As I sat in my 5th Grade English class, I slapped both hands over my mouth to prevent words, begging to be released, from erupting. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but I also didn’t want my ears to burn anymore. The words that were performing gymnastics on my tongue, however, jumped through my hands and blurted from my mouth.
Though Mrs. Fitzgerald generally hit all the right notes when she sang English rules to the tunes of familiar songs, every once in a while, and sadly for me one day, Mrs. Fitzgerald sang out of tune.
That day, after listening to her mangle that same tune too many times, my agitation increased to tornadic proportions (yes, I make up my own words), and the tornado spiraled out of my skin through my mouth. My classmates blatantly ignored (is that an oxymoron?) the aural assault, because though I could no longer listen to the out-of-tune song, all of my classmates seemed absolutely unconcerned.
I could not believe their lack of response! I shook my head as I peered around the classroom, begging with my eyes for somebody – anybody – to step forward and rescue my ears from such torture.
Would nobody say anything? Did I have to be the one to speak up?
What a bunch of cowards!
Yes, the responsibility landed on me. I had to be the one to take matters into my own hand, which timidly rose above the crowd as I politely explained to Mrs. Fitzgerald the (ear-or) error of her ways. Mrs. Fitzgerald, whose unique approach to teaching English was brilliant, had to know that she was harming one of my senses. And so I did what nobody else would do. I spoke up!
Flashes of insight slammed into my brain in that awkward moment. Maybe I was too young to understand the repercussions of making such a statement or I had no self-control, but on that day I learned two lessons: how not to speak what was on my mind and how the concept of time standing still works, because on that day and in that moment Mrs. Fitzgerald said, “OK, Theresa. Show us how to sing it properly.”
The blood that raced from my heart to my face exploded in front of the entire class, cascaded down the walls, and drenched my entire world as I died a thousand deaths right there in front of all of my classmates who, I pretended, looked upon me as their savior. Yes, I was willing to shed blood for them, so I sang, and I sang the tune correctly.
But even as the correctly-sung tune left my lips, and even as Mrs. Fitzgerald nodded with approval, and even afterward, when everyone, including Mrs. Fitzgerald, sang it correctly, I vowed in that moment that I would never again speak up in class, even if the song I heard sounded like nails on a chalkboard.
And the next day, it did. Mrs. Fitzgerald resorted to her incorrectly sung tune. I said nothing. I knew I had to learn to stop being so impulsive. I had to not speak first and then think about how to repair damages later!
About ten years after that episode, one of my former sister-in-laws asked me if I would take part in a movie that a friend of her boyfriend was shooting in Chicago. Having never acted before, I said no. I was way under-qualified for the job, I told her. She assured me that everything would be fine – he knew I was a novice – well, I say novice, because I don’t know what word qualifies as being in a state prior to being a novice, but I wanted to be very clear about my position.
I was hired (not paid) anyway. While shooting the film that went nowhere (or, who knows, maybe the guy shot it later and it’s now some classic horror film made with better actors), I learned another valuable lesson – acting is hard work! Remembering lines is not easy! And I learned another more valuable lesson – don’t agree to perform if you have no acting talent!
So much for lessons learned, though, because my next “acting gig” came when I worked for a local television show, which included a comedy segment. I had previously – and eagerly – joined the team – in the background – as a writer – where I belonged. My mistake was mentioning that I had written a commercial, a fun little tongue-twister I recited when making prank phone calls when I was 11 years old. Somebody asked to hear it and then asked me to perform it (why was my ESP not working that day?) – onscreen.
I’m a behind-the-scenes kind of person! I can’t appear in front of a camera! Can somebody else do it? Please? I’ll provide the words!
No. And so, squirming uncomfortably in front of the camera, because I knew that in order to succeed at delivering my commercial the way I wanted it delivered, I had to speed-speak, I recited the same commercial I had spoken when I made prank phone calls as a kid. My friend (co-conspirator, actually) and I weren’t your typical pranksters, reciting such common pranks as, “Is your refrigerator running?” No, we wrote our own pranks. The one I had to recite IN FRONT OF A CAMERA, in the same way John Moschitta and Fran Capo speed-speak, follows:
Are you a party pooper? Do you poop out at parties? If so, try our new Peppy’s Party Pooper Pills. Peppy’s Party Pooper Pills provide you with the peppiest protein in the world! So, the next time you go to a party, don’t forget to pack along your Peppy’s Party Pooper Pills. Remember, that’s Peppy’s Party Pooper Pills from the Popafue Company of Pittsburgh.
Fortunately I had memorized and performed that little skit so many times that I was able to deliver it in one shot. I think. I don’t really remember. I might have blacked out. Cameras do that to me. But I learned another valuable lesson that day – don’t tell anybody about your secret writings.
During that same time, a more-famous-than-I-am writer friend, the one who coerced me into reciting my commercial and who co-hosted that same television show, also wrote, directed, and produced a movie. Everybody was expected to participate, so I appeared in a couple of segments. In one scene I rolled my eyes, but later – thank you, God – I was cut from the final version. Relieved that my acting career was over, I settled on writing and designing again.
Until a couple of weeks ago.
In my newest endeavor, a very dear friend of mine asked me to appear in a commercial – for a good cause – and that was why I agreed to appear in it. He knew I had undergone chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation for breast cancer, so he asked me to appear in a commercial for an Illinois State Lottery-sponsored program, Ticket for the Cure, designed to help raise funds for breast cancer. I was more than happy to oblige, but knowing my inability to behave appropriately in front of a camera, I was a little apprehensive.
My instructions were to wear something light, not white, and to wear my makeup the way I always wear my makeup. I use lip liner, lip color, eyeliner, and mascara. I don’t put anything on my face, so that’s how I looked – like I always look when I go out.
As I sat in front of a camera, I received these instructions, “Just repeat what you told us in your interview.”
I could remember nothing of that conversation.
A friendly reminder followed as the photographer read from the notes that had been taken from my interview. “Let me remind you what you said, ‘blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.’”
“OK (I should be able to remember that, right?) – I’ll try again.” More squirming.
“Beep biddely open bopen bobobadeepen dapinshhh. Wait. What? That didn’t sound right, did it?”
“No,” the cameraman responded patiently. “Let’s try that again. You said, ‘blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah’.”
“Can I have a cheat sheet?”
Apparently whatever I said during my interview was gold, but now, facing that demon camera, my nerves danced under my skin and I wanted to tell the photographer about how, while I sat in my oncologist’s office with my mom and one of my sisters, to lighten the mood, I sang a Dusty Springfield song, and, like my 5th grade English teacher, I changed the words from, “left alone with just a memory,” to, “left alone with just one mammary.”
Darn. Did I just sing again?
Seconds to minutes to hours later, as the crew’s lunch time got closer and closer and the hands of the clock sped so fast, I felt dizzy knowing I was holding up lunch because I couldn’t remember not only what I said but also how I said it, and despite time working against me, we finally wrapped up. I prayed that the production company’s editing skills were far superior to my camera skills.
And then my friend called to tell me that the commercial would probably run within the next couple of weeks. “You looked great in it,” he complimented tenderly. “The production crew wanted to know if they should add some color to your cheeks, but I said, ‘Oh, no. That’s real. That’s natural. That’s what we’re looking for.”
And so I appeared in the online commercial with about three beautiful black woman and one beautiful hispanic woman (maybe more, but those were the women who were there that day). Rounding out the color spectrum was me – a live replica of the walking dead. Maybe I should consider adding dark shadows under my eyes.
Whatever. The lesson I learned in that situation was that sometimes we have to leave our comfort zones for a good cause.
And now I’d like to add that I’m done with acting and singing. I don’t want to leave my comfort zone anymore. No more singing or acting requests, OK, dear friends? But if you need a writer…