This morning, while singing along with the radio, I was struck by a very strong memory:
The First Time I TRULY Disappointed Myself
I don’t remember the exact year, but I want to believe it was the summer of 1991. I had just turned 13 that March. I had taken a bottle of peroxide and mixed it with conditioner, fashioning my own bleach mixture, and turned my hair a sort of awkward orange/auburn/copper mess that suited me well. I had noticed that older boys, no matter how much they called me chubby, also started making truly lewd comments towards me. I was a cheerleader that summer, even though I was still a bit of an outcast. (Yes, in a small town, you can be both.) Things were, to my perspective, looking better for me than they had… Well, since I could remember, to be honest.
That summer, my uncle’s nephew, Adam, had come all the way from Pennsylvania to stay for a while. He was an odd boy with an even more foreign background. He was pail, chubby, overly confident, and a little pushy… but so was almost every boy I knew outside of my family — So of course, we got on well.
My aunt was charged with keeping him entertained for a good portion of his visit and during one of those days, she decided we would all go to the local amusement park: Worlds of Fun. That summer, I had already been there a time or two with various friends and groups and every time I had gone, I went past the tiny recording studio booth they have at such places.
As an adult, I can look back at it and say: :”What a crock of shit!” Seriously, it was a small store front, babysat by a pimply teen whose two responsibilities were to pop the right Karaoke tape into the machine and to press the right button to record. The booth itself was dark, unimpressive, and about the size of my mom’s kitchen closet and the equipment was, honestly, terribly sub par…
But, to 13-year-old me, it was the most fascinating place in the whole park and, honestly, the most terrifying. I had often been overlooked for singing parts in school productions and my friends would roll their eyes when we were all singing together in cars as girls that age are known to do… but I knew I could sing. I had taken a handful of lessons and been assured I was doing well. I had taken a piece to contest and also done well there… I patterned my voice after all these people I worshiped (still relish) and I knew I could do this… But I always chicken-shitted out.
And for the 2-3 years I’d been allowed to go to the park with my friends relatively unchaperoned, the story was the same: I would always take pause outside of the place, note the cost, weigh the decision in my head, and walk away. The fear of realizing I truly sucked and that people were just being nice when they told me it sounded good was too much. I’d rather take uncertainty and self-confidence than negative certainty and all that self-loathing any day… I’m not even kidding.
But, on this particular day. Having admitted to Adam that I always wanted to try it, he mentioned it to my aunt and uncle and they spotted me cash to do so. With the three of them urging me on, I couldn’t just not do it… I went in, gave the 16-year-old harbinger of doom my cash. He popped it in, gave no instruction, bumped me into the booth and pointed at the headphones. I put them on, my chosen song blared through them. It was some poppish, popular Madonna single with stupid lyrics and a catchy beat I’d seen on MTV a million times and knew the words by heart. I started singing, unsure what was going on or if I was doing this right. I couldn’t hear myself and felt really off… But there was Adam. I still, to this day, can see that strange, yet nice, boy watching me with some sort of sweet adoration that can only be titled “she’s my girlfriend today.” As I sang this piece of shit song into a crappy microphone, he smiled at me from the other side of the glass and, for about 20 seconds after I was done, I thought I must have done well.
Of course, you are then required to listen to yourself and suddenly that shining moment of feeling like I was amazing dissipated into dust. The dust being caused by my dreams crumbling under the weight of my shaking ego. I took my tape and very quietly left. Of course, the aunt and uncle wanted to hear it, but I was so horrified. Here were two of my favorite people in the world asking to hear me slaughter something… What if they thought less of me after hearing it? I mean, I certainly thought less of myself after hearing it, why wouldn’t they? But, I did let the boy listen, not because I trusted him but because he was genuinely complimentary and because I knew I’d probably never see him again. He said it was great and… after much cajoling and one more listen through choked-back tears, I let him keep it. So, somewhere, probably a trash heap outside of Monaca, PA, sits a tape holding the hopes, dreams, and ultimate disappointment of a little girl playing at big girl dreams.
For years following, I wouldn’t sing around people just so embarrassed by my naivety. Imagine, me, thinking I was ok at that! The outrage I felt at others turned inward and there was only this fragile, broken candle where a spotlight had once shone. Sure, I might join in during a group sing along, but I throttled… Man how I throttled — Quiet like a mouse, make yourself unheard. Disappear. This was really reflected in how I dressed, acted, everything. I simply tried to look like everyone else… disappear.
Then in mid-high school, the boy I was dating and his friends were playing a song I knew well. They started singing along and I joined in with them. (Mostly bolstered by the fact that they sucked so bad, I couldn’t be any worse! Plus the comradery! I am a sucker for a group to belong to — I’m always searching for home.) But I was accused of showboating and, since I couldn’t control what I produced with my voice then, being loud and obnoxious. (To some extent I still can’t control it. I am loud if I’m really trying and it’s any good. You just have to deal with it. Sorry world!) My notes were usually spot on, but were loud, hard and powerful… and not like the other girls. If I didn’t throttle, I would drown out any one singing next to me and they weren’t getting the attention they’d fought so hard to get. I was usually pushed backward — Sometimes physically, but more often by mean words, scant looks, rolled eyes, or just plain walking away. And I let them push… I mean, no one was telling me I did good anymore and I figured I was a joke, lol. See? even I’m laughing at me.
This went on until later my Senior year of high school, when, out of pride and hope, and faux Screw-the-World attitude, I suggested that instead of a senior play we have a musical this year. At a small school, you can suggest such things and actually be heard without actually having to do anything… Just start a buzz. Mention it to the drama instructor. Mention it to the little high school song birds and pretty people. Mention it to people who have some sort of pull. Compliment the talent of others… Make them feel like it is all their idea and, poof, like magic, you’ve got yourself a musical. Oh, the petty manipulations of a teenage honor student. (Although, it wasn’t intentional. This is just the way of things there.)
They had us audition at a cold reading and didn’t even have us sing a note. I was chosen for supporting lead female — A bad-girl, Jesse-James type character who was the butt of several jokes but had one strong song and a handful of minions. I was disappointed and knew I’d been type-cast. (Because, I was always the bad girl, second-lead, even in everyday life… Why should the school musical be any different?) They sent us home with a script, a tape of our singing parts, and a date to come in for individual practice. I busted my ass over that tape. I had no idea what my lines were, really, but I listened to the tape and patterned my style, pitch, everything off that woman who was probably paid nothing for the idolatry she was getting from me. Then came my day… I went in nervous, twitchy, excited… and ready to shine. I had recorded myself, finally after all those years, and played it alongside the provided tape and was satisfied. I had prepared and practiced. I WAS READY TO DO THIS! But, before a single note came out of my mouth, I was instructed to just yell out the words. “Just do it like we said… just yell them out in time with the music.”
I tried it their way and was miserable. My throat started to hurt and I was starting to get hoarse. I was defeated, disheartened, and really, really upset when at the end I asked, trembling, if I could just do it my way for the last run through. They shook their heads, looked at each other like I was a failure, and agreed exasperatedly that I could, after reminding me that next time we do this I was to perform it as they said…
And then, the taped background music started and I blew them away. Loud and brassy and just like the girl on the tape, I sang that shitty song with everything I had. There was confusion, then quiet. They told me I should just sing it like that from now on. “I had no idea you could do that.” Later that next week, we started read throughs to familiarize everyone with the script. You didn’t have to sing your part during, but you were encouraged to… so I did. The usual snickers and looks were stifled and I was stared at. Unable to bear it, I looked at the words like they were the road map out of the room. Afterward there was silence — And then they clapped. (My fellow players, classmates, adolescents… clapped. That feeling stays with me to this day. Every time I’m afraid I’m going to fail when I know, deep inside, that I got this, those people who probably don’t give me a second thought are there… staring, then clapping.) There wasn’t a single person there that didn’t agree that I should sing it just like that. I was the smart, chubby, bad girl that no one noticed for so long — This was a boon I couldn’t resist… Like the best drug you can imagine times a thousand. A lifetime of nonrecognition at that age feels like an eternity of invisibility and being visible is painful perfection. It’s very hard to describe.
Soon was graduation and a general feeling of relief that I was finally OUT OF THERE! I went on, that following year, to sing some background bits for a small-time local recording guy for no credit at the urging of my freshman writing instructor. Dr. G told me “Everyone wants to be a teacher. You don’t have to have any real talent to teach, you just have to bring the talent out of others… and there’s so many of us ready to bring out that talent. Teachers are EVERYWHERE!”
“Look at me,” he said. He had a way of convincing you that anything was possible. He was mostly deaf, but loved music. He wrote strange erotic books of fables about animals. He was, in himself, quite a talent. As I looked at him, I wondered if he realized I knew all this about him. “You should sing if that’s what you want to do. Switch majors… or don’t major at all and follow that dream for a lot less money than this degree will cost you.”
And I almost listened. I was right there on that crossroads… when I had the car wreck of 1997. It changed me forever and stole too many dreams to count… but that is a story leading to so much self-disappointment and regret, it’s best saved for another day. I mean, my lunch break is only so long.
On a more positive bent, over the last few months, I’ve been slowly coaxing myself into putting together a set of badly strummed guitar tunes that I can try to sing and play in front of people. (This would be better with someone actually talented playing alongside, but the interest and talent necessary has not really reared its head, lol. My guitar playing sucks — Nerve damage is a bitch. ) Maybe an open mic? Maybe just sitting on the sidewalk in City Market? Maybe hidden behind the safety of the internet where trolls aren’t attacking you to your face… Who knows?
Wish me luck!