O Say Can You Sing?: Confessions of a Nervous Fourth-Grade School Actor

The beginning of July is here, and it’s almost that time again, when Americans from all walks of life celebrate their dominance by making things explode. I know what you’re thinking. That’s every day in the U.S., and you’re right, but this one also involves hot weather, cooked meats, and lots of emergency room visits. Yes, it’s July 4th, American Independence Day.

Americans let it all hang out on July 4th. We sell furniture at incredibly low prices, hold parades and picnics, and attend concerts accompanied by multi-colored fireworks. Back when I was in elementary school and this time of year arrived, we students were usually forced to put on a pageant. I recall our teachers saying it was a patriotic way to redeem ourselves for ill behavior, but I suspect it was because they derived sadistic glee from watching us make fools of ourselves. Looking back now, I can’t fault them for that.

One year, for a fourth-grade production, I was picked to play the part of Francis Scott Key, the dude who wrote “The Star Spangled Banner.” The best part was I would get to wear a cape and a cool hat, both of which were made for me by my dear aunt Brenda, and made very well. It may not sound like it, but that’s a huge deal to a fourth grader, or at least it was back then. I assume they’re harder to impress these days.  

It was an exciting time. We started rehearsals, and I learned my lines like a good little thespian. Memorization was a challenge, but it was fun pretending to be someone I wasn’t, and I loved doing voices. Sure, I’d done school plays before, but this time I wouldn’t be playing a tree or crowd member/wall. Now, I’d be the star. Nothing could go wrong.

Something went wrong. A week before our performance, our director mentioned in passing that I would be singing “The Banner,” as we insiders called it. During all the practice, the running of lines and building of sets, no one had ever mentioned anything about singing, especially that notoriously unsingable song, the one that, as Kurt Vonnegut has pointed out, has all those question marks. Bottom line: I didn’t take the news well.

You may be having trouble reconciling my fear of singing with my willingness to hop up on stage in a cape and a hat, and I get that. There’s no logic or reason involved in the thought processes of a fourth grader, so I have no ready answer. Yes, I already knew I was the lead in the play, expected to stand center stage and walk, talk, and gesticulate convincingly. On top of that, I was going to wear a hat and cape in front of an audience of my peers and their parents, yet I drew the line at having to sing. It made no sense.   

While I didn’t stop to think about it then, I’ve since wondered why our director hadn’t mentioned the singing part before. Maybe she thought I already knew, or perhaps it was the prospect of seeing my “deer in the headlights” impression when I found out about the song that inspired her to keep it from me.   

Unfortunately, the idea of calling them on the questionable historicity of Francis Scott Key standing astride the ramparts of Fort McHenry belting out the demo version of our national anthem wouldn’t occur to me until years later. I probably could’ve made a good case that it was pushing it to think it was a song at that point, too, but I’m not sure it would’ve helped my situation. I was stuck, pure and simple. The show, anachronisms and all, was going on.

Then, something odd began to come over me. As the big day approached, I was surprised to find my anxiety fading into something like grim fatalism. Armed with a quiet resolve beyond my years, I decided to go through with the play. Don’t misunderstand: I was more than certain that when faced by that crowd of gawking onlookers, I’d freeze up and embarrass everyone in the production. I’d just decided I could live with it. Besides, it was their fault for expecting me do it.

A few days later, it was go time. I’d like to say I got up and wowed the crowd that night, but I can’t. The problem is I don’t remember. I recall donning my hat and cape (How many times do you get to say that?) and getting ready for the show, but that’s about it. The next thing I knew, I was backstage happily drinking syrupy fruit punch and eating sugar cookies. Somehow, my merciful mind blocked out the events of what happened on that stage.

So while you’re eating barbecued ribs and burgers and blowing things up this year, think about Francis Scott Key. And while you’re at it, spare a thought for that clueless, scared kid in a cape and hat who played him on stage all those years ago. For what it’s worth, I hope I did him justice. I never asked any substantial questions about what took place, and I think that was a good decision. My mom said I did a great job, but she would have said that even if I’d forgotten my pants and vomited on the audience.

Maybe I did a great job, or maybe I bombed. It’s possible I stood in front of all those people and mumbled my way through the thing. That one gets my vote, actually. For a fourth-grade actor, though, that’s practically Shakespeare in the lunchroom.