When I tell people I grew up wanting to be a pop singer, it’s mostly met with laughter. And who can blame them? My voice is far from melodious, and my vibe doesn’t exactly elicit visions of foam fingers and bedazzled ass-floss (or whatever’s in vogue these days).
But preteen me wasn’t in on the joke. By the time I reached puberty, I’d convinced myself that my sole purpose in life was to perform. I wrote love songs (with lyrics so original a spam bot could’ve composed them), wailing them in my bedroom against Janet Jackson instrumentals. I formed an R&B group with my camp friends, a trio that spent more time arguing over what to call itself than it did singing (the only thing we agreed on was that our name should be three-initialed, like TLC and SWV). Whitney Houston’s self-titled album blared from the bathroom every time I took a shower (I believed the children were our future—me, specifically). I’d sooner chew someone’s hand off than let them touch the remote whenever Sister Act II aired on TV, and I memorized the words to everything from “Swinging on a Star” by Bing Crosby to “Stroke You Up” by Changing Faces.
But despite devoting all my time to music, I wasn’t very vocal about my passion. I kept my dream of attending LaGuardia High School a secret, and I was just as quiet while whispering Grammy acceptance speeches in front of my bedroom mirror. I was a tall and stringy girl back then, with an ass like a wall and a chest to match. I used to cut the brand tags off my clothes so my friends couldn’t see where they were from. I had gapped teeth (“So did Lauren Hutton!” my mom would say, as if that would make any ten-year-old feel better). Girls like me weren’t pop stars, and putting my eagerness on display would just lead to embarrassment. It’s shameful, to want something so bad.
And it’s for that reason celebrity earned my admiration and desire. From my vantage point, the megastars I saw in magazines weren’t desperate. They were polished, brilliant, and exempt from inadequacy and awkwardness. That’s what I was chasing. I didn’t want fame, or money, or perfect hair. I wanted to be so talented that my worth would never be called into question by anyone, including myself.
So when I found out Mr. Zwirn had transferred to my junior high school, I thought it a cosmic miracle. Mr. Zwirn was something of a local legend, a hard-ass who made his show choir practice before, during, and after school. But that same hard-ass booked gigs at the likes of Disney World and the White House. At age eleven, I’d sung in no venue more prestigious than the Williamsburgh Savings Bank. The prospect of flying around the country to perform had me reeling. Mr. Zwirn would be my ticket to fame and self-love, or at least to Orlando.
I’d attended M.S. 51 for two years before summoning the courage to audition for the show choir. On a warm September afternoon, I arrived to the quiet chorus room with a couple of friends who’d all agreed to audition on the same day, mutual moral support and all that. When Mr. Zwirn waltzed in, he told us we’d be singing a song of our choosing, followed by a rendition of “Tomorrow,” that Annie song. When he called my name, I climbed the empty bleachers, legs wobbling on wooden beams. First, I sang “I’m Goin’ Down” by Mary J. Blige because the 90s, but Zwirn cut me off mid-chorus and asked that I begin “Tomorrow.” He plunked his finger down on a piano key and waited.
The loudness of my own voice surprised me. I guess when you’re always singing small enough that the shower drowns you out, you never learn what you’re capable of. But for the fist time, I heard my own voice. And it wasn’t terrible. It shook now and then, but there was something else there. Desire, maybe, or sheer glee. Whatever it was, Mr. Zwirn heard it too, because a week later I landed a spot in show choir.
I flipped out. Told everyone in earshot, skipped through the hallways, doodled “Stephanie <3 Singing” all over the covers of my spiral notebooks (I was twelve, that’s what we did back then). My dream had come true! I would get into LaGuardia, I would be universally loved, I would finally learn the words to that Christmas song in Home Alone!
I rode this high for about a month, until my parents sat me down and said, “We’re moving in two weeks.” Among other things, this meant I wouldn’t be performing in the winter show; a spectacle I’d wanted to take part in for ages (two years). I’d dutifully watched Zwirn’s chorus from the audience every season, teeming with envy and simultaneously picking out my next boyfriend from a lineup of tenors. Now I’d never be more than a spectator.
I left behind my friends, the choir, and my dreams the day we packed up the last of our belongings into my dad’s Nissan Quest and drove north. From then on, my budding stardom lived only on the pages of my journal, where I retold the tale of how close I’d come. I wrote of how unfair it was, being subjected to this move; how my parents had destroyed my trajectory; how my life was ruined. As a peace offering, my parents promised to enroll me in voice lessons once we all settled in, but for what? No one would hear me from way out here. I grew despondent, and worse, I grew desperate — the one thing I never wanted to be. But I just believed so hard that I only warranted acceptance if I were talented.
I didn’t know back then that the one person I craved acceptance from was myself. I didn’t know that being good at something doesn’t just make you okay, that it doesn’t erase whatever you think is wrong with you. It won’t make you sexier, it won’t conjure up confidence that you don’t already have, it won’t cure desperation. I gave talent all of this credit; I gave myself none.
So it’s a good thing my dream died an almost-immediate, painful death. Aside from being the first of many instances I had to learn something external couldn’t fix what’s inside of me, I also learned that our happiest moments aren’t born out of completing a singular goal. Sometimes they come in the form of facing our fears, of surprising ourselves, of realizing just how loud our voices can be.
And anyway, there’s always karaoke.
This post originally appeared on Medium.