Sometimes It Takes Cruelty to Awaken Us
I had performed the National Anthem at baseball games a few times that summer as a duet with my close friend, and as a trio with that friend and my sister. Each time we performed together we heard rave reviews. As we walked away from home plate toward the fence and the bleachers, our home team would come up out of the dugout to high five us.
When I was asked to perform the anthem by myself in mid-summer, I decided to challenge myself and go for it, even though it was scary to me. I practiced and practiced in the shower, in the car, and as I made dinner. I had been a professional vocalist for a couple of years, getting paid to perform in a few bands at small to medium sized venues, so I didn’t think it would be too different from those experiences.
Sure I was nervous, but not too nervous. After all, I was a professional musician!
That afternoon a wildfire had kicked up just north and west of our town, and the smoke was beginning to filter into the city and the valley east of the fire. By 6:45pm, when I arrived at the ballpark to sing at 7, with the first pitch scheduled for 7:05, the sky was an odd gray and yellowish color. I totally underestimated what that might do to my voice.
I walked confidently - all by myself - to home plate, as I had done with my friend and my sister a few times before, and adjusted the microphone to my mouth. I could feel my knees shaking, but took a few deep breaths to calm my nerves.
The last time I had performed the anthem with my friend at that ballpark, we had agreed that there wasn’t a huge hurry to begin. She said: “We start when we’re ready.” And we did. We took just a moment to look at each other, breathe deeply, and establish our starting note.
I did the same thing that evening, taking a moment to breathe and prepare myself.
…And the rocket's red glare
The bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there
Oh say does that Star Spangled banner yet wave?
As I lifted my head, pressed up slightly onto my toes to hit that high note:
O’er the land of the free (this is the high note)
And the home of the brave
my voice faltered and cracked. The smoke had done its damage. I hit the note, yes, but not well.
And the home of the brave.
I nailed that ending, but no one heard that part. They were still focused on that damaged note - free.
Walking back past the dugout, not a single ball player came out to high five me. Not a single one.
I made my way through the gate toward the bleachers and my son, who was 8 at the time, said:
Mom, I thought you were great.
Thanks, Max, but I know that high note didn’t quite work.
He looked down, scuffed the toe of his shoe against the ground, and said:
Yeah. I know.
He looked sheepishly up toward some women in the bleachers:
I heard them laugh and say stuff.
My face flushed. I was embarrassed for myself, but angry for him.
What did you think of that?
It made me angry. I know it’s hard to sing that song.
That’s right, Max. And if you hear something like that again, no matter who is performing, I would encourage you to say something like: “That’s rude. Could you do that? Could you sing the National Anthem all by yourself into a microphone on home plate to a stadium full of people?”
He smiled and told me he would do that next time.
The ballpark manager came up to me a moment later and mentioned he didn’t have a singer for the next evening’s game, and asked if I’d come back tomorrow. Everything in me said NO WAY... But I said yes. Max was standing next to me, and I knew if I said no, he’d see me giving up. I asked the manager: “You did just hear me, right? You heard me not quite hit that note?”
Yes, but the rest of the version was lovely, and I know you’ll be fine tomorrow.
So I did. I went back the next evening to redeem myself - for me, and for Max. And I nailed it.
It took me a while to recover from that experience, and to fully process my feelings about it. But at some point, as I remember blushing after hearing what Max said, the feeling of embarrassment and anger, I was transported to a moment just about a year before that, when I might have made someone feel that way.
I wasn’t snickering, I didn’t actually say anything to my friend next to me, but I do remember making faces with her as another woman was singing in front of us. I told myself she didn’t see us; I told myself she didn’t know what those expressions were about, but as I thought about my experience at the ballpark, I knew I was that woman in my recent past and resolved never to be there again.
What an awful realization.
Now, quite a few years later, I had an opportunity to shift this dynamic.
We were sitting in the bleachers of a stadium, watching our younger son graduate from high school, and the valedictorians took the stage to speak.
The first one began to speak and I could hear her voice trembling. Her tongue was tied a few times, and a few words got mixed up and didn’t make a lot of sense. There were at least 1,000 people in the audience, plus the 360+ graduates, the high school band, and all faculty and administrators.
From behind me, I heard:
Ugh… this does NOT give me much hope for the class of 2019.
I felt my face flush with embarrassment for the young woman on the stage, all alone with that microphone and over a thousand people watching and listening to her. I turned around:
Excuse me - there are at least a thousand people here watching and listening to this young woman on the stage with a microphone. I’m a professional speaker and this would make ME nervous. Could you do that without being nervous?
I turned back around, expecting our older son to be completely embarrassed by his mother’s comment to a total stranger., but he wasn’t. He smiled at me with encouragement and pride.
I didn’t notice the reaction of the people behind me, I just continued to look forward and listen to the speeches, and shouted with the rest of my family as our son’s name was called and he walked across the stage, a fresh, new high school graduate.
Have you been the one making faces, snickering, or whispering with friends while another human was performing or speaking? Do you ever think about whether you could be the one with the microphone, and if you could do better?
Life is difficult enough without the peanut gallery taking us down when we put ourselves out there, taking a risk and demonstrating vulnerability.
Maybe it’s time for all of us to grow up a little and choose to be supporting and encouraging instead.
Don’t you like yourself more when you encourage and support people?
Who would YOU rather spend time with, the person who snickers and makes fun of people, or the one who claps, smiles, and encourages people?