“In the English language, it all comes down to this: Twenty-six letters, when combined correctly, can create magic. Twenty -six letters form the foundation of a free, informed society.”
― John Grogan, Bad Dogs Have More Fun: Selected Writings on Family, Animals, and Life from The Philadelphia Inquirer
South Miami Senior High – Mid-spring, 1981
The second half of my sophomore year at South Miami can be described in one word – hectic.
I’m sure that I probably would have considered my high school routine as “busy” even if I hadn’t been involved with the school newspaper and Ms. Owen’s Period One men’s choir. My other three classes – English, business mathematics, and science – kept me occupied with reading/writing assignments, homework, and studying for a dizzying array of pop quizzes and tests. And although my high school workload was light in comparison to what awaited me in college, it was heavier than what I’d had to do at Riviera Junior High a year earlier. The standards were set a bit higher than in ninth grade, so my three required courses demanded a great deal of my time and energy.
Of my two elective courses, Newspaper Reporting and Editing was the toughest. This was partly because I was a newcomer to the world of deadlines, conducting interviews, word counts, and accepting assignments from section editors when I joined the “Serpent’s Tale” staff in the fall semester. But most of the challenges in Mr. Bridge’s fourth period journalism class came from my acceptance of a promotion as Entertainment Co-Editor when my predecessor resigned only a few days before the winter holiday break.
Although my friend and section Co-Editor Maggie Jimenez was the one who stayed on campus after school and took care of such things as drawing page designs on “dummy sheets” and cutting and pasting articles onto the “flats” before we sent them to the printers, I was busier than I had been during the fall semester.
Instead of taking an occasional assignment from my predecessor, a senior named Matthew, I was handing out story assignment sheets to the staff writers, writing headlines, and discussing story ideas for future issues with Maggie, my colleagues on the editorial staff, and Mr. Bridge.
For me, the best thing about being Entertainment Co-Editor was the opportunity to write more articles.
Even though Maggie and I gave out more story assignments to other staff members than we took on ourselves, I wrote my fair share of articles, including a satire about going to the movies as a film critic and an informative piece about the new “in thing” in entertainment: video games.
“If everyone started off the day singing, just think how happy they’d be.” ― Lauren Myracle, Shine
My other elective – chorus – was challenging in its own peculiar ways, but it was the most enjoyable class on my schedule.
Although our school days began at 7:30 a.m. in homeroom, classes started at 8 during First Period. At the start of the 1980-81 school year, my First Period class was English with Ms. Tara Brock. I liked Ms. Brock and her effervescent personality, but sometimes it was hard to feel excited about split infinitives and comma splices that early in the day. As my homeroom teacher, Ms. Billie Bernstein, wrote in my yearbook, “it’s really hard to be excited about learning and being in class during the early morning hours.”
In Ms. Owen’s Men’s Chorus class, however, First Period was a delightful hour of learning about choral music, trying out songs from different genres, and preparing for the annual Spring Concert, which was scheduled for mid-April of 1981.
“And all meet in singing, which braids together the different knowings into a wide and subtle music, the music of living.” ― Alison Croggon, The Naming
I don’t remember now how many different songs Ms. Owen had us try out from the second week of January 1981 till she narrowed the playlist for the Spring Concert in early March. After she ran us through our daily morning vocal exercises, Ms. Owen would play records with a mix of Broadway songs, standards, and a few classical or jazz choral pieces. Then she’d ask us to sing some of the songs. Sometimes, if she liked a particular song or the way we sang it she’d say, “Thanks, gentlemen, we’ll keep doing that one for a while.”
One day, for instance, she played “There is Nothing Like a Dame” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Written in 1949, the song is a humorous take on World War II era Navy sailors and how they long for the presence of women in their daily lives. Its jaunty tune and clever lyrics make “There is Nothing Like a Dame” a popular selection for many male choirs – including us in Ms. Owen’s First Period class.
Per our standard operating procedure, we listened to the original Broadway cast recording first – I remember that some of us chuckled when we heard:
We’ve got sunlight on the sand
We’ve got moonlight on the sea
We’ve got mangoes and bananas we can pick right off a tree
After we heard it on the record once or twice, Ms. Owen handed us songbooks with the choral arrangement for, “There is Nothing Like a Dame.” She then sat at the piano in the center of the practice room and played the vamp (musical intro) from the song.
“Okay, men, let’s see what you can do with it.”
We sang the song several times that day during class. The first rendition was somewhat clumsy and even a bit off-key because we were just learning it, but the more we practiced, the better we sounded. Ms. Owen made us sing it three or four times, then smiled at us. “I think we’ll keep practicing that one, gentlemen,” she said.
She then had us try a few other songs, including “Tell Me Why,” an old love song whose writer’s name is lost to history:
Tell me why the stars do shine
Tell me why the ivy twines
Tell me why the sky’s so blue
and I will tell you just why I love you
We sang it a capella a few times, and Ms. Owen kept it in rotation for a few days, but she didn’t add it to the playlist because it didn’t fit the April concert’s “Let Us Entertainment’ theme. In its place, we ended up singing “Gee, Officer Krupke” from West Side Story and the two-song medley “Hello Dolly/It Only Takes a Moment” from Hello, Dolly!
As a group, we practiced “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” and the two selections from Hello, Dolly! every morning from mid-January till April 15. A few of the guys wanted to do solos, so when Miss Owen approved and added them to the program, they had to practice those songs, too.
I didn’t volunteer to do a solo – I didn’t want to stick my neck out too far, so to speak, because I was afraid some students would make fun of a singer with cerebral palsy. I suppose this was an irrational fear; no Cobra ever treated me unkindly because of my disability. But I still remembered the taunts I had endured in junior high, and I was determined to avoid the pain of ever hearing shouts of “Hey, retard!” and “Here comes Shakey the Clown!” again.
The first of three performances was scheduled at 8 o’clock on the night of April 15, 1981. I had mixed feelings about my debut with the Men’s Choir. On the one hand, I was happy and excited. Ms. Owen was a great motivator and her enthusiasm for music was contagious, and I wanted to prove to her (and myself) that I was worthy of being in a South Miami High choral group.
On the other hand, I had two worries about that night. First, my mom was still dating my nemesis, the abusive and heavy-drinking Joe B. They had already broken up twice between my stint at Riviera Junior High and the start of my sophomore year, but my mother always took pity on “poor, lonely Joe” and took him back. Shortly before the April 15 concert, Joe and I got into an argument, and my mom decided to punish me by saying that she wasn’t going to attend the concert.
This meant two things. The most important person in my life – my mother – was not going to hear me sing in front of an audience because she didn’t want to make Joe feel unsupported in our ongoing war. I also had to figure out how I was going to get to South Miami for the concert that night, much less get back home.
There was no solution to the first issue – Mom didn’t relent at the last minute and stayed home that night – but one of the cafeteria ladies who had befriended me earlier in the year told me that I could hang out in the cafeteria until the last dress rehearsal at 6:00 p.m. That solved the how-to-get-to-school problem. The getting-back-home problem was a bit trickier, but eventually Willie Gimenez, one of the car-owning juniors in my class volunteered to drive me back to my house after the concert.
Ms. Owen had asked us to bring several items of clothing from home for our three costume changes. For our first song, which followed the mixed chorus’ rendition of “Let Us Entertain You,” we had to look like World War II Navy sailors, so we wore denims, white T-shirts, and (if we could get them) sailors’ hats. I had the first two items in my wardrobe, and I was able to borrow the sailor hat from my next door neighbor Russell Alger, who had served in the Navy during the war.
The West Side Story song “Gee, Officer Krupke” required us to look like 1950s youth gang members, so we basically ditched the sailor hats and put on jackets or button down shirts over our white T-shirts. A few of us added little touches by tucking a box of toothpicks into a rolled up T-shirt sleeve or adopted tough-guy poses. I wore my imitation Army jacket without its captain’s rank insignia to look like a tough street fighting gangster.
Finally, for the medley from Hello, Dolly!, Ms. Owen wanted us to look like clean-cut young men, so we put on clean button-down shirts over our T-shirts. Mine was a brown-and-beige plaid shirt, if I recall correctly.
April 15 fell on a Wednesday in 1981, so I was as nervous as a taxpayer who files a tax return at the last minute. I was jittery not just because this would be my first time on a stage since sixth grade, but because Ms. Owen had picked me to sing the first lines of “There is Nothing Like a Dame.”
We had practiced the song for almost three months, so all of us were familiar with the lyrics. Throughout the term, though, we had sung “There is Nothing Like a Dame” as a group. Over the past few weeks, as the concert dates drew nearer – there were two more concerts scheduled for Thursday the 16th – Ms. Owen divvied the stanzas of the song between four or five of us singers – we would only sing the there is nothing like a dame… chorus as a group.
I don’t remember how many of us were in the Men’s Choir, but when I practiced my lines, I was under the impression that I was the understudy for one of the more experienced upperclassmen. Maybe that’s what Ms. Owen wanted me to think; certainly that’s what I wanted to believe.
I was disabused of this self-delusion in First Period when Ms. Owen told us which students she had chosen to feature in “There is Nothing Like a Dame” and which verses they had to sing. “Okay, gentlemen, I’d like for Mr. Diaz to start us off by singing the first two lines after the vamp, then Mr. Boyaji will take the third and fourth….”
I imagine that my jaw must have dropped in shock, because Ms. Owen glanced in my direction and gave me a quick reassuring smile. “Don’t worry, Mr. Diaz. Just imagine that the auditorium is empty or that the audience is only wearing underwear.” She paused, then added, “Sing like you have a pair and you’ll be fine.”
I managed to survive the rest of the school day without becoming a nervous wreck. I even got through the long wait between the 2:30 dismissal bell and the dress rehearsal at 6 that evening by doing homework, chatting with the cafeteria staff, and eating a quick dinner without cold drinks (Ms. Owen explained that cold liquids affect the vocal cords and makes it hard to sing well). The dress rehearsal went well, too, regardless of how nervous I was.
At 7:30, the various choral groups – men’s, women’s, and mixed – assembled on stage behind the curtain in the auditorium. The house lights were up and we could hear the audience – a mixed group of parents, family members, friends, teachers, and a few administrators – filing into the auditorium We couldn’t see anything beyond the curtain, but we could tell that there was going to be a full house that night. Some of us joked quietly about Ms. Owen’s advice about stage fright, but most of us fidgeted nervously as we waited for the concert to start. We settled down when our teacher shushed us and told us to get in our places backstage till the opening number was over.
Finally, at 8 sharp the house lights dropped, the curtain rose, the mixed chorus did a rousing performance of “Let Us Entertain You.” It was so good that I thought to myself, There’s no way we can top that.
The song ended, the curtain fell, and as the mixed chorus singers filed off the stage and went to the costume change section, we guys walked to our assigned places onstage, wearing our sailor outfits as manfully as possible.
Ms. Owen wanted me to be as comfortable as possible for my high school singing debut, so she told me to sit on the floor at the front of our squad of “swabbies.” I did as she asked; I sat on the cold tile floor just behind the curtain. The house lights and curtain were still down, and the stage was dimly lit. I could hear the soft murmurs of the audience on the other side of the curtain and the pad-pad-pad sounds of some of the boys’ sneakers as we got into our marks.
Once again, the curtain rose, and the overhead lights illuminated our motley crew of sailor-clad singers. Ms. Owen sat behind the Kawai piano and began to play the lively sea chanty-like vamp to “There is Nothing Like a Dame.” Okay, I thought, moment of truth.
My right leg began to twitch ever so slightly, and for a brief instant I felt a strong pang of fear. But as I listened to Ms. Owen’s piano playing, the long weeks of practice suddenly kicked in and I heard myself singing:
We’ve got sunlight on the sand
We’ve got moonlight on the sea….
The concert went well, for the most part, and the audience seemed to have enjoyed it. We sang our four-song set, then we sat backstage while the other ensembles and solo singers performed their songs. An hour later, the house lights went back up, the curtain fell one last time, and we filed out of the auditorium with pride and a sense of accomplishment.
And as I walked past my chorus teacher, she patted me on the shoulder, smiled, and said, “I’m proud of you, Mr. Diaz.”