think it might have been two weeks, I could have an afternoon recess indoors doing a quieter activity with a like-minded friend. But now that chorus, not recess was at stake in fifth grade, I had to learn to eat faster. It was rough at first. I was late to rehearsal the first few times, and a lot of food probably got wasted, but I wasn’t going to let my slow eating stand in the way of my dream of singing in the chorus.

Singing in this chorus was everything I had dreamed it would be. I don’t recall there being any disruptive behavior during chorus rehearsals like there often was during music class, perhaps since recess had to be sacrificed to sing in the chorus, a sacrifice which not every fifth grader was willing to make, only students who really wanted to sing as much as me participated in the chorus and because they wanted to be there, they behaved well. And that first experience singing in front of the whole school and then again for parents later that evening was magical and I still remember smiling ear-to-ear the entire time. That first concert, we sang a song about how children all over the world say hello, My Christmas Tree from the movie Home Alone, and everyone’s favorite, The Everlasting Fruit Cake. For this song, I think there was a special set brought onto the stage and a fake fruit cake. At the end of the song, the principal who loved to be silly and have fun, rang a doorbell and pretended to be a delivery man delivering the fruit cake again, to which we all pretended to groan “not again!” The audience loved this performance, and so did we. A couple weeks later, we got to sing our pieces at a local mall to get shoppers in the Christmas spirit, and the way I anticipated and talked about this trip for weeks, you would have thought I was going to Carnegie Hall. In the spring, we sang a song about Albert Einstein that involved choreography and snapping your fingers, the classic Oldie Doo Wah Diddy Diddy and I had a solo in the song “Colors of the Wind, which is still one of my favorite Disney songs. “The rainstorm and the river are my brothers. The heron and the otter are my friends. And we are all connected to each other, in a circle, in a hoop that never ends.”

The aid that saw me light up when the chorus came onstage worked with me from first grade through fourth grade, but in fifth grade, she was assigned to a younger student. But I got to see her after the concert and she told me she had tears in her eyes when she saw me onstage with the chorus because she remembered how much I longed for that opportunity all those years. The chorus director didn’t spend a lot of one-on-one time with me, but she was a sweet person with a natural passion for working with kids, and she saw my passion too and I will never forget when she said “I hope this chorus is just the beginning for you.”

It was just the beginning for me. I would sing all my years in school and be blessed with many unforgettable opportunities which I will talk about in the next post. I am involved in an adult choir now and hope to sing all my life. Although the music is more challenging now, and sometimes after a long day the last thing I want to do is attend a grueling rehearsal, deep down, I still have the same passion for choir that I had as a child all those years ago, a passion that comes alive again every time I take the stage as I did last Saturday and experience a slice of heaven on earth once again.

‘Tis Better to Live an Uncensored Childhood

Well readers, last week I saw an article online about a small publisher which was editing the classic poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to “meet the needs of today’s children.” I guess some parents have been frantically tearing out pages of children’s books because of the stanza about the pipe Santa held tight in his teeth, and the smoke that encircled his head like a wreath. Yes, parents are afraid that hearing these two lines in a fictional children’s poem will corrupt their children and they will grow up to be smokers.

     How fitting that I should see this article during Banned Books Week because while controversy over this poem didn’t get the media saturation that The Hunger Games and Harry Potter received, to me such altering of a classic is just as troubling as banning a book.

     ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was my absolute favorite poem as a child, and still is today. We have a Christmas CD that my mom purchased to support the Make a Wish foundation even before I was born, on which Rush Limbaugh recites the poem. (Yes, I know all about him and don’t condone his views, especially his recent commentary at all, but I put politics aside at Christmas because he does an amazing job with this classic). And guess what? Despite hearing the unabridged poem all my life, I have never touched a cigarette or pipe and have no plans to start. Maybe it could be argued that this poem is different for sighted children because when they get this poem from children’s books, they aren’t just hearing the words but also having them re-enforced by an illustration of Santa’s pipe. But I don’t think that makes a difference because my sighted peers who heard this poem as a child aren’t all smoking either. That is why even though I am the furthest thing from a parenting expert, I wish I could tell parents just from my experience as a recent child that the opportunity to live an uncensored childhood is among the best gifts my parents gave my siblings and me. The interesting thing is, my parents didn’t purposefully declare “our children will have an uncensored childhood!” or make a conscious point of exposing us to all kinds of influences. We simply lived our lives.

     If my parents or teenage siblings wanted to watch a movie or TV show with violence or profanity, I was never sent out of the room. Those “due to the graphic nature of this program, viewer discretion is advised” warnings meant nothing. When it came to profanity, my parents instilled in me from as young as I can remember that “these words are out there in the world but they are not nice words and you should never repeat them.” (I do find it unfair that my parents let my older siblings get away with a little swearing, but if I so much as say “dammit” when I stub my toe on something, they freak out. When I mentioned it to Mom once she laughed and admitted that she didn’t want her youngest precious angel to take up swearing, which I can understand. I’ll probably be that way with my youngest child, but that’s besides the point). The point is by being allowed to hear these words all my life, it wasn’t a big deal when I got in to the less innocent world of high school and college where I heard them right and left.

     Violent movies never scared me because I never had much of an imagination, so I knew the plots were fictional. But my parents even let me watch stories of real violence; Dateline murder mysteries, the local news, even America’s Most Wanted which occasionally mentioned cases of children kidnapped from their bedrooms or backyards and brutally murdered. These cases scared me the most, especially when John Walsh would say, “he could be anywhere tonight.” Could he be under my bed, or lurking outside my window? I would wonder. Sure it may have been nice to grow up in blissful innocence, never hearing these stories, but I have heard that children sheltered from such stories grow up to be too trusting of the world, do foolish things like get in a car with a stranger and thus they are more likely to be victimized. But instead of turning off the program when I seemed troubled by it, they would use the opportunity to remind me that most people are good. There are just a few bad people out there. If I took basic precautions–never trust a stranger that tries to lure you with candy or a lost puppy; scream loud to attract attention if someone grabs you; never answer the door alone, etc.), it was statistically unlikely that anything would ever happen to me, and nothing ever did. I have heard experts say that children are innocent and delicate and shouldn’t be exposed to such things, but by being exposed to these things, I feel like I am safer. As my parents hoped, I believe that most people are good, but I have a healthy awareness and respect for the dangers of the world which keeps me from doing foolish things.

     Maybe I was unusually airheaded as a child, but somehow I really don’t think I was that unusual in the fact that as small children, you are often in your own little world of play and innocence where the last thing that occurs to you is to analyze poems and even songs you hear. Getting back to ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas for example, I completely overlooked the implications of Santa smoking a pipe. (As a matter of fact, I never even thought about them until reading that article last week). As a child, the visions of sugarplumbs and the child witnessing the arrival of Santa and his reindeer were all that I noticed. As an older child (young adult), I loved the poem for its fun rhyme and rhythm and the expressiveness of Limbaugh’s recitation. The same is true of many songs I loved as a child. In preschool, one of my absolute favorite songs was Reba MacEntire’s song Fancy. I loved the sound of Reba’s voice and just the beat and almost theatrical quality of the song that I would want Mom to play it over and over on our CD to the point that my older siblings told me when I was older that they longed to bash the CD player in with a hammer. Eventually, my obsession with this song waned and I even forgot about the song until the summer after sixth grade, the first summer I had my very own CD player in my bedroom. That was also the summer when a whole bunch of old CD’s that had been misplaced re-surfaced, including the once beloved Reba CD! Just for the nostalgia, I asked Mom to hand me the Reba CD so I could hear Fancy again. She didn’t have to tell me what track the song was. I recognized it instantly. Instantly, I remembered how much I loved the sound of the song, but the nostalgia was tainted by the fact that as an older child who knew more about the world and paid better attention to lyrics, it occurred to me that this song I loved so much as a preschooler was about a poor mother who spent every last penny she had on a fancy dress for her teenage daughter whom she turned out of the house, encouraging her to go in to prostitution! But you know what? My mom with her wisdom knew I wasn’t paying attention to the words, that even if I was, the adult ideas of the song would just glide right over my little head. (We were discussing this just the other day and she told me that if I had asked questions about the song, she would have explained it in an age appropriate way because it is a reality of the world we live in.) But she knew that while little children are generally oblivious to adult lyrics, they are very aware of how their parents react, and thus frantically rushing over to the CD player to skip over that track would have only gotten my curiosity up. “Why do you always skip that song Mommy?” I likely would have asked, backing her in to an unnecessary, awkward corner. She understood that children just play and live in their own little world, so if you just go about life and not frantically tear out pages, skip tracks on a CD, change a channel, shoo kids out of the room or yell “hey! little ears!” if a guest tells an inappropriate joke or something, children likely won’t even notice and no harm will be done. After all, how can you be corrupted by something you are not even paying attention to because you are too young to understand?

     Getting back to the article on ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, it occurred to me while reading it that just the previous weekend, I had another experience in which I had never really paid attention to a song I had heard a million times. My parents and I were in the car running an errand listening to the oldies station as usual when it dawned on me, “Whoa! Did that song just say I get high with a little help from my friends?”

“Yep!” they answered, “it was written in a different time, the Hippie era when many didn’t know or perhaps knew but didn’t care, about how harmful drugs were.”

     Of course, as an adult it was no longer necessary to approach subjects delicately, but what a perfect way to address a situation, one which any parent could use if their child did notice the lines about Santa’s smoking. They could just gently explain, “this poem was written long, long ago when people didn’t know that smoking was harmful to health.” This could also be a perfect opportunity for a rudimentary “just because you read about something in some poem or book doesn’t mean it’s right” discussion. If a parent isn’t interested in deep discussions, they could even just say that since Santa is a magical, immortal being, he can get away with smoking, but regular humans don’t have this power.

     I am already thinking about hoarding copies of this and other controversial classics in case this editing becomes the trend because I want my kids to have the privilege I enjoyed of an uncensored childhood. Because to be honest, I would rather risk my children taking up smoking when they grow up than raise them on censored poems and risk them growing up to accept without question a George Orwell type world where erasing and re-writing history “to suit the needs of people today” is the norm.

     But the risk is low of them growing up to take up smoking anyway for other reasons; education about the dangers most importantly; the fact that it is now banned in so many places; the cost of the habit–(I saw a Facebook status just today from a boy who decided to quit when he saw that with all the taxes, one pack of cigarettes now costs over $8)–and the positive example of non-smoking parents which as I said earlier, kids pay much more attention to than lines in a poem or song. And although I haven’t officially researched this, it seems as though people I know of who do smoke do so out of a natural college thrill of rebelling against parents, and a feeling of invincibility. I never was tempted to smoke because it smells disgusting to me, but I rebelled in other stupid ways as a college freshman–eating spectacularly unhealthy meals in the dining room, and walking to class on single-digit days with no coat on for instance–so while I don’t understand the appeal of smoking, I can understand the thrill of doing something your parents don’t condone and feeling invincible while doing it. I understand how out of love, parents would want to do everything in their power to keep their children from doing stupid things, especially since smoking is addictive and one cigarette in college quickly can become a lifetime habit. But the hard truth is, the natural desire of young adults to rebel against their parents is out of any parent’s control, and has nothing to do with Santa, so I predict that even if this censored poem takes hold, it will make absolutely no difference in smoking statistics.

     But more importantly, as I have said so many times already, it is what the parents do, not the media children are exposed to that matters. Reba’s song Fancy did not spark an interest in prostitution because by the time I understood the implications of the song, my parents had cemented values of honest work, Christian morals and self-respect. Despite hearing profanity at an early age, I don’t curse like a sailor–in fact I hardly curse at all, only when I stub my toe and my parents aren’t in earshot–because my parents have talked with my siblings and me about how people who curse on television go for the cheap laugh, but being funny or making a statement without using a stream of curse words takes more creativity and intelligence.

     I hear a lot about parents who are very strict about what their children are exposed to and think that in this way, they are teaching good values. But blocking any references to violence, profanity, prostitution, smoking or drug use also blocks teachable moments. An uncensored childhood and good values can go hand in hand, and in fact, I think that by taking advantage of these teachable moments and not trying to shelter me from the realities of the world we live in, my parents shaped my values more firmly.

Trick or Treat

Last week, Mom and I were shopping at Target when we saw Halloween candy on display and decided it was time to stock the big wooden salad bowl, just in case we get trick-or-treaters. But last year, we only had a couple trick-or-treaters and the year before, the pumpkin lit with a candle was outside the door, the porch lights on, “The Monster Mash” playing on a stereo we place outside and not a single trick-or-treater came.

     Since answering the door and being the one that got to say, “and who do we have here?” to the little witches and goblins that came to the door was the extent of my Halloween celebrating once I reached an age when it was no longer socially appropriate to be a little witch myself, this absence of trick-or-treaters was disheartening.

     I have tried to replace the tradition I outgrew with new traditions. Well, they cannot really be called traditions because they only lasted a year or two, but you know what I mean.

     The last two years, Dad and I celebrated by dressing up as burritos to win a free burrito at Chipolte Mexican Grill. This year however, my dad has a new job and will probably work too late to continue this tradition and well, I inherited my love of stupid silly fun from my dad! And anyway, it still wasn’t the same as trick-or-treating.

     Two years ago, Dad also took me to a haunted house, but I wasn’t that haunted by it. I’m not sure if it was because that particular haunted house was geared towards little kids or if it was because I am blind and the scariness of it was more visual. But whatever the reason, I left that house puzzled about why haunted houses draw such long lines.

     This year, I am starting what I hope will be a tradition that I can carry over to the office job after college. I am going to live vicariously through my guide dog Gilbert and put him in a costume for Halloween. It is no longer socially acceptable for me to dress up I suppose, but dogs never have to give up their cute innocence right? So along with the candy, Mom and I picked out an adorable $6 old man costume for Gilbert, complete with a purple hat and orange tie. This will be the most fun tradition yet I think, especially when it is time for my Creative Writing class, a very intimate, fun class with only five other students, all of whom love dogs, especially Gilbert and have been looking forward to seeing him dressed up for days. But even this tradition will never live up to the fun I had trick-or-treating.

     Of course, since our neighborhood hardly has any trick-or-treaters these days, my parents and I have been enjoying the candy all week and will have plenty left over, but somehow, this candy just doesn’t taste as good as it used to.

     To hear me rave about trick-or-treating this way, as if it was so much fun that nothing could ever live up to it, you might think trick-or-treating was something I looked forward to for months just like Christmas. Actually, trick-or-treating was met with a mixture of excitement and dread for me. I thought it was fun to dress up and I loved eating the candy of course, but earning that candy was hard work in my neighborhood.

     Now that I am an adult, I appreciate our neighborhood more. It is a beautiful, peaceful neighborhood with two-acre yards, spread out houses, long driveways and a paved country road that can go hours at a time without seeing a car. In the spring, you can smell lilacs and honeysuckle from the road, making it a wonderful neighborhood for taking walks. But for little short-legged children, this neighborhood is torture.

     I have vague memories of my older sister pulling me through the neighborhood in a little wagon with the candy bag in my lap when I was really small, but most years, I walked. Some neighbors would drive groups of trick-or-treaters from house to house, but my parents never did that. Though I wasn’t aware of the increase in childhood obesity then, perhaps that is the reason. They didn’t want to spoil our fun like other parents by rationing our candy, but we could at least walk to earn it.

     To add to the misery of trick-or-treating, many Halloweens were cold and windy. I remember trudging through snow one year. In kindergarten when I dressed as a princess, the wind blew my crown off my head and my mom had to run after it. I vividly remember several years of wearing my winter coat over my costume and coming home with a nose tip that I am told was red and which I could tell was cold to the touch. So when I arrived at each door, rang the doorbell and removed the scarf from my mouth to say “Trick-or-treat” I felt I had earned the pile of candy lovingly dumped in to my open bag by each neighbor.

     Being blind made the process of trick-or-treating annoying because every neighbor has a different configuration of steps that lead up to their door, which made getting up to the door even more tedious than it was for “normal kids”, but I thought it was fun not being able to see the kind of candy being put in my bag. This meant that in addition to every other kid’s eagerness to get home and eat the snickers bar they saw, walking home for me was like waiting through the night of Christmas eve. “What treasures did the neighbors put in my bag this year?”

     As soon as I was in the warm cozy house and I had taken my coat off, my parents let me go wild and dig through it all! If I saw M&Ms or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, I had struck gold, but I loved anything with chocolate. I wasn’t as fond of fruity candy like Smarties, so those I generously shared with my brother. (smile)

     It’s funny how when we are little, we cannot imagine being big. We don’t appreciate how special trick-or-treating is because life seems timeless and the notion that one day we will be too old to say “trick-or-treat” never crosses our mind. But all of a sudden, puberty sneaks up on us and says “boo!” and we realize we aren’t one of the little kids anymore.

     Now that I think about it, the onset of puberty was also when Halloween candy no longer seemed to taste as good as it used to. Sure, this could be due to the fact that with maturity came a greater consciousness of health, so guilt got in the way of my enjoyment when eating candy. But I think there is more to it than that. In the same way that I always felt a sweeter sense of victory and satisfaction when I did a difficult homework assignment or cooked a meal all by myself, working for my candy, walking for what seemed like an eternity to my short little legs, fighting my way through cold, wind and sometimes rain and snow, made the candy taste even sweeter.

     Thus it has occurred to me that my mourning about being too old to trick-or-treat is not about the costumes or candy, or even the void that was created when I outgrew this tradition. It is about the simple joy of earning my candy instead of having it handed to me, which brings me back to my disheartened mood in recent Halloweens when we hardly get any trick-or-treaters. Mom pointed out that many of the children in our neighborhood are now past trick-or-treating age. But on summer days, I hear a lot of little children’s voices shouting and laughing in yards all over the neighborhood. I hope that maybe I’m just a poor judge of age. Maybe you cannot judge a child’s age by their voice. I hope there really aren’t as many children as it sounds like there are. I hope that all the children I hear playing in the yards aren’t going to more compact neighborhoods where they don’t have to work as hard for their candy, because I have found that earning my candy on Halloween and in life is half the fun.

Thinking of You Kelso

Well readers, I know I promised in my last entry that the next entry would be about my internship experience. But in light of an event that happened last week, I couldn’t get inspired to write about internships. So the entry after this one will be about my internship, but I need to use this entry to set straight a lie I told in the early days of this journal. Actually, it’s not an outright lie, but you could call it a lie of omission. You see, in the beginning of this blog, I wrote a profile of Indy, our pet German Shepherd that died when I was in seventh grade, and a profile of our cat Snickers, who will turn eleven on June 20 but is still as feisty as ever. Then I wrote a profile of my brother’s dog Mojo whom we adored and loved to dogsit. In that entry, I remember writing that we did not have a dog of our own because we couldn’t find one that we felt was suitable to our family. Well, this is true, but what I neglected to mention was that for six months, we did adopt a puppy, but had to return him to the humane society as he had serious behavioral issues we couldn’t handle. I didn’t want to share this experience at the time as it was still a source of sadness, and a little bit shame for our family and I could tell my parents weren’t wild about me putting it on the internet. But in light of the event last week, I feel it is time to share this experience to clear my conscience. This dog deserves to be mentioned and to know he was loved even if we couldn’t handle him. And, sharing this experience might provide comfort and reassurance to any readers who happen to stumble on this blog and are going through or have been through a similar situation.

     So here is a letter I felt inspired to write to this dog whom our family named Kelso. I am also going to post it in the Note to Dog community, so for those of you who have both my journal and this community on your friends page, I apologize for the redundancy, but I felt that this entry should be in both places.

     So without further ado, here is the long overdue tribute to Kelso.

Dear Kelso,

     Do you remember me? My sister and I were the ones standing outside your cage at the humane society over eight years ago begging and pleading with Mom to adopt you. We had lost our beautiful, loyal German Shepherd six months ago and so desperately missed being greeted by a wagging tail when we got home from school or hearing a watchful bark when the doorbell rang that we fell in love with you on the spot. You were very mischievous, and I still remember being in the viewing room of the humane society with Mom trying to get you to settle down, to no avail. We were a little concerned, but figured that you were just being a typical puppy and we just weren’t used to puppies anymore, since by the time Indy died, she had been moving slow for a while because of arthritis.

     But once we got home, it soon became clear that your behavior was not typical puppy behavior. We noticed some aggression, and you were eating so many unusual things my mom feared you would be seriously injured or killed if you got hold of something one day when we didn’t notice in time. You would bark all hours of the night from your crate, and you could be playing outside for hours without relieving yourself, only to come in and relieve yourself in the house.

     Sure enough, my mom did some research and discovered that the behavior you displayed is characteristic for puppies taken from their mothers too young. We read some training materials and tried some tactics. But despite our efforts, it wasn’t long before I was afraid of you, and since our family didn’t have the time to give you the intensive training you needed, you spent most of the time locked in your crate. One day a little over six months after we had adopted you, Mom greeted me soberly at the school bus and told me she had returned you to the humane society. It should not have come as a surprise, as we had all realized we were not the right home for you for quite some time, but every day when I got home from school, you were still there as Mom couldn’t bear making that final decision. I only made her agony about this decision worse by accusing Mom and Dad of giving up on you. After all, though I don’t know the specific details about what happened to you before you came to the humane society, I do know it wasn’t your fault, and by returning you, I felt like our family had betrayed you. Besides, as much as I was afraid of you, I missed the presence of a dog in the house so much that I wanted to hold on to the hope that maybe you could be trained to overcome your trauma and become a beloved pet like Indy was. So when my mom greeted me at the bus that fateful day, I cried for two days.

     We never adopted another dog after returning you. The whole family was so emotionally drained we didn’t feel like we could handle another dog. But when we needed a doggie fix, my brother would bring his dog Mojo to visit. Remember him? You didn’t play nice with him as a puppy, but I bet you would think twice before fighting him now as he has become a big boy with a fierce bark.

     Then about three years ago, I received a guide dog named Gilbert. Although he is primarily my dog, he is so mellow and adorable he is loved by the whole family. In fact, Gilbert has healed our emotional wounds so well that I admit you hadn’t crossed our minds since he came home. That is, until last Friday afternoon when we got an unexpected phone call.

     “Do you own a black lab named Kelso?” the caller asked my dad. Apparently, you had been found running loose in a nearby town and the information in your microchip implanted by the humane society before we adopted you never got updated.

     My dad explained to the caller how we no longer owned you, but when he hung up and told me what happened, your memory came flooding back to me.

     I have matured a lot over the years, especially when I learned that even guide dogs are frequently returned by handlers who felt that the dog wasn’t right for them. Thus, I no longer view our family’s decision to return you as a betrayal. Spending your days locked in a cage because we cannot handle you is no way to live when there might be a family out there who would know how to train you in to a beloved pet or as my mom thought, someone with a sprawling farm where you could run wild, live happily and not get hurt.

     It has been a busy week as I am doing an internship now, but you have been on my mind constantly. How much have you grown? Is the fur on your coat still curly as I remember? Were you adopted by a loving family that was perfect for you and just ran away like dogs do, or have the last eight years continued to be traumatic for you and you were abandoned again? I don’t know how to find out. We didn’t think to ask the caller, and even if we had, they might not have known or been willing to tell what they did know since you are no longer our dog. So I guess I will never know. But there is one thing that has offered our family some hope that your life maybe did take a turn for the better. My mom said the town where you were found is surrounded by farmland.

Best wishes,

Allison, the youngest child of your former family