Since I can remember, I’ve been a singer. I’ve sung in choirs, in quartets and ensembles. I’ve won scholarships, attended a private arts school, and even randomly sang Christmas carols one time with the woman who performed as Rafiki on Broadway’s The Lion King.
You used to be able to find me crawling around my living room floor acting out “McCavity” from Cats, standing on my dining room chairs with my arms spread wide open singing about how nobody from Oz would ever be able to bring me down, or yodeling about a Lonely Goatherd throughout my high school corridors.
In middle school, after seeing Fiddler on the Roof in New York, I watched the stage from my seat as the audience stepped out into the lobby. The lights had already been turned back on and the curtain had been opened again. I walked up to the stage and stood, staring in awe: ”I will be here one day.” I promised myself. The ushers asked us again to leave, after which I said I was coming, then stole a fake autumn leaf from the stage as a keepsake.
Now, you might think that I’m going to write about how I came to Colombia and swooned over Vallenato and how I joined an all-female band and how, slowly but surely, have become famous all over Magdalena. Sadly, I’m not going in that direction.
I stopped performing after high school.
I thought to myself, as my conservative family always reminded me: “I’m studying business now, it’s time to put my hobbies aside and focus on being successful.”
So, for the 4 years in college, that’s what I did: I joined the Accounting and Finance Association, won awards for my academics and graduated at the top of my program. After work or a long study session, when I finally had a minute to relax, I sometimes turned on those show-tunes and listened to them in a nostalgic sense: “Remember when?” I would ask myself and listen, smiling.
Two years after graduation, I landed my “dream job”. At 23, I had my own apartment with a New York City zip code. My closet was filled with slacks, skirts, blouses and heals.
This was what success looks like, I thought.
Something was missing.
I picked up painting as a different form of expression; I wrote in journals and spent my nights in Carnegie Hall. While I loved doing these things, there was this piece of me unfulfilled, a piece that I rarely shared outside of the walls of my apartment: my own voice.
Nobody wants to hear you.
You sing too loudly.
You make too many mistakes.
You can never be a successful singer.
You’ve missed your chance.
There are so many other people that are better than you, you shouldn’t even try.
So I didn’t.
I applied to Peace Corps Colombia on the last day the application was due: January 1, 2017. It had been something I had wanted to do for years and finally felt like it was the right time. I would give up that nice job, my apartment and my sweet cat with the dream of sharing business skills and knowledge to someone who might not get it otherwise.
Another year later, I found myself in a rural town in the middle of Magdalena. During the first three months of service, the idea is to learn about the community and, throughout service, to integrate. “Perfect”, I thought, “I’ll get involved as much as I can with the Casa de Cultura or get to know the art or music teacher at the high school.”
Come to find out, there were no art or music classes at my high school.
Nor was there a Casa de Cultura in town.
“Now what?” I thought.
One of the churches in town had a nice band, but I didn’t feel comfortable singing to a god I didn’t believe in. I didn’t want to start up something new since I really wanted to focus on my main project, so I decided I would, once again, find a different outlet.
So there I was, seated, sweating in a hot classroom in rural Colombia, introducing myself to a group of 10th graders who stared at me, silent.
What do I tell them? I thought.
“Professionally, I’m an accountant. I studied accounting and finance in college and worked in public accounting for 4 years before I came here.”
I couldn’t tell if they were intimidated, disinterested, or some combination of the two.
“Seño, cuantos hermanos tiene?”
“I have 4 siblings: 2 brothers and 2 sisters” I told them.
After questions about my children (no I don’t have any) and my husband (tampoco), there was a moment of silence.
Out of the blue, the words “I sing” came out of my mouth.
And that’s how it began again.
They began asking for a song at the beginning of class; it was something I bribed them with eventually (you’ll get a song but only after you pay attention to this lesson). I’m still not that great with Colombian popular music, so I sang to them what I thought they might be able to relate to: “Maria” from West Side Story. They gawked and laughed over how my throat wiggles back and forth as I sing with vibrato; they asked me to sing just the beginning over and over, and they sang along with me in their upper ranges.
“Canta con mi nombre!” They would ask, so I would do just that:
“Valeriaaaa, Valeria, Valeria, Valeria… Valeriaaa Valieraaaa Valieraaaaaaaa!!”
“Nicooooole, Nicoole, Nicole, Nicooooole… Nicooole Nicoooole Nicoooooooleeee!!!”
“Juriiiiss, Juris, Jurisss, Jurissss… Jurrisss Jurisss Juriiiiiisssssssss!!
You get the idea.
It went from “Maria” to Frozen (“Let It Go”) to The Lion King (they think it’s hilarious when I sing, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”). I’ve sang out the bus window to them, in the classrooms and living rooms. I’ve shared laughter and even tears with the kids at my school, and even though I would love to say that it’s changed the way I hear and see myself, I can’t. Not yet at least.
What I can say, though, is that this music has helped shape the relationships I’ve made with these kids; it has helped me share a piece of my world with them that has always been so important to me.
A rural Colombian classroom might not be Fiddler’s stage, but I have found my place in it, in part, through music.