One of the things I love about Christmas, of course, is the music. I love it all—the fun, seasonal stuff and also the beautiful carols that celebrate the birth of an infant king. Because these songs are repeated each year, I find that they grow in meaning. Each year adds another layer of significance as my own lived experience creates new dimensions and impact for me.
I was teaching a voice lesson recently, listening to the pure, beautiful voice of a beloved student sing, O Holy Night.
That’s always been one of my favorite songs, and it’s figured several times in important spiritual awakenings I’ve had. But whenever I hear it, there’s one experience I always relive, one I hope I’ll not ever forget.
I grew up with a large extended family. We lived near both sets of grandparents, and I had lots of aunts, uncles, and cousins. We got together frequently and I have very happy memories of those gatherings. One of the big events each year was the Christmas party, something that was often rotated from home to home given the size and demands of entertaining.
My maternal grandmother loved music. My aunts were the same, and they frequently sang together. Because of that, we always had lots of singing at these gatherings, everything from quartets to solos, and the evening almost always featured a talent show.
One year, when I was probably sixteen or seventeen, it was my family's turn to host the party. We had dinner and then gathered near the piano for the music. I sang that night. I don’t remember what it was, but I had been taking voice lessons for some time, and I do remember that it was somewhat demanding and difficult. I remember being quite pleased with my technique and performance and sat down, feeling that I was quite the rising star, a pro among well-meaning, talented amateurs.
For reasons I’ve never entirely understood, my grandma’s neighbor/best friend and her husband always came to our family gatherings. This year, was no different in that the gentleman came. If memory serves, I think he had recently lost his wife, so it must have been a very tender and painful time for him.
That year, I think for the first time, he decided to join in the talent show. I don’t remember him doing that previously, but perhaps I am wrong. Regardless, this year he decided to sing, “O Holy Night.”
This isn’t an easy song. It’s quite long, and was written for a trained voice. It requires tremendous breath control and a serious range.
This gentleman was not a trained, or even experienced, singer. He started the song, singing in a weak, quivering voice. I remember a slightly uncomfortable feeling settling over the crowd. It seemed clear that this was going to be a struggle for him. I think my cousins, my sister, and I exchanged some wide-eyed “this-is-awkward” glances that teens specialize in.
Being a teen, and therefore being gifted with supreme overconfidence, I smiled benignly, but was fairly condescending in my inner assessment. I wasn’t cruel, but I was certainly aware of how far he fell below my own lofty standards.
Partway during the song, he stopped singing--just froze. I think his voice cracked and then he got nervous, then got lost. The song is quite long and a bit repetitious, so it’s easy to do.
The poor man stood frozen in front of this large group of people with panic in his eyes. I do remember that very clearly. Now that I’m older I also realize that he had something else in his eyes: shame. He felt foolish but didn’t know what to do or how to proceed.
No one else knew what to do either. It felt tense and awkward. I remember looking down at the ground, feet scuffling, people fidgeting, etc. A few people fixed encouraging smiles on their faces.
The awkward silence grew to an unbearable level. Then my dad jumped up. He ran over, put his arm around this man and joined in the chorus: “Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices….”
Dad has a nice voice but he's not a trained singer or anything. He didn’t generally perform solos in public, so it wasn’t like this was in his comfort zone. But he started singing and the man joined him. They finished the song together and there was thunderous applause.
All my smug, self-aggrandizing thoughts were gone. I was a knuckle-headed, clueless teen in many ways. And my dad often drove me crazy at that age. But even I knew something special had happened.
By the end of the song, that man’s face had changed. He smiled and practically glowed. I’m sure it wasn’t because he felt he had done an amazing job. I’m sure he was aware of just how far he’d fallen short. I believe that he smiled because he felt loved. Because someone else had reached out to help him, and was invested and caring enough to stand there and finish the song with him, word for word, note for note.
My dad gave that man more than a hand. He gave him an arm around his shoulder. He gave him his dignity, far more effectively than any well-meant words could have.
Angel voices, indeed.
I hope everyone had a wonderful break this summer. I disconnected from just about everything and it was wonderful! Now that school is back I hope to resume writing this newsletter a few times a month.
I want to give a special welcome my new subscribers. The folks at the Washington Post were kind enough to publish a piece I wrote recently about the difference between unkindness and bullying and why it matters. It appears to have resonated and has had more shares, re-tweets, and likes than anything else I've ever written, so I've had a lot of new people sign up for this newsletter. I'm glad to have you here and I hope it will be useful for you.
Many years ago, I was having some trouble with the management of my classes. I confided in an older teacher whose classes were perfectly behaved. She smiled and said, "It's very simple. When I started teaching, they told me, 'Be a witch from the time school starts until Thanksgiving.' After that, they'll do what you say and you can lighten up a bit." This was pretty standard advice back when she started teaching in the late 60s/early 70s. Looking back, I can certainly see how my own teachers practiced this.
For the record, I don't believe in being harsh or mean at any time. But beneath that, there is a kernel of very helpful wisdom for parents.
However they articulate it, veteran teachers know that the first few weeks of school are critical. School is new, there is some excitement, and everyone is ready to for a new start, so minds and hearts are flexible.
This time can be used to establish routines and get students in good habits. It can be tempting to want to ramp up slowly, but jumping in and getting everyone acclimated is probably going to be a better choice. It is so much easier to start from the beginning and then moderate things if needed than it is to try to change habits and patterns that are set.
As my more experienced colleague new, it is always easier to relax things than to tighten them up.
So if there are things you think your child needs to work on--more chores at home, earlier bedtime, better study habits, picking things up, being more respectful, sharing, new limits on screen time--this is probably a great time to do that. I realize it might seem overwhelming. But chances are that your child is in the mode of new beginnings and might have more emotional and mental elasticity. Once routines and patterns become habits, it's much more difficult to make changes.
So, if you haven't done so, you might give some thought to things you want to help your child address. Start right from the beginning. It truly is a very good place to start. The biggest caution I have is this: don't try to do too much. Better to do a few things well than many things halfway.
The other thing that is very new, and worth some effort, is your relationship to your child's teacher. I've written a lot about this subject before (for example, here) and I don't want to rehash too much. I do think it's worth reiterating a few key points.
1. Good teachers work well beyond (sometimes very far beyond) their contractual obligations. It's true they are paid for their work but they don't get overtime or bonus pay, and they are paid for very little. So almost any time they get in the zone where they are changing lives, you can be almost positive they are not being paid. In fact, the more they do, the less they make to some extent. This is one reason teachers burn out so quickly and easily.
2. Teachers don't go into teaching to make money. Chances are your child's teacher went into education because s/he wanted to make a difference, loved a particular subject, and/or loves kids. Most of what really motivates them is emotional in nature.
3. If a teacher feels that s/he is accomplishing those objectives--touching lives, instilling love for a subject, helping someone--that teacher will feel energized, and motivated.
4. Thus, anything you can do to help motivate and energize your child's teacher will likely yield dividends for your child.
There's more to explain here, some complicated dynamics that you can use to your child's benefit if you understand them--but I'll save that for later. Suffice it to say, the sooner you reach out, the better. Start creating emotional capital with your child's teacher now.
Happily, it does not take a lot of time or ingenuity to do this. Send a short note when your child's teacher does something thoughtful or that shows dedication. Handwritten is lovely, but email is fine. This truly can be the work of a few minutes! If you can honestly do so, tell your child's teacher you are so happy your child got assigned to their class (even better--if you can, add why you are happy). Is the teacher famous for having a great sense of humor? Good rapport with students? A love of literature? A knack for bringing writing skills out? Dedication? Years of service? Lovely penmanship? Try to find something. It just needs to be enough to start the relationship on a good foot.
I know you are busy. But if you can, please try to show up to parent's night events. This will help show that you are serious about education and that you don't see yourself as being above the rules. There is very little that will set a teacher's teeth on edge faster than someone who signals, I'm above all this.
We're all busy. Teachers understand. So if you can't make it, send a quick email, apologize, explain why (make sure it's a good reason) and say that you invite any guidance or suggestions the teacher has. The main thing is to avoid not showing up, never communicating, and then suddenly swooping in when you have a complaint.
IMPORTANT: With both teachers and administration, one of the most important ways to have influence is to never let your first communication be a complaint or concern.
Try to realize that your child's teacher has a huge wealth of experience that can be enormously beneficial. I was talking to a friend the other day. She's an experienced teacher, but is still younger than many of the parents of the students she teaches. Moreover she does not have her own children. She was telling me that she doesn't feel the parents of her students always take her very seriously.
Those parents are missing an opportunity. After only a few years of teaching, a teacher will have seen hundreds of students in that age bracket. After five kids, I might have more experience as a parent, but even a very young teacher will know far more than I do about the age group they teach.
They will have a very good idea of developmental milestones and challenges in that age group. They can tell you if something is a simple matter of letting time and maturity work their magic. They know what sort of things might require more intervention--parental or professional. If the former, they can give a good sense of what solutions have helped other families. If the latter, they might know good professionals to refer. They can always give reassurance, guidance, and be wonderful allies.
Letting a teacher know you are committed, that you are excited, that you are reasonable and that you are open to advice and candor will pay off. As I said, more detail on this later. For now, all it takes to start is a short note (or email) and attending parent's night.
Note: I'm in NYC this week, attending plays and soaking up the ambience of old Broadway, supported by a very generous grant. I'm posting my thoughts for anyone who might be interested.
Today I witnessed magic. Yes the carpet flew Aladdin and Jasmine around the stage. Yes, Jafar melted and the Genie did any number of other magic tricks. But that wasn’t the magic I’m talking about.
I sat in the gorgeous interior of the New Amsterdam Theatre, restored to its Zeigfeldian glory. Not everyone loves Disney but they did a tremendous service in restoring that place. It housed legendary performers—Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, Marilyn Miller. I had to chuckle when I realized that most of the time, the chorus in family-friendly Aladdin wore costumes that would not have been terribly out of place in the Follies). And, more recently, it saw the premiere of The Lion King, which has become a theatrical force of nature.
A ten-year old boy sat next to me, singing show tunes as we waited for the show to start. He’s attending a performing arts camp in NJ. His mom seemed a bit wary of me until I told her I taught theatre and directed plays. I was okay after that. Tourists who spoke a rainbow of languages filled in around a woman who has lived in NYC all her life (from her accent, I think Queens, maybe the top of Brooklyn). She was taking her grandson to the show
There I am, a middle-aged theatre teacher from Tennessee. I don’t know any of these people and will never see them again. But for 2.5 hours we shared a powerful experience. We laughed. We clapped. Many of us couldn’t help but hum along. I will admit I teared up at the end a bit, to my surprise. We all willed the Genie to take an encore after “Friend Like Me.” We ooh-ed and applauded when the carpet flew Aladdin and Jasmine around the stage, hitting our cues like we were part of the show. That’s because we were. That’s the beauty of theatre. It happens in the moment, a collaboration where the audience informs and helps it. And in that process, theatre brings people together, weaving disparate, diverse people with divergent lives and experiences into a single tapestry. Together we experience human emotion—laughter. Tears. Delight. Awe.
Many faiths have a holy rite known as Communion. My own faith has this, and I participate fervently each week in an attempt to touch God. But in the theatre, I experience another form of communion where I touch humanity. In a world where we seem to multiply ways to find divisions, where we seem to delight in minimizing the feelings of others, where we find ways to invalidate and isolate, to label and de-humanize, there is something refreshing—almost sacred--about sharing emotions together. A potluck of the soul, perhaps, where we all contribute and then consume. It's something I think we could have more of, a beneficial tonic.
I will never see the grandma from Queens again, or the little boy from the theatre camp. I’ll never see the tourists from other countries. But I’m more human and richer for having spent some time communing with them. And I can't help but feel elevated for the experience.
Another form of magic I saw was the Genie. He’s making his Broadway debut, out-sparkling and outshining every sequin, rhinestone, and gem on that stage. It’s truly remarkable to watch him, both because it’s a phenomenal, high octane performance and because there is a special joy in the fact that it’s his dream come true, as his bio notes.
I have no idea what his path was, what obstacles he faced and conquered, but I have to imagine there were many. I don’t know him, but he’s my hero now. He’s the one I shall think of when I go back to school, sit in the auditorium and try to coax and coach my beloved young students into using their upstage hand, singing with their head voice, projecting to the back row, cheating out, being quiet backstage, etc. Dreams do come true, and magic does happen. However, one of the things I loved about the show was that you could see the characters sweating. I know that sounds weird. But there’s a realness, a gritty human truth about that. It’s hard work, performing like that. It’s hot under the lights. You’re doing a serious cardio work out for 2.5 hours, and there’s the need to project your emotions and soul out to an audience of 1700 people!
I like the sweat because it reminds me that magic happens, but only with hard, hard work. And kudos and congratulations to Major Attaway for making the magic happen. The glitter you wore in your makeup and the lights that followed you onstage were not half as brilliant as your work. Bravo, sir! Bravo and many, many encores.
Learning the healer's art: Why I will give awkward hugs, say too much of the wrong thing, dance when I am lame and sing when I am tone deaf.
I went to a funeral a while back. It was difficult: the kind of funeral that came far too soon and left far too many people behind. It really hit me hard, reminding me how fleeting and fragile life is, and how important relationships are.
Because it was a colleague at my school, the people who attended were almost all people I knew, people from past and present. After the funeral I went around and hugged nearly everyone I saw. I felt awkward about it. I'm sure I seemed awkward, but it felt important to me to connect in some way. Having just had a reminder of the extreme fragility of life and the speed with which it ends, I felt the need to physically, tangibly connect with those I knew and cared about. It felt urgent for them to know I cared about them. Connection seemed more important than the awkwardness.
I grew up with a terrible fear of being awkward, of not being smooth and easy. I feared that my personality was off-putting and intense, my voice too full of energy and emotion, my laugh too frequent and loud. I wanted to be smooth and polished, but feared I was probably not. I wanted to be Cary Grant, but realized I was probably closer to Ethel Merman or Jimmy Durante. I likely would have been a huge success as a Vaudeville performer.
However the Vaudeville era is over. So I started trying to learn to be quiet and pull back a bit. This is not necessarily bad. Having a sense of time and place, trying to listen to others, working to not hijack conversations, or monologue like a super-villain at the end of the the movie--these are good things. I believe in trying to improve and grow; I've always felt that it is self-indulgent to do otherwise. It is something I still struggle with, something I work on constantly. I often leave conversations realizing that I over-shared or over-laughed or over-many-other-things and am usually trying to calibrate appropriately.
I learned to accept this and work with it. Big personalities can be work well in some venues. I focused on trying to find those and on cultivating the friendships that seemed to withstand that larger-than-life lack of smoothness. I shrugged everything else off. This was okay until a few years ago.
I had a beloved colleague, now retired. She is one of the most amazing people I've ever known, the most empathetic, loving, encouraging, supportive person I've met, and many others would say the same thing. For decades, she was sort of the Mother Confessor of students, parents, and teachers alike. Her tireless ear heard countless troubles and she always knew the right thing to say. Her gentle voice encouraged countless people to keep going. She was the quiet in the storm for many, many, many people. I was among those who benefitted from her warmth and care. As she neared retirement age I looked around and realized that there was no heir-apparent. I didn't know who would fill her role--a role I saw as being critical to a middle school.
I decided someone needed to follow her. So I decided to try. This was not because I felt qualified. Far from it. But it seemed to me that the students deserved someone trying to do this. At least I could make an effort in this regard. If someone better came along, wonderful. Until then, I'd do the best I could. It was like the cafeteria stopped serving prime rib. All I could offer was ground beef, but it was better than nothing, I reasoned.
I started trying to listen. I started trying to look for those who were struggling. I started trying to encourage and give hope. I started trying to respond with empathy, warmth, and compassion to everyone I met.
I italicize trying because this was not natural to me. I don't pretend to be good at it. But the effort changed my heart. It honestly changed my aspirations, transforming what I want to do and who I want to be. I want to be a healer, an encourager, a confidante. I want to be actively empathetic, compassionate, and kind. That became my truest, deepest, and most consistent desire and I started trying to reach out beyond my little corner of the world.
There was only one snag: my awkwardness. Deep down, as I tried to reach out and do these things, I feared that my efforts were clumsy and clunky. I felt I was doing the equivalent of trying to dance an emotional ballet in hiking boots. Still I persisted, hoping I wasn't quite as inept as I feared, trusting that good intentions might smooth over awkward execution.
My fears were confirmed a few years back when a Facebook friend made a comment to the effect that I had a big heart but came off in awkward ways. The person intended no harm, indeed, was actually trying to help me. And, in all honesty, the statement is true. The person had no way of knowing just how much I feared this exact thing, or for how long I'd struggled with it. Still, even with no malice, having someone I respected publicly articulate my worst fear covered me with icy shame. I froze.
It was ironic to come to the point where I no longer cared about the stuff we usually worry about, the normal markers of success. I didn't care about money or influence or being a famous author or anything. I just wanted to be kind and warm. But my personality, with it's lack of limits, it's constant state of being too-much-something, now created a barrier to what I wanted to accomplish. I think beyond that, we don't often conceptualize men as healers or nurturers, and so that likely contributed to this general clunkiness.
For a while, I just stopped trying, paralyzed by that shame, by the knowledge that I was, indeed, awkward and probably ridiculous.
But my shame and lack of deftness did not make people stop hurting. The fact that I was unskilled did not provide comfort to those around me. Certainly my inaction helped no one.
There were still people who needed help. I didn't have much, I wasn't all that they needed or deserved, but it felt selfish to not try to reach out, even if I knew I was lacking.
So, I continued my efforts in real life, with students and parents, with people at church, sometimes online, but I did so with a sense of shame and embarrassment. Each effort to reach out made me feel foolish, like a child who was dressed up in some strange mix of his parents' clothes that didn't fit and didn't match.
The reality is that I don't have many skills. I'm not handy in a way that allows me to fix people's cars or help with home repair projects. I'm not wealthy, so I can't write checks to good causes. Some people always know what to say, seem to know intuitively how to listen, or see what needs to be done to help. I am not one of them. Emotionally, I want to sing, but know I'm often tone deaf.
This leaves me with a choice. I can allow myself to be defined by what I am not; I can surrender to the shame and constant sense of being ridiculous. That would simply involve being quiet, something that is safe, comfortable, and natural for an introvert.
But the world is a difficult place. There are so many rifts and wounds and battles. Our times cry out for people who want to heal, who want to bind and repair, who want to make peace. I know and admire some people who do this well, but they have so much to do. So I guess I need to step up, even if I can't do it smoothly or with perfect-pitch. I can't be Cary Grant. So my choice, I suppose, is to try to be encouraging and empathetic. Even if I'm Ethel Merman I can try to encourage, try to reach out, try to listen, and help.
I can only do what I can do, but our world seems to grow harsher, less civil, more unforgiving and unkind. We need healers and soothers, speakers of peace and softness to individuals and groups. Connection seems more important than fearing awkwardness. I've come to the point where I fear not trying more than I fear being ridiculous. The hope that I can be helpful or encouraging to another human is greater than my shame at what I lack.
Forgive me if I overshare, over-praise, over-do. Forgive me if I don't listen well, if I say too much, too loudly, too often. Forgive me when I give awkward hugs at funerals (note: given the fact that I'm a big guy I have started asking before I give a hug. That feels awkward sometimes but I am trying to reach out while still respecting people's space and autonomy.) I will risk saying too much, or the wrong thing, when I try to encourage people. I will go visit people in the hospital even though I don't know what to say. I'll try to find little ways to reach out to struggling people even if it doesn't really help.
Our world needs kindness, compassion, gentle hearts, listening ears, and encouraging words. Our world, and the individuals therein, need healers. Soothers. Builders. Unfortunately, neither saints nor angels seem to be available for the job.
Today was a very long day. I love my job, I really do. But, as with any job, there are some days or weeks that are long. This week was one of them. And this day was even moreso. There’s a great deal going on right now in just about every area of my job description, including a rapidly advancing winter concert.
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