Listening to a high school music program this month recalled my years in senior high choir at Mt. Pleasant High School in Wilmington, Del. It was the '50s -- the era of penny loafers, saddle shoes, English bikes and paper routes. Being 15 wasn't easy, and singing in public was unthinkable, except in choir. My audition of "He's got the whole world in His hands" won me a seat in the bass section, and we rehearsed during the last period Tuesday and Thursday, when all clubs met. Our director, Mr. Cole, who also conducted band and orchestra, let us sit on chairs to discuss our music, but made us stand when singing. From September through December, we practiced for the Christmas concert. Beside familiar carols, Mr. Cole threw in some classics. I'll never forget singing "Kyrie Eleison" (Lord have mercy) and can still hear us harmonize "Gloria in Excelisis Deo" (Glory to God in the highest), even though I didn't understand the words and had never heard of Vivaldi.
On the bright side, Mr. Cole was not like other teachers. Choir was pass/fail and nobody failed, so he was more like a friend. We could take any problem to him, no matter how personal, and he always had time to listen and discuss it. He never judged us (unless he had a conductor's baton in his hand) so we felt loved. We loved back by trying to please him. On the dark side, our early rehearsals were always terrible. He'd stop us over and over with "No, that's wrong! You can do better! Be quiet and look at me." We'd sing Kyrie Eleison countless times, and it always sounded the same to me. As Christmas drew near, our rehearsals got even worse. Begging us to concentrate, he'd warn, "We're not going to be ready!" We began to wonder if our performance would be a flop.
Parents and friends filled the bleachers in the gym on concert night. A Christmas tree glowed beneath a basketball hoop. The orchestra was already seated and tuned up when we choir members filed onto risers behind it, being careful not to trip on our green and white robes. The risers were so crowded that everyone touched elbows. Lights dimmed and Mr. Cole, looking stern, raised his baton.
That's when the magic happened. Don't ask me how, but on his downbeat we were no longer 30 voices struggling to blend. We were just one voice, thinking as one, singing as one, in perfect harmony. "Kyrie Eleison" floated over the audience like a prayer rising to heaven, and Mr. Cole's frown became a smile. He nodded affirmatively. We forgot the gym. We forgot the audience. We forgot the time. We just sang for him, and it was Christmas! Thank you, Mr. Cole (and music directors at all high schools) for helping fragile teens develop self-confidence. Sixty years later, I still remember.