From grammar school through high school, I was incredibly fortunate to have excellent teachers. Amazing teachers. People who were in the profession for all the right reasons, and gifted as mentors and educators. There were a few duds in the bunch, but overall, I look back and know that I was very lucky.
For me, teachers were the people who really saw me. They drew things out of me I either didn’t know I was capable of, or secretly wanted to share and had never had the courage. They became my personal cheerleaders, my advisors, and the guardians of my self esteem.
My first instinct has always been to doubt myself, and I have only very recently started to break that pattern. It will be a lifelong struggle, and was no doubt a daunting task to those who taught me when I was younger. But as I look back, I know that these men and women each helped me improve the way I saw myself, each laying a brick, building more and more of a foundation for me to trust and believe in myself.
People who know me now are astonished and unbelieving that I was ever shy or introverted. Although in quiet moments on my own I still have doubts, I can easily speak in front of a crowd any size, and hold my own in any social situation. This definitely wasn’t the case, even nearly, until my freshman year of high school.
From the age of five I had taken dance classes, and by the time I was in junior high, I was in a dance studio four nights a week. Then, a knee injury sidelined things for me, and I was a bit lost. A teacher recommended I sign up for the speech and debate team at school, and when I balked at the idea, I was signed up, whether I liked it or not. I wasn’t a debater, and instead competed in the division of Dramatic Interpretation.
Mr.Kirkman was my teacher and coach, and brought out excellence from what I remember as a pretty rag tag group. So many different personalities in the room-- most inexperienced-- but he somehow found a way to reach each of us. Remarkably, he taught a girl scared of the sound of her own voice to act, to compete, and to win.
While I had found moments of confidence in my life at that point, nothing compared to what was building within me. I only realize now why it all was so important.
I never quite knew what or who I was coming home to growing up. My parent’s troubled marriage consumed them, and the mood at home could be warm and somewhat normal, tense and quiet, or explosive and angry. At times, I know that there wasn’t a great deal of thought behind things that were said, but the lasting impression of several phrases has never left me.
My father is an incredibly engaging and charming man. Everyone who meets him loves him. He is a master story teller, and never meets a stranger. But for various reasons, he has never been able to connect with me in a healthy way, and his words have at times been incredibly damaging, whether this was his intention or not.
As I began competing with the speech and debate team, I started listening to the soundtracks for broadway musicals almost nonstop at home and everywhere else I got a chance. I longed to take my dramatic talent further, and wished more than anything to have the voice of a soprano, and a lead role in any musical.
I expressed this at home, ad nauseam, I am sure. And maybe other things were said that I don’t remember. But amidst the fighting and unhappiness between my parents, the doubts about my musical ability were clearly expressed to me. My father, always the jokester, made funny comments about my singing voice that stung.
I accepted his opinion as truth. And honestly, with that opinion behind me, I did sing terribly. At one point, I even took voice lessons from a local coach. But, I had no confidence in my abilities, and the coach I worked with wasn’t incredibly encouraging. I dropped the classes after four sessions.
Over the years, as I found success in Dramatic Interpretation competitions, and learned and grew, I got involved in some theater productions, but believed that I wasn’t leading role material. Not in the way I wanted to be.
When I moved on to college, I studied acting, but didn’t seem to be finding my way to any major productions on campus.
By coincidence, Mr. Kirkman was living and teaching in the same city where I attended college. During those years, he was as much a therapist as a friend, and was part of a small group of people I knew I could depend upon in the world. He was frequently on stage himself with a local community theater group, and had encouraged me to audition for some upcoming musicals. My immediate response was that I couldn’t sing.
He pushed me. How did I know I couldn’t sing, really? It was all about confidence, he told me. I remember him saying that I couldn’t use that excuse until I really gave it my all, with conviction. I had to believe in myself enough to try 100%. Then if I did all that and sounded horrible, he promised to be honest with me.
Over the next few weeks, he chose a song for me, helped me find the sheet music and a piano player to play and tape the song for me to practice with. We talked on the phone, and I know that my insecurities and endless “I cant’s” must have driven him crazy. But he remained a slow steady voice of support and faith in me. He never wavered.
After weeks of practice, we agreed to meet so he could gauge how things were going.
I don’t remember all of the details. I don’t know what time we met exactly, and I can’t remember the name of the school where he taught at that time. But, I remember the important things.
We met in the theater at his school. I had my tape of the music, and I stood on the stage alone, the rest of the room darkened, and Mr. Kirkman stood in the aisle. I couldn’t get my courage to even start. He encouraged me, coaxed me, and finally bellowed from the aisle for me to go already.
The music started and my heart was pounding so loud, I was positive he could hear it across the room. The first words came out soft, but clear, and if not perfect, better than I had ever sung before.
I will never forget his expression with just those first notes. It was happiness, some surprise, and pride. With every word my voice got stronger, louder, and clearer. He was jumping around in the aisle, so excited for me. In that moment I realized that I might be capable of so many things that I had thought impossible, if I could just believe in myself. It was an incredibly powerful moment in my life.
When I hit the last note, Mr. Kirkman asked me, with great exuberance, What are you going to do if they offer you the lead? I giggled and found myself dancing around in place. I answered him, I guess I’ll take it!
I did in fact get offered the lead in one musical that summer, and one of four lead roles in another.
The reason that moment-- when I found my voice-- was so important was not only because I learned I could sing and realized a dream. It was significant because this thing that I had grown to believe as a FACT for my whole life- that I could NOT sing- was reversed in a matter of weeks by someone believing in me, and making me believe in myself. I had this talent all along, and the ONLY thing holding me back was negative words I was taking to heart and turning into my own beliefs. My whole world got turned upside down that day. I suddenly realized that a million other things I thought were impossible for me might be within my grasp.
Mr. Kirkman and I remain in touch and friends to this day. And though I sense he knows some of the impact he has made on my life—I have thanked him for many things—I doubt he knows the full picture. With every note I sang on stage that summer, I found another piece of me. I would stand in the wings each night before a scene and have to pinch myself, that I- me!- was doing this amazing thing I never thought in a million years I could ever do.
And from then on and to this day, when I start to hear doubt creeping in my mind about something I want to try or do, I close my eyes and take myself back to that day in that high school theater, just as the music started, and I find my voice all over again.