i never sing at birthdays

I pedaled my Schwinn Autocycle along the gravel road beside the Waterman’s south pasture. The rattling of the front fender caused by the rutted road was almost enough to drown out my rendition of Gloria in Excelsis Deo.

Almost, but not quite. Four of Charlie Waterman’s cows standing by the fence-line mooed in response to my singing. Approaching the intersection of paved and gravel road where the farmhouse sat, I switched to Christ the Lord Is Risen Today. Two lanky hounds crawled out from under the front porch and howled in accompaniment. Then they trotted out to escort me as I turned onto the two-lane paved road running into town.

Today was the first day of seventh grade choir practice, a day I’d been looking forward to all summer. The words of all the most popular hymns were captured inside my head ready to spill forth in angelic accompaniment to the pipe organ in the church loft.

I met all the requirements to participate. All of them being making it to seventh grade. Of course first string was the eighth grade choir but, every once in a while a particularly good singer was promoted, like Billy Wilson three years ago. I heard the ladies in Mom’s bridge group say that Billy knew every song by heart. He even got to perform a few Christmas solos.

At school, I managed to make it through beginning Algebra and diagramming sentences before Mrs. Bourland, the music teacher, came in to replace Sister Loretta, uncovered the piano at the front of the room, and rolled it out of the corner.

She picked up a stack of papers from the teacher’s desk and began walking up and down the aisles handing them out. I, like most of the kids, sniffed the fresh mimeograph chemicals before laying the sheets on my desktop. On top was the music and words to O, Little Town of Bethlehem.

“This is a song most of you have heard many times before. I’d like you to sing it as I walk around and listen to you,” Mrs. Bourland said. She pulled a flat silver disc out of her pocket and rotated it before placing it to her lips and sounding a musical note. “O, Little Town of Bethlehem. . .” she began, waving the disk up and down in rhythm while strolling down the aisle.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw her stop beside several students and smile and nod before continuing on.

Sensing her approach as she walked up my aisle from the back of the room, I increased my volume to provide her with the full affect. She stopped next to me. Her hand came to rest on my shoulder as she whispered, “Go up and sit on my piano bench.” It was show time.

I forced myself not to do the chicken strut of triumph, but I felt my chest expand. It probably grew from its normal twenty-six inches up to a full twenty-eight.

I sat facing the class, my lips pressed together to suppress a smile. She paused next to Tommy Donaldson, my friend and a really good athlete. He rose and walked toward me. It made sense. He was probably a good singer. He did everything well.

O, Little Town ended as Mrs. Bourland finished her meandering at the front of the room. “Flip to the next song. This is another that I’m sure you are all familiar with.” She pulled the disk out of her pocket again and shrilled a note, again helping the class get started.

The sheet music was still on my desk. Not to worry. I knew all the songs. Sure enough my words came strong and true as “O Come All Ye Faithful” rang out. Tommy read from his sheets.

Mrs. Bourland turned to us, leaned forward until her head was between ours. I smelled gardenias. She whispered, “Just move your lips.” Straightening, she smiled at us, and turned back to the class.

I looked at Tommy, then back at her. What she said didn’t make sense. I knew my face was turning red. It felt like my neck was on fire. I stared at my feet. I couldn’t look at the class. They must be all staring at me.

I barely remember the rest of the day. I skipped football practice, claimed a stomach ache, and shut myself in the room shared with my brother.


I eventually recovered except for disliking the smell of gardenias. I love music and can move my lips to the lyrics of almost every top-forty tune of the past fifty years.

My wife finally asked me why I never sang Happy Birthday. I told her about choir practice. She’s the only person I ever shared my greatest embarrassment with.

“You were thirteen years old. Your voice was probably changing. I’m sure you can sing now,” she said.

I can’t risk it.

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