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Well intended / A January lesson in December

Updated 7:09 am, Friday, December 7, 2012
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Last night, I attended the holiday concert at my daughter's new school. She has transferred to a private school that specializes in educating kids who are intellectually gifted and have learning disabilities, emotional challenges or autism spectrum disorders. It makes for a uniquely diverse and supportive atmosphere.

I've been to a many holiday concerts over the years. While, I tend to get a little emotional over the cute kids and familiar songs, I was a little distracted. I didn't think much of the composition of the student body as I dropped off my platter of hastily baked and powder-sugar dusted cookies and found an empty folding chair. I was feeling a little uncomfortable, not knowing the other parents and was wishing I had worn something more festive.

The stage in the student lounge had been decorated with red curtains and cardboard stars. Several students played jazz standards in a corner as parents and siblings settled in. I counted the numbers on my program and sighed. It was going to be a long evening. Then I realized that the program was in fact two-sided. A student dimmed the lights twice and the audience hushed as a young man with a red tie and a startling baritone began with, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..." He was earnest and had kind eyes, I remembered that he's in my daughter's chemistry class. My son asked to play with his electronic game, and I struggled with him a little to keep it in my pocketbook. "Let's be a good audience," I reminded and he rolled his eyes, then held my hand.

Next up, according to my program, a boy would be singing "Jingle Bells." A young man of around 11 took the stage. He looked a little awkward wearing a suit and tie, and he was accompanied by an energetic teenaged girl who held his microphone and bent to kneel beside him. The pianist played softly and the boy wore a serious expression of concentration. He then whispered, slowly and cautiously every word to "Jingle Bells." The girl with the microphone whispered in harmony with him, I suppose she was there for moral support. He sang in this way, looking straight out at the audience and the videographer. His parents stood with their own camera. He worked through every word with intention and, at the end, jingled a handful of bells in celebration as everyone cheered.

I don't know this boy or his family. I am not aware of the specifics of his challenges or triumphs, but I know that this young man struggles with speech and yet he chose to sing.

I kept thinking about that brave boy as child after child stood up and sang, played a musical instrument or danced. They were all passionate about their performances. Some were nervous. Some seemed entirely comfortable. All of them were amazing.

As adults, we tend to limit our range of activities to those we already excel at. Yes, we work to improve. But we tend to be confined to our own areas of expertise. We no longer have to take a full course load of six subjects. We have specialized in a career that suits us. We know our strengths, and we rely on them whenever possible. When we set goals and make resolutions, more often than not they are to improve on something that we are entirely capable of doing and should be doing anyway.

When was the last time I asked myself to learn something that really scared me? When did I last make myself work really hard at a skill that is really challenging for me? I am grateful for the boy who sang "Jingle Bells" as he reminded me what it means to strive. As we end this year and begin to consider the next, I hope that we will all risk total failure for something worth learning and that we will not just learn to speak, we will sing.

Krista Richards Mann is a Westport writer, and her "Well Intended" column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at kristarichardsmann@gmail.com.