Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Not Just Another Pretty Voice

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've seen and heard all about Susan Boyle, the frumpy-looking 47-year-old woman whose singing knocked the socks off of the panel members on Britain's Got Talent. If you have been living under that rock, then you absolutely have to watch the YouTube video before you read another word.

And by the way, the term "frumpy-looking" modifies "47-year-old." They don't necessarily go together. My wife will be 47 in November, and is still a major league babe. In fact, I know a few 55-year-olds who are major babes. On the other hand, I know 20-somethings who are frumpy-looking.

But getting back to the main point, let's say it now and get it over with. She won because we didn't expect that voice to come out of that face and body. But what would've happened had she been "a looker?"

A friend of mine who's a music teacher said that Boyle has nice enough voice, but not necessarily better than any of the hundreds of kids she's had in her high school chorus over the past 10 years.

And she's right. Pretty voices are a dime a dozen. Some attractive 20 or 30-something, dressed nicely, and singing the exact same piece with the exact same voice, might not have even gotten a raised eyebrow from the panel. You expect people who you figure are right out of music school to be that good. But Susan Boyle had the perfect setup to make her stand out: the beautiful voice in the body of a frumpy-looking middle-aged woman. And it's exactly because of this setup that everyone is so amazed, and wishes her success.

Perhaps it's our perception of this "never been kissed" youngest of nine children, who stayed at home to take care of her ailing mother that has us rooting for her so much. To our minds, she never had a chance to get out there when she was younger, so let's give her the big one now. On the other hand, all those 20 and 30-somethings who are beating the pavement trying to get auditions and agents are still young yet, and have had plenty of other stuff in their lives (like boyfriends and girlfriends), so who really cares about them.

After seeing this video, one person wrote that he was "weeping over the years of wasted talent." That got me thinking about the millions of other people out there with beautiful voices who are living ordinary lives as doctors, teachers, pastors, steamfitters, whatever. People who maybe had their moment in the sun in their college choir, or who do community theater. Is this talent wasted because it never reaches millions? My friend Lonnie had a gorgeous voice, but rather than pursuing a career in music, is finishing up a doctorate in Nursing. Is her talent wasted? I don't think so, and I don't think that Susan Boyle's talent was wasted all these years by being shared only with people in her small town.

But we love a good Cinderella story, and Susan Boyle gave us one: the ugly duckling whose beautiful voice got her invited to the ball. And yet, as I've said many times already, it's worth noting that it's precisely because she's an "ugly duckling" that her voice was noticed.

Oh, and by the way, I can sing, and I'm 52. Does anyone want to invite me to the ball, even though I'm relatively good-looking?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Like A Kidney Stone

SPOILER ALERT: If you've never seen The Dead Poet's Society, and don't want the ending given away, skip this post until you've seen it. If you don't care about having a 20-year-old movie "ruined" for you, then go right on ahead.

Toward the end of The Dead Poet's Society, feeling that he can't escape the life planned out for him by his parents, Neil Perry commits suicide by shooting himself. The moment the sound of the gunshot is heard, most likely every person in the audience held his parents responsible, feeling that they just didn't get it.

I felt that way too, but there was someone else who I thought didn't get it - Neil. He, tragically, didn't get something that I understood from grade school: This too shall pass. Like a kidney stone, but it will pass.

This is what I thought all those times I was being bullied by Robert, John, Levi, or any of a number of bigger or stronger kids when I was in grade school. Somehow, I was able to step outside of myself, and look at the situation as a third party, thinking that in a few years they would "grow out of" their need to beat people up, and look back at how they treated me with shame.

This is what I thought when I was made fun of by the other kids, and none of the girls I was interested in would go out with me in high school. Again, somehow I was able to step outside of myself and say that in a few years they'd realize that the guy who wasn't cool enough and was way too geeky, was actually the better catch.

And this is what I thought as I chafed against some of the rules I didn't like from my parents. Even as far back as age 12, I took the long view, thinking "They may not let me do this now, but in six years, I can do whatever I want."

I was patient. With the bullies, with the girls, and with the rules. And I was right. Eventually the guys who were always waiting for me at the corner of Clinton Street and Melmore Gardens grew up and became productive citizens. Eventually the girls who thought I was too much of a dork married guys who were like me and wanted their kids to be like me. And eventually I moved out of my parents' house and didn't have to follow their rules anymore. I have to admit, however, that by the time this last thing happened, I didn't really care about flaunting most of those rules.

Neil didn't get it. He didn't get that he just had to wait it out another year or so, and then walk, to the consternation of his overly controlling parents. Instead, he gave himself a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

I teach grades 6 through 12, and middle school is a very ugly time for kids. High school isn't much better. With everyone trying to figure out where they fall in the social pecking order, they can be incredibly mean to each other. I wouldn't go back there for all the money in the world - unless I could take my 52-year-old brain with me, and then I'd be dangerous.

But there's one thing I want all of my students to know: that despite the horrible ways their classmates might treat them, and despite how limiting the rules of their parents may seem, this too shall pass. Like a kidney stone, but it'll pass.

It's really too bad that Neil didn't understand that, because once he got past that stone, he would've been a stronger person for it. I'd like to think that I am.

Oh, and while I'm ruining old movies for you, Rosebud is the sled.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Most Perfect Hunchback

When I was in grade school, my mother gave me a set of books that have to have had an effect on the warped sense of humor I have now. Sick Jokes, More Sick Jokes, and Still More Sick Jokes had both my sister and I laughing hysterically, and I have to admit that thanks to those books I still love a good "Helen Keller" joke.

In fact, I was telling Helen Keller jokes as I was wheeled in for my own eye surgery over 30 years ago. I figured that if I couldn't tell the jokes then, then I had no right to ever tell them at all.

But aside from the many Helen Keller and "Sheldon" jokes, one other joke stuck in my mind for years. It's the one about the preacher and the hunchback:
The Sunday gospel-shouter was in great form.

"Everything God made is perfect," he preached.

A hunchback rose the rear of the auditorium. "What about me?"

"Why," said the preacher, "you're the most perfect hunchback I ever saw!"
In that joke is a bit of truth about how some (but not all) Christians look at certain types of deformities and abnormalities. Unable to reconcile their beliefs that everything God does is perfect with the obvious imperfections some people have, they come up with convoluted logic like that of the preacher in that joke.

And this brings me to "Terry."

Now, to be fair, most Christians do accept the fact that some people are born with deformities and abnormalities that need to be addressed. That's why there are so many church-related hospitals in this country, and why there are so many missionary hospitals in other countries. And had Terry been born with a cleft palate, a heart defect, or one leg shorter than the other, he could've not only found help at one of these hospitals, but support from the many congregations that support them. In those cases they could accept the fact that sometimes God would let mistakes happen. But that wasn't Terry's defect.

Terry said that he was born the wrong sex, and wanted to have surgery to become Terri.

From the time when he was a child Terry felt that something was wrong, and that he was supposed to be a girl. He sat on this and fought it for 30 or 40 years, and then decided to do something about it, to fix what to him seemed like obvious mistake. But even almost 50 years after George Jorgensen made news with the surgeries that turned him into Christine, there was still a lot of resistance to the idea of sex reassignment surgery, particularly among Christians.

People who would never have told someone with a heart defect that the problem was "all in their mind" and that they should get counseling and pray about it, were saying exactly that to Terry. Yet, what is easier to change, the function of a brain or the physical structure of the body? I'm no biologist, and I don't play one on TV either, but as we learn more about the effects of hormones on all parts of the developing fetus, including the brain, it becomes clear that sometimes things don't always go right, mismatching brain and physical sexual assignment.

Despite this, there are still people out there who are effectively saying that Terry is "the most perfect hunchback they've ever seen."

I haven't seen Terry in about 10 years, but I'm hoping - and praying - that she's not a hunchback any longer.