Photo: Katharine Da Costa
“When I grow up, I will be brave enough to fight the creatures,” my 10-year-old daughter, Hazel, sang recently, sweetly and in full voice, to a gymnasium filled with hundreds of people. Could she have sung this tidbit from Matilda just a few months ago? No way. Spending months with her school’s competitive show choir magically transformed her.
Seriously, Glee club saved my kid.
Hazel’s entire spring has been a display of surprising new confidence and creativity. She got an A+ on the presentation element of a final project, earning props for speaking loudly, clearly and with passion. At her dance recital, this formerly shy and anxious child whipped off a front flip that made the crowd gasp. She died melodramatically as Tinkerbell—then cheerfully came back to life—in her school drama club production. For Father’s Day, she choreographed a dance to the song “ABC” and performed it in our backyard.
This is the same kid who, back in kindergarten, would cry at drop-off, refusing to go into the room and telling me “Sometimes I can’t find my voice.” Her reading lagged—she was afraid to make mistakes, especially when reading aloud. She had countless tummy aches on school mornings. She would sometimes totally deflate at school, looking so sad and despondent that the teacher would call us in for meetings. At bedtime, she would dissolve into tears, listing off all the terrible things in her life.
Her anxiety came and went—she could also be sweet, cheerful and busy. She loved to draw, write and play in imaginary worlds. We’re a pretty creative household: I’m a writer, and my husband is a musician. But he is quite shy and socially anxious. From his experience, we knew that being shy is something you just live with—you’ll never love parties and impromptu speeches. But we also know that shyness can lead to anxiety, which can prevent you from doing things—even things you love. Her bedtime meltdowns made us worry that she was at risk for depression.
I asked friends who worked as psychotherapists and those who suffered from depression for ideas and read about kids and mental health. Hazel and I did a worry workbook, which had us set aside “worry time.” Then her aunt gave her a set of worry dolls from Spain: You tell these tiny, knitted creatures your problems, pop them under your pillow and they fret for you. I found that the best advice was to listen: acknowledge her feelings, show empathy and offer cuddles. By grade three, thanks to a great teacher and fewer mean-girl-related issues, she rallied.
Then last fall, at the start of grade four, Hazel announced that she would try out for the school’s award-winning glee club. She gave us a preview of her audition, pretty much whispering “You Belong to Me” by Taylor Swift. My husband took her to his home studio, printed out the lyrics, pulled out his guitar and started singing.
For the next week, it was all Taylor all the time. I’d yell-sing “Oh, can’t you see-yee-yee, you belong to mee-yee-yee!” at the top of my lungs, with my husband shouting “Sing as loud as Mommy!” Her tiny peep grew in volume.
A week after the audition, she burst through the door after school. She had made it, along with only three other kids from her grade. We were stunned. After the first rehearsal, she anxiously handed me the forms, worried that the $75 fee was too much. “I’ll pay anything to have you do this,” I told her. Maybe music and performance would be the kind of balm it had always been for my husband.
She worked hard: three lunches a week and every PD day. In the spring, they did several shows, including a provincial competition. The worry dolls got busy. Onstage, she sang hard and committed to every step, and she was thrilled to come in second at the competition. (They deserved first, the biased parent is allowed to say, right?)
After the club ended, we saw what it had done: Glee club helped her find her voice—literally. It clearly tapped into her creative drive, gave her a sense of accomplishment and helped her forget and sometimes even move past her worries. She found an immersive thrill in performance—the same buzz her older (and naturally more outgoing) brother had always found in sports. He had his trophies and high-fives. Now she had her own accolades and confidence from learning the words and mastering the dance steps.
The night of the school concert, I hung on every note, hoping my girl’s big moment would go off well. When it was over, I felt proud, of course, but also relieved: I could see a very different future for her now—one that wasn’t ruled by her anxieties. Humming with her on the way home, I found a double meaning in the words of the song. Yes, she was lucky that we could afford to send her to creative classes and that her school had such an amazing program. But she was also brave enough to fight the creatures and find her passion.