Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My Career as a Choir Boy

When I was about 10 years old I was drafted into the boys choir at Our Lady of Lourdes school. Brother Justinian, the Franciscan Brother who was also Principal of the school, ran the choir like a Marine drill sergeant. He was a foreboding figure in his long dark robe and jet black hair, combed straight back from his forehead. When the ranks of the choir started thinning because of graduations, or young boys' voices changing from soprano to that quivering in-between boy-man squeal, Brother J would come into our classrooms hunting for fresh replacements.

He would have the class stand and sing some well-known tune while he prowled up and down the rows talent scouting. In my tough Brooklyn neighborhood, most of us wanted no part of joining a boy's choir, so logic would dictate that you sing off key to avoid being picked. Brother Justinian was so feared by us however that no boy dared to tank the audition. If anything, our competitive natures kicked in and we actually tried our damnedest to please Darth Vader. Having a good soprano voice and, if I must say so, a feel for singing and music I, along with a number of my classmates, was chosen.

We practiced every morning before school in the Principal's office where Darth kept a piano. One of the reasons our choir was so good is that we practiced so hard. The Mass and the hymns were sung in Latin in those days, so we learned to sing them to phonetic perfection even though we had no idea what the words meant. On Sundays, High Mass in our parish was at 11 am. That meant the full treatment including three priests saying the Mass (mostly Irish, not one Indian in the bunch), and the full boys' choir in the ornate choir loft in the rear of the cavernous church.

Up in the loft we stood on a wooden, bleacher-type structure so that when the faithful looked up, they could see row upon row of angelic faces radiating down on them. We each were issued a thick hymnal in case we forgot the words, and each week Brother Justinian, seated at the massive pipe organ, would sternly admonish us NOT to drop the hymnals during mass. It's funny when somebody tells you NOT to do something, how often the very opposite occurs. Of course some kids would try to knock the hymnals out of the hands of other kids just to see the look Brother J shot in the direction of the offender.

A lot of us were not above mischief when things got slow out in the neighborhood streets, but when we put on our white shirts and blue ties and filed up the stairs into that choir loft every Sunday, something happened to us. As much as we didn't want to be there, when those first organ chords were struck, we sang for all we were worth. I can't explain it other than to say that most of us were into sports and had very competitive natures. If you were good enough, Brother J would pick you to solo on beautiful hymns like the Ave Maria, and that was the boys' choir equivalent of hitting one over the fence.

I'm very grateful for people like Brother Justinian who were in my young life to teach me that sometimes we are thrust into situations we would not have chosen voluntarily, but once you are tapped on the shoulder, you suck it up and give it your best shot. That mindset has helped me through some tight places.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

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