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Deep Dive: High School Choir

In my last post I gave you an overview of high school: Who my friends were, how we became friends, a little bit of who we were and what we did. In this deep dive, I want to share more about my personal high school experience. Which we've already determined revolved around concert choir.

As I mentioned before, I lived with my dad in high school. He had initially moved into my mother's house where I was staying alone, but eventually Mom decided she wasn't coming back to Mississippi and sold the house. Dad and I moved into an apartment in Long Beach.

Keep in mind my dad was 50 when I was born, so he was getting up there in years by the time I was in high school. He was retired, so he had plenty of time on his hands. He did some substitute teaching when I was in junior high. In high school, he attended every single choir performance and served as chaperone on domestic choir trips. By which I mean he didn't actually go to Mexico but he was otherwise always there.

If you've not lived with a retired old gentleman, you probably don't realize that they often wake up very, very early in the morning. Unable to go back to sleep, Dad would get up and fix himself a bowl of cereal and a Postum. (Dad stayed a Mormon church member in good standing until the day he died.) On those days, he would set out the boxes of cereal in a row on the kitchen counter before he went back to bed. He'd be asleep again when I got up, but the cereal was there for me to select from and fix my own breakfast. Other mornings, he would be up with me and would make me sausage biscuits from canned biscuits. Every single day, he fixed me a brown bag lunch. Our dinner was often Hamburger Helper.

I hesitate to make it sound like my dad took good care of me as a teenager when my mom deserted me. The truth is, my mom took really good care of me the first 12 or 13 years of my life. So they were both there for me over the course of my childhood, just at different times.

My junior year - which I really consider the beginning of the high school years that I'm covering here...sophomore year was just too pitiful to consider - Beth and I had lunch together during 4th period chemistry. She very soon began bringing her lunch, too, and we quickly moved from the school cafeteria to eating lunch in Mrs. Edward's portable.

Okay, I maybe need to explain portables? Our school district had grown pretty quickly and the buildings were too small for the amount of students they needed to educate. That's why ninth grade was in the junior high and not the high school; it made more sense to divide the student body in half. But both schools were overcrowded and relied on "portable classrooms." They were basically small trailers lined up in the schoolyard. You actually got lucky if you had a class in a portable because they were air conditioned. Yes, I went to school in Mississippi, and the buildings were not air conditioned. AND...the dress code prevented us from wearing shorts. I mean we really suffered. Uphill, both ways.

So Mrs. E had a portable. And I'm not really sure why because all of her classes were held in the music building which was actually called the "band hall." The band director had an office in the band hall. I guess maybe they gave Mrs. E a portable as her office. She even had an upright piano in there although I'm not completely sure why. I can only remember one girls sextet (a subset of Madrigals that I was in) rehearsal in her portable after school one day.

So Beth and I started eating lunch in Mrs. E's portable with her. It was mostly during those two years of lunch periods that Mrs. E had her influence on me. I don't know what all we talked about - sometimes it might have been a video we'd seen on Mtv but other times it was boy trouble or maybe disappointment in a bad grade - but my choir director proved every day that she cared about us as more than just pretty voices. I guess in a way it was my first experience with a mentor in my life.

Sometimes our friend Steve would join us in there for lunch. Steve was a senior and the kind of star choir/madrigal member that only comes along every so many years. He starred in every performance. He was the kind of student I imagine a teacher like Mrs. E lived for.

Mrs. Edwards had very, very high standards for music. In competition, where we were allowed two songs, we always sang a capella and she always had us do one in Latin and one that was called in the 80s a "negro spiritual." I have no idea why. I have to assume she thought that's what best demonstrated the choir's advanced musical abilities. Also, we never, ever, not even once, performed without memorizing the music.

We always did a community Christmas concert and a Spring Show. I guess now days a lot of school choirs stage Broadway musicals but either those weren't available to us then, or our school district just couldn't afford to purchase them. So Mrs. E created her own musical in the annual Spring Show.

They were created around a theme and all the vocal music groups performed - concert choir, girls choir, madrigals, girls sextet, boys quartet, plus soloists. They were always 100 percent music, though, no scripts or dialogue. The best one we ever did was my junior year. It was set up as a rehearsal for a musical and was called "Footlights and Fame." It was the only Spring Show in my memory that did have dialogue.

Steve played the Director. We were all dressed like a scene from Fame in leotards and big t-shirts and leg warmers. The set was scaffolding set up along the back of the stage. Shelley's mom did this amazing backdrop that looked like a half-painted sign advertising the show. It was the first year that Mrs. E bought recorded music to accompany us rather than doing it herself on the piano. We felt like we were in a music video of our own.

The Madrigals opened the show with two songs by Toto - Africa and Rosanna. I was paired up to dance with Beth's boyfriend, Richie, which thrilled me because he was awfully cute. I was basically a klutz and a rotten dancer though because I had no confidence in what I was doing. The girls sextet sang Fame and I Sing the Body Electric. I wore a navy unitard, ripped sweatshirt and Olivia Newton John headband. [I so wish I had some photos from this show. If any of my FB high school friends have any send them my way! Or post them!]

One day during lunch, Mrs. E suggested that Steve's big solo in the show (Lionel Ritchie's Truly) could use a couple of back-up singers in Beth and me. It was a fun, high-energy show and I got to be a choir member, small group member and soloist. Lots of opportunities for curtain calls for Steve and Beth and me that year. I had never in my life felt so elite.

My senior Spring Show was a bit of a letdown after that. Mrs. E got this crazy idea to perform it "in the round," which means she set up a round stage in the middle of the auditorium and set up the audience chairs around us. Our costumes that year were pastel which totally washed out under the lights. I sang a duet with my friend Jim. I want to say it was an Eagles song? Maybe? Something with some intricate harmony. [LEFT: Jim and Me singing our duet. Shelley - front left corner. Beth - front right corner. Sara - staring dreamily into space next to Jim.]

Senior Day at my school was the day that we were presented with our yearbooks. The girls wore white dresses and the boys wore suit jackets and chairs were set up for us on the gym floor. Underclassmen sat in the bleachers. The Madrigals sang The Carpenter's We've Only Just Begun, which Mrs. E hated and thought was cheesy and stupid but every year they insisted. Then they called our names one by one and we walked forward - much as we soon would for graduation - to accept our yearbook. But first, that year's editor - Christi, from concert choir (who roomed with Beth in Mexico) - read the dedication. Every year the yearbook staff selected a teacher to dedicate the yearbook to. As Christi read the dedication, I turned around and caught Beth's eye. We were both tearing up. My senior yearbook was dedicated to Mrs. Joanne Edwards.

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