There they were, on stage, typical middle-school show-choir students. Cute kids in lime-green dresses and black suits. An especially cute boy, his hair clearly styled after Justin Bieber's, was wearing a lime-green cast on his wrist. The students' singing and dancing were fun to watch; the show was a good, solid eighth-grade performance. I expected these kids to blend in with the rest of the night's better choirs, and I anticipated that tomorrow or the day after, I probably wouldn't remember what school they represented.
Then he came out from stage left, and everything changed.
He was a boy of about 13 with sandy hair and glasses. He was about the same height as the rest of the boys, and slender like most of them. But those were the only similarities, and as he took his place on the stage, I heard a collective intake of breath and immediately felt the tears threaten.
The boy appeared to have cerebral palsy. His knees turned in so that they touched; one foot was turned almost sideways, and the other swung to the side. His arms mimicked the movements of the rest of the choir, but they spasmed so that he had a hard time keeping up with the rest of the dancers. During the group's ballad, as the rest of the singers and dancers stood motionless, the boy's arms and legs contorted constantly.
But as I watched a while, the movements began to fade into the background ... and after a few more measures, all I really noticed was the way the boy was singing. His head was back, his mouth was wide open, and his eyes were turned to the heavens. For the two songs during which he was on stage, he was clearly giving the performance all he had.
And the most amazing thing: He was front and center. In this day and age, when awareness of and respect for diversity are -- thankfully -- important parts of the collective public-school curriculum, it wasn't really a surprise that he was participating ... but it was a surprise, and a beautiful one, that his choir was clearly showcasing him. And when the boys and girls approached the front of the stage for their final bow, he was leading the pack. A girl reached out from behind to steady him as he pitched forward a bit, but then he righted himself and was still singing as he followed the other members into the wings.
The crowd was on its feet, and my daughter, 19, who hopes to direct her own choir one day, was crying and shaking her head in amazement. I wasn't even trying to hide the tears by that time.
"He probably lives for these performance weekends," my daughter said. "I wish everyone who says that show choir isn't a big deal and doesn't really benefit kids could have been here tonight."
And I thought: Imagine what this means to his parents.
Inclusion is one thing and acceptance is another, but this was a whole different ball game. There's no way words can do it justice. I hope this young man felt the embrace tonight -- not just from his peers, but from an overflowing Urbandale Show Choir Invitational audience that I can guarantee will never forget him.