Future Reflections Winter 2012
by Leslie Hamric
From the Editor: Although her two-year-old son keeps her busy, Leslie Hamric finds time to coordinate the At-Large Chapter of the NFB of Illinois. She also nurtures her lifelong love of music.
The year was 1989, and I was attending Lincoln Junior High in Park Ridge, Illinois. All day I had looked forward to the audition for concert choir. Music had always been my strong point, and I was confident that I would get in. Furthermore, Mrs. N., the music teacher, did not seem bothered by my blindness. In fact, she willingly gave me the words up front to a song I had to sing at the last minute.
Since I was so pleased with my audition, I spent the next few days in eager anticipation. However, when the list of new choir members was finally posted, my name was not there. What went wrong? My parents called Mrs. N. and asked her for an explanation.
Nothing could have prepared me for the teacher's response. Casually she told my parents that I didn't get in because the choir was going to do choreography. At first my parents accepted her reasoning. After further thought, however, they realized that choreography could not be anything beyond dancing, clapping, and moving my arms around in certain patterns. I could easily learn all of those things if someone showed me the steps. My parents had the gut feeling that Mrs. N. had turned me down because she was uncomfortable with my blindness.
After we talked it over, I agreed that Mrs. N. had excluded me because of my blindness and needed some educating on the subject. We decided it was appropriate to take the situation up to the next level. We consulted with my teacher of the visually impaired (TVI), who made some phone calls and scheduled a meeting. The meeting would include my parents, the director of special education, the head of the music department, and Mrs. N. I decided not to attend; I was afraid I would not handle it well emotionally.
At the meeting, Mrs. N. said she did not want to deal with any of "those special ed kids." She said that having me participate in choreography would make the choir look bad. The head of the music department, Mr. R., seemed to back her completely. Mrs. N. asked a series of questions about how I would learn the dance steps. The director of special education told her to talk to my TVI, who would know how to teach me. He also reminded her that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) legally allowed me to be in choir, and that reasonable accommodations should be provided. After more discussion that simply wasn't going anywhere, the director of special ed had had enough. "You let her be in concert choir this minute," he said. "That is an order."
Although Mrs. N. finally relented and let me into the choir, she was disrespectful to me all year. She would not let me perform in the piece that had choreography, even though I worked hard with my TVI to master the dance steps. To make matters worse, Mrs. N. would not permit me to walk on and off the stage with another student, for fear I would bump into something. She had an irrational fear that my parents would sue her if anything happened to me, and she insisted that I walk onto the stage with a teacher's aide. My parents and I were relieved on the day I graduated from junior high. I would start high school with a fresh set of teachers who, we hoped, would be open-minded and happy to work with me.
In August of 1990 I entered Maine South High School in Park Ridge. Right from the beginning the performing arts teachers were eager to work with me. I signed up for orchestra, and the director was delighted to have me as one of her cellists. She had a local cello teacher record all of the pieces on tape so I could learn them. The music was more difficult than any I had played before, and there was a great deal of it to learn. Still, I memorized it all and met the challenge.
In 1991, during the summer before my sophomore year, I took part in a summer drama class. We put on a musical called Black Patent Leather Shoes. I was afraid that the drama teacher would not pick me because choreography was involved, and I was pleasantly surprised when I was selected. At first I was overwhelmed by the number of dance steps I had to memorize. However, everyone was willing to show me what was going on, including the drama teacher himself.
People showed me the dance steps in two ways. First they moved my hands, arms, or legs through the motions. Then they performed the steps while my hands rested on their hands, arms, or legs so I could feel what they were doing. I have an excellent sense of rhythm, and most of the time I had no trouble staying in sync with the other dancers. If I happened to get off track, the person next to me quietly told me which way to turn or gently moved my shoulders back in the right direction. As the summer progressed, I felt more and more confident with the choreography.
Finally the day of our first performance arrived. This time I walked onto the stage with one of my friends, so I did not look out of place. Naturally my parents were in the audience. So was Mr. R., the head of the junior high music department. He saw me in action, singing and gracefully performing one dance step after another.
After the curtain call, Mr. R. approached my parents and commented on how well I did. "It is just amazing what a little help can do," my dad told him simply. Mr. R. had no reply, but he looked stunned as he walked away. We will never know the true effect of my dad's comment, but at least he conveyed the idea that blindness need not be an issue, given appropriate training and opportunities.
The high school choir director was also delighted to have me in his class, and he treated me as he did everyone else. Like it or not, I had to meet his high expectations. He insisted that I learn to read Braille music, a skill that would serve me well in the future. If he was not sure about a specific adaptation, he asked me or talked to my TVI. He arranged to have my music transcribed into Braille, installed a push pin by my folder slot so I could find it easily, and explained various vocal techniques in nonvisual terms. I looked forward to his class every day because it was fun and inspiring.
Besides participating in orchestra and choir, I decided to take voice lessons to improve my singing technique. Both of my voice teachers were wonderful, and neither of them objected to having me as a student. They welcomed my ideas and often commented on how much they learned from me. They said I made them better teachers because I gave them a new perspective. All of my hard work paid off when the choir director let me into the vocal jazz ensemble my junior year. When I was a senior he gave me a big soprano solo at two of our concerts. I knew I had earned these opportunities based on my musical abilities and not because I was blind.
My high school musical experiences with piano, cello, voice, orchestra, choir, and drama made my confidence bloom. Music gave me a sense of self-worth. I began to make friends and felt I belonged to a group. Eventually my peers saw me as a talented musician and not as just "that blind kid."
By the time I reached senior year, I knew I wanted to major in music at college. I earned a bachelor's degree in music performance from Northern Illinois University in 1999. After college I went straight on to receive my master's degree in performance from the Eastman School of Music, one of the best music schools in the country, in 2002. I completed coursework in music therapy at Western Illinois University in 2004. Out of all my music experiences in college, my absolute favorite was performing recitals every year.
Although I am not a musician by career, music is still a big part of my life. Like me, my husband Andy is a cellist, and our favorite activity is playing duets. I have taught private cello lessons, and I perform at church services. I am a member of my church choir. Right now I am a stay-at-home mom, and my cute little boy, Michael, keeps me on my toes. I really enjoy nurturing his potential for musical talent. No matter what life brings my way, music is a gift that will allow my creative side to shine.
As I reflect on my performance experiences, I wonder how different my life would have been if the high school music faculty had not given me those early opportunities. Although Mrs. N. tried to knock me down with her prejudicial treatment, I stood tall and held my ground. My strong support network believed in me and encouraged me to keep going. I did not give up. I entered high school with new strength of character. I realized I would have to acquire self-advocacy skills if I was going to be successful. When I was selected for the summer musical, I started using my new skills to communicate what I did and did not need.
I am forever grateful to the performing arts faculty at Maine South High School. The teachers there gave me that single chance to demonstrate that anything is possible with open communication, creativity, and the willingness to accept new challenges. Their receptive attitudes helped me know that I was contributing to a worthwhile endeavor--music.
The best advice I can offer blind young people is to obtain a strong support network, maintain high expectations, and forge ahead with a smile. As the motivational speaker Les Brown says, "If you set goals and go after them with all the determination you can muster, your gifts will take you places that will amaze you."