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Teachers, Olivia Newton-John, and Speaking Up

I had the wonderful opportunity to do a “Guest-Blog” spot for NPR on their weekly topic of “Teachers Who Made a Difference”, for it brought up wonderful memories (as well as a few twitchy ones), and gave me the pause to consider how deeply one person’s influence can affect another’s.

As luck would have it, I was at my grade school Alma Mater, St Ann’s, yesterday morning, the day the article posted, and I was flooded with memories of term papers, construction paper/stick glue projects, playground shenanigans, and demanding, attentive teachers.  My 7th grade Speech and Drama teacher is now the principle and I talked her ear off with memories of my performance for the required “Advertising Campaign” which consisted of pink leg warmers, a matching pink sweatband, shorts (God help me) and the pitching my product: a perfume called “Physical”.  Yes, if you were around in the 80’s you can picture an awkward but eager 7th grade girl trying to impress her crush, Eric F., with a very solid rendition of Olivia Newton John’s “Let’s Get Physical.”  How did I ever survive Junior High?

My point in bringing this up with her (which THANKFULLY she did not remember at all!) was that from where I stand today, I can trace back, directly, step by step, my path in getting here.  All the failures, successes, misguided school performances, risks, humiliations, little triumphs – they all add up and provide the foundation from which I still function.  I felt very lucky walking those hallowed halls yesterday and loved working with the 5th and 6th graders, giving them a few pointers on how to breathe to sing.  Wouldn’t you know it, the 6th graders, one by one, challenged me to a sing-off!  I loved the enthusiasm and the fascination they showed with a real live opera singer singing right in front of them.  Once they dared to lower their hands, which instinctively went to cover their young eardrums with my first sounds, they actually really enjoyed seeing something so “exotic” up close.

It also made me painfully aware of how lucky I was to grow up with a supportive network.  Not everyone is so lucky.  What if I had been bullied because I liked singing or for being in the school plays? All the latest news reports of teenage suicide, in particular of young gay/lesbian suicides is weighing very heavily on my mind.  Again, I apologize for stepping off topic here, but it is something I feel quite passionate about, and simply cannot stay quiet – I wasn’t alive during the Civil Rights Movement in the US where African Americans were fighting for equal rights (or women, for that matter!), but I do remember being deeply upset when I realized how inhumanely one person could be treated simply because of their skin color (or gender, or religion, and the list sadly goes on and on.)  I would ask my parents, in all my splendid ignorance, “Did people really have to live like that? But why didn’t you do anything about it?”  That wasn’t a condemnation – it was simply curiosity. Happily, I was not raised to see people as separate, or lesser than me, but I always wondered why so many people tolerated behavior that was inhumane, and ultimately, ridiculously arrogant.

So I know that I cannot, in good conscience, stay silent on actions that not only affect other human beings, but some of my very dearest friends.  That a young person would feel it is a better option to take their own life, rather than be accepted for who they are, at their very core, saddens me more than I can say.  We have a responsibility to stop teaching hate.  It is literally killing us.

But there is someone who recently said it MUCH better than I ever could: a councilman from Fort Worth, TX.  This, to me, is what bravery looks like, and I feel immensely grateful that there are people in the world who will speak for what is right, even when it is not popular or politically correct.

Thank you for letting me express myself on this.

Back ON topic – I have to go board a plane now for Germany and Spain. Next time I’m home it will be Christmas.  This is the hard part of what I do.  I don’t want to fly to Europe.  I want to fly to Salt Lake where my husband is getting ready to debut his first La Boheme and I want to cheer him on for his opening night.  But duty calls, and once I arrive, I’m sure I’ll be happy I’m there (especially since I just found out that STING – holy cow! – is singing in the concert in Essen on Sunday!), but boy is it hard to step onto this flying machine!

See you on the other side!

Cheers!

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~ Joyce DiDonato