At a quarter to six, my daughter Katie’s elementary school was a humming beehive of activity, swirling with girls in sparkly dresses and boys with ties askew, running up and down the halls in a reckless, yule-inspired sugar frenzy. Yes, it was the night of the annual Christmas program, where proud mamas and papas would stand in the audience and watch their combed and bedazzled progeny enthusiastically belting out slightly off-key versions of The Twelve Days of Christmas and Feliz Navidad while having their photos snapped by an exultant crowd of parental paparazzi.
I had received a call earlier in the day from Katie’s teacher’s aide, reminding me about the program and giving me a few tips for Katie’s last minute coaching. She’d been flipping her hair out of her face over and over during rehearsals, so perhaps I could pull it up for the evening so she wouldn’t flip herself off of the bleachers. And could I remind her not to play with her sweater sleeves during the performance? Other than that, she assured me, Katie was doing great–she’d sung out with gusto at practice and had even done all the hand motions in perfect time with the rest of the class. I assured her that I would have Katie pressed and ready and at her classroom door at 5:45, and we hung up.
Ten minutes later, Katie bounded off the bus, full of excitement and begging me to help her “get more Christmas-y!” This last was accomplished with the loan of a cherished snowflake pin from my jewelry box, which I pinned on her glittering sweater, an acceptable substitute for her first request–to have her fingernails painted in alternating red and green. After putting her hair in pigtails, checking cheeks and hands for residual lunch particles, and gently reminding her not to fidget with her sweater, we bundled up and headed off to Katie’s debut school performance.
In the passenger seat on the way there, I sent up a quick prayer that she would do well, remember her songs, and, above all, not get scared up there in the spotlight. In my imagination, there was a distinct possibility that she would just burst into tears from nervousness and not be able to pull herself together. I guess I needn’t have worried about the little girl who declared to us just a few days ago that her future ambition was to become a Rock Star Princess.
The school was a circus of light and sound. While Paul drove off in search of parking, I took Katie’s hand and worked my way through the teeming crowd to deposit her safely in her classroom, where she was delightedly greeted by her classmates. They did some quick warmup activities and then lined up to walk to the gym. I trailed along behind them, enjoying the anticipation in the air, and slid into my seat in the back row next to Paul and Caleb just as the curtains went up.
Katie was standing at the end of the second row of the bleachers. Grandpa, who was standing in the back of the auditorium with his digital camera, found her easily and started snapping away. Two or three minutes were designated as a photo op before the actual singing started, and the kids obliged camera-wielding moms and dads with dimpled preening and schmaltzy antics that would’ve made The Little Tramp proud. Katie waved and grinned with the rest of them, and I let out a small breath I’d been holding as I saw that she wasn’t cowed in the least by the large and adoring audience.
Then the lights lowered, and the kids started singing. Or, more accurately, some of the kids started singing. Our Katie, who had been relentlessly serenading us with Christmas songs at home and in the car for the past three weeks, did not sing a single word for the entire length of the performance. What she did do was this:
She turned her body away from the music teacher and directed all of her considerable attention and devotion to the audience seated in the right hand side of the cafeteria. She smiled. She wrinkled her nose. She played with her sweater sleeves (aargh!) and with the snowflake pin I’d loaned her. During the songs with hand motions, though, she did go along with the rest of the first grade, putting lots of energy into it, and still directing her performance to the little section of seats off to the side. And then, on one especially long song with lots of motions and little coordinated steps, she departed from the assigned choreography altogether and launched into what can only be called an interpretive Christmas dance, complete with hypnotic swaying and delicate, sweeping arm movements, at the end of which she took a very deep bow.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
I started out wincing, maybe even a little bit embarrassed that my child didn’t seem to be able to follow along with the rest of the “normal” kids. But as I watched her, I realized that I had it all wrong. She wasn’t really concerned with following along. It was as if she was dancing to music that she alone could hear. Paul leaned over to me and whispered, “I think she’s giving a concert all her own.” And for a second, I could see the bright lights in her eyes and hear the roar of applause in her ears.
Of course, she’ll have to work on the singing.
After the half-hour program was over and the thunderous applause had died down, parents were directed to pick up their kids back in their classrooms. I claimed Katie from Mrs. Albright and headed for the door. “Bye, Katie!” came a chorus of little voices. We bid them goodnight and began to press our way back down the hallway, now full of older kids, second and third graders, preparing to take their turn on the stage.
Then an amazing thing happened. As we walked by the lines of seven and eight year olds, one after another of them reached out to touch Katie’s shoulder or pat her arm. “Great job, Katie!” “You did wonderful, Katie!” “Katie, I saw you! Nice job!” Katie grinned back at them with a big “Thanks!”, accepting the praise as her due and waving goodbye. At the head of one line, a teacher stopped me to ask, “Are you Katie’s mom?” I nodded and she went on, “We just love having her here. Everybody likes Katie. She has such a great attitude.” I thanked her, feeling the prickle of sudden tears starting in the back of my eyes, and we moved on down the hall and out to the car.
Once in a while, a child is born who is a little “different”. Maybe their body doesn’t work right, or their mind is impaired. Whatever it is, it marks them forever and sets them apart from the pack. And as we watch them struggle through this life, cheering every hard-won milestone like it’s an Olympic event, we sometimes wonder why God would let it happen, why one so innocent and new would be made to bear this unfair burden and face so many obstacles in the path to the finish line.
Last night, I saw the true beauty of the gift God gave the world when He made my daughter. Her innocent joy, her enthusiasm, and even her struggles, can bring out unexpected kindness and gentleness in people. Her differences give everyone around her a chance to experience the warmth that fills you when you show acceptance and encouragement to someone who needs it. As child after child reached out to Katie, I had the distinct feeling that her victory in simply going onstage and performing was, in a sense, a victory for all of them, because they were all invested in her success. This seed of compassion, I hope, will take root and grow madly in every heart.
As for my girl, the shine of excitement and jubilance in her eyes said it all. Her debut performance was an unmitigated triumph. Later, as I tucked her into bed, I told her again how proud I was of her and how thankful that God gave me the best six year old in the world! Then I turned off the lights and left my Rock Star Princess to her dreams of thunderous applause.
And in my prayers last night, I did some applauding of my own.