One of the most important days of my childhood came in sixth grade. There was a solo in chorus, and I was the kid giving it. I was chosen among several classes by my music teacher, who sensed my desire to be heard before I knew such a need even existed.
Because that day took place more years ago than I'd like to admit, I can't remember the song. But I do remember rehearsing in the wooden auditorium and standing in front of the whole sixth grade class, which occupied the risers behind me, all of us in an anxious and excited state of preparation for our upcoming concert. I remember the thrill of hearing my voice fill the room, and bouncing off rafters and reverberating off the walls and the floor.
Hearing my voice cut the silence for those few sustained moments, I felt, for the first time, what it was like to be powerful.
I was as surprised as anyone that I could carry a tune. Being the youngest of five in a busy household, on most days I could hardly rise above the din, much less hear my own melody. But my sixth-grade teacher, Miss Juanita Cooke, had heard it, and one day she drove me home from school to talk to my parents. She implored them to enroll me in a musical theater camp to help me develop my talents. My Pennysaver route paid for half of the tuition, which made it all the more dear.
The camp was on a beautiful, sprawling campus of art-filled buildings and state-of-the-art theater facilities. The roster was full of creative kids, some with professional training and experience. Although many were well beyond me in ability, being there at Miss Cooke's urging helped me feel confident and capable of uncorking talents I didn't know I had. The camp counselors were teachers from a New York City performing arts school, and they were demanding. Many of them were trying to hit it big themselves, and there was a heady professionalism in the air, not typical for a summer camp.
The seriousness of it felt right to me. We had disciplined classes in dancing, singing and acting. Judging each other and performing for each other helped us form bonds and feel compassion. And although life eventually crowded out time for me to pursue music and theater, looking back, I believe those passions defined me. I learned to balance being humble (God gave me those gifts) with accepting praise with grace. I learned to be a leader, whether it was during a solo in a concert or on stage in a play, and I learned you can't bring a character to life until you understand how they think and feel.
Miss Cooke reached deeply into me and brought my talents to the surface. She helped me define my career and my aspiration to help others be heard. I hope all children can have a similar teacher in their lives, someone who helps them find their own unique voice and discover what makes them whole.