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I watched Mr. Hays work his way around our small classroom. Squinting and pointing, he would poise before each student. It was a technique of his I’d come to recognize after joining swing choir. When on the receiving end of that point it meant cease singing. By the time he stood in front of me the room was silent except for my voice. Mr. Hays was ‘hip’ – he had an aesthetic rarely seen around my town. Jet black shagged hair, ‘stash, and sideburns. Wide collared shirts, tight flared pants, and platform ankle boots. He walked with authority combined with a distinct swagger. His taste in music was just as hip, and to my naïve ears, borderline shocking. He introduced the class to Jesus Christ Superstar – a cataclysmic first for us. When I heard the name Jesus Christ set to music, I only had the Nazarene Church version in my head. This most certainly was not that. But it was beautiful.
“I want you to sing in the talent show.” His words brought me back to now. I’d finished my impromptu solo and was looking into his intense dark blue eyes. ”You have a really terrific voice which should be used, Eddie. Often.” Feeling my heart race and my palms sweat I began to explain I’d only sang solo at church but before I could finish, Mr. Hays cut me off. “I’ll accompany you on piano.” Well, that sealed the deal. One couldn’t, wouldn’t, and better not decline when Mr. Hays offered up his showman skills on the piano. Though I couldn’t even begin to mouth the word ‘no’, my head was already nodding YES.
Watching the student body fill the gymnasium was nothing less than terrifying. I’d made a terrible mistake agreeing to this. My prayers were playing over and over in my head. Everyone has their artistic ‘PROCESS’ and mine would be non-stop pacing and simultaneous praying: Oh, Dear Lord, Just let me get through this. And that’s it. I’ll never put myself in this position again…
I stopped pacing and praying just long enough to take another look at the assembly of students along the wooden benches. And that’s when I saw him. Micky Bishop. It was as though everything went star-filter and it was just Micky sitting on those bleachers. Could he see me watching him from across the gym? Of course he could. Micky Bishop was just one of those guys – the kind of guy that loved to pick on boys like me. Micky would somehow find me at lunch and with a couple of his buddies hoist me upside down and hang me from the stop sign on the corner across from the band rehearsal building. He’d tell me I couldn’t drop down until I counted to 10. I’d always count to 25 very slowly. This went on until Miss Dorsey happened by while I was hanging and asked what in the world was going on. I told her I was counting. She demanded I come down immediately. And though she never asked me why and I never said a word, she invited me along with a few other ‘misfits’ to eat lunch with her in an empty classroom for the remainder of that school year.
Once the talent show began and I started to breath a bit easier. The student body was giving great rounds of applause to the era’s amazing pop songs that we all heard over the airwaves. ‘Make Your Own Kind Of Music’ and ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ were sweetly received. I’d watch Little Jenny Burns making quick notes in her note pad while smiling big. Little Jenny Burns was curious about life and what made others tick. As I paced she paced next to me, writing away. Without saying a word to me, I knew she was making notes about my process. Panic attack anyone?
I was suddenly pulled back to talent show terror when the name of the next contestant was announced. It was Belinda. Everyone has probably known a Belinda. Timid, eccentric, completely misunderstood. The minute her name echoed across that gymnasium you could hear the dynamic shift. As I quickly began to pray again, this time for Belinda, she walked past me. She was wearing the coat with the fur collar… Kids can be cruel and that coat had been once passed around the classroom and everyone said it smelled like bacon. Only in the hottest months would you see Belinda without that coat. I’d long decided it was a defense tool that only she understood. A coat that looked like it belonged to someone’s grandmother. In her hand she was clutching a tambourine. I’d watched too many variety shows and thought, well. she’s perfect to be performing ‘Delta Dawn’ . Only it wasn’t ‘Delta Dawn’. It was her own composition. And standing in the middle of that gymnasium with head held high, eyes closed tight and banging that tambourine against her left leg, she started singing through that microphone “Put OUR WORLD back together again.” I’d love to say she had a beautiful voice, but she didn’t. And I’d also love to say the audience was gracious, but they weren’t. Through the whispers and giggles, Belinda kept right on slapping that tambourine. When someone threw loose change across the gymnasium floor I watched our principal, Mr. Briscoe, walk forcefully back and forth the opposite side of the gym. He was a wonderful man who had zero tolerance for anyone acting unkind. Decency is so underrated and he was a man who valued decency – kindness and decency. After she’d finished Belinda walked past me. I wanted to say “Good for you!” but the words wouldn’t come to me. I wished I’d said something. For years the expression on her face haunted me.
Mark had been very secretive with his musical selection. As he passed me, I saw he was carrying a wooden podium. I could sense artistic greatness. As it was announced Mark would be performing a medley from Godspell- ‘Day By Day’ and ‘Save the People’ a hush fell across the auditorium. The sweetness and purity of Marks voice! “To see thee more clearly…Love thee more dearly…Follow thee more nearly… “ It was suddenly replaced with frantic wailing…. And as Mark kicked over the podium, wood on wood cracked loudly, echoing through every inch of that gymnasium. ‘GOD SAVE THE PEOPLE!’ My eyes met with Little Jenny Burns. She had finally stopped writing in her note pad.
Then it was me. I followed Mr. Hays onto the floor and took my place in front of the microphone. I squinted from the brightness caused by the mid-afternoon sun. Great beams of golden light were shooting across the gym floor from the large windows above the heads of the assembled students. On a normal day, I would enjoy this beautiful filtered effect. This however was not a normal day. No matter how hard I squinted I could still see Micky Bishop pointing, laughing, slapping his buddies across their backs. I felt the heat rising from my cheeks, and once again I repeated my silent prayer: “ God, get me through this just one time and I’ll never do it again!” Maybe if I’d had a podium in front of me. Not to kick over the way Mark did, but to use as a shield. Why did I pick a girl song? ‘Rainy Days and Mondays was my current favorite and made complete sense at the time. But now I wasn’t sure. Like an out-of-body experience, I could hear Mr. Hays playing my introduction. “Talkin’ to myself and feelin’ old… Sometimes I’d like to quit… Nothin’ ever seems to fit… “ These lyrics were tailor made for me. This boy that wanted desperately to be perfect but was a hopeless failure. I don’t know where my voice came from in that moment but the first lines of that song filled the gymnasium, and then suddenly it was over. It’s blurred when the song ended and the applause began. This loud manic applause, echoing off the beams and hard wood floor. Everyone was standing! EVERYONE!!! Micky Bishop thrust both fists straight up over his head and smiled. I thanked God. Maybe I would do this again after all….