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Thursday, January 2, 2014

I was not a shy child. From an early age, I’d walk up to another child I didn’t know, introduce myself, and suggest playing together. I talked readily to adults, and was always interested in hearing their stories and having a conversation with them about one thing or another. In school, I frequently had my hand in the air, ready to give an answer, which I generally knew, although on occasion I was wrong. I didn’t mind terribly if I wasn’t called upon to give an answer, because I well knew that we had to take turns, and everyone else deserved a chance too. But I minded terribly if I had a question, and was not given the chance to pose it. Some of my questions, I now realize, were philosophical in nature, although at the time I asked them, I expected that there was a clear factual answer. In fourth grade, I asked Sister Kenneth how it was that if we had committed a mortal sin and died without going to Confession, we were consigned to Hell forever, but Jesus said that if we believed in him, we would never die, which meant we’d get to go to Heaven. I wanted to know, which was true – Heaven or Hell? It was a great disappointment to me when she said that it was a divine mystery. But I was not deterred from asking further odd questions. 

I didn’t have stage fright either. I was quite comfortable on the stage during our dance recitals when I was taking tap dancing lessons during my kindergarten year. I was particularly pleased to get more stage time when my cousin and I were chosen to hold either side of a tissue paper-covered hoop which a ballerina from the big kids’ ballet class would jump through to begin her performance. And in school, I was happy to be in the talent show, during which I wore a red, white and blue cardboard top hat, and sang, all by myself on the big stage, “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.” I liked singing, and was much better at it than at tap dancing, which I stopped right after kindergarten. And I always hoped to be cast in a play. Alas, in my school years, they always passed me over, although I knew I would do quite well interpreting a character’s emotions.

But although I was not shy, I was quiet. I was as comfortable listening as I was talking, but when I spoke, I spoke quietly. I didn’t learn how quiet I was until I started school, and a succession of teachers admonished me, “Speak up, Kathleen!” And when I did make an effort to speak up, I frequently found that a teacher would say, “We still can’t hear you.” It was an ongoing struggle, and I still tend to speak quietly as my default. Being louder generally takes a conscious effort.

So perhaps it is surprising, although it wasn’t so to me, that in eighth grade, I wanted to be a singer when I grew up. My family sang a lot when I was little. When we needed to drive a distance to get anywhere, we always sang in the car, and I knew lots of songs – “ That Old Gang of Mine,” “Pack up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,” “Me and My Shadow,” “My Darling Clementine,” “We Ain’t Got a Barrel of Money.” By eighth grade, I had moved on to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Barbara Streisand, Roy Orbison, the Dave Clark Five. But that year, I decided I wanted to be an opera singer.  I hadn’t had a piano lesson since fifth grade, but I still tried to teach myself new songs, and had found in one of our piano books at home a simplified version of “Mon Coeur Ouvre a Ton Voix” from the opera “Samson and Delilah.” Ah, yes! That was worth whatever years of study it would take, and I’d been studying French  since third grade, so everything would work out well. Although I was still being encouraged to speak up at school, when I was at home alone and no one else could hear me, I sang really loud. So it could work for me to be an opera singer. Maybe.

But different dreams intervened, and I put the opera singer ideas aside for 38 years, until 2002, when I talked my husband into going with me so we could audition for the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Chester County to be in the chorus of a production of “Trial by Jury.” When they said yes – to both of us – my youthful grandiosity returned, and I became, however belatedly, a chorus girl.

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