She sang to us. She really did.
That first day, as we settled into our new desks, Miss Cheney sang “Getting to Know You.” The other grade four kids snickered, and I probably went along, but this teacher fascinated me. That was the day I met the woman who taught me the survival skills I would need in a confusing world where any display of emotion was castigated as an annoying weakness at best or punishable disloyalty at worst.
She was a little over the top, our Miss Cheney. She wore pretty flower-pink lipstick and wide swinging skirts and colourful scarves over soft low-cut sweaters that managed to just graze our strict principal’s nerves. She taught us arithmetic with music, poetry with music and gym with music.
I was the kind of kid who tended to disappear in a classroom. My parents once went to a parent/teacher interview with a teacher who insisted I wasn’t in his class. I was. My main coping skill up to that point was knowing how not to make an impression. But Miss Cheney noticed.
She noticed I was sad. She noticed I could sing. She never asked me to tell her why I was sad. Perhaps she knew I couldn’t. Instead she took me aside and explained to me that when it wasn’t safe to cry or tell people how I felt because they would be angry or disappointed, I could take my sadness and put it in a song and people would say it was beautiful.
She taught me “Come Unto Him” from the Messiah. She taught me “I Wonder As I Wander” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” She taught me “Whispering Hope.”
People said it was beautiful. Then they cried. I no longer needed to.
I learned music was a safe place for sorrow, for joy, for anger — for all the tumultuous emotions that later pummeled me in adolescence.
I learned music was a safe way to express my prayers when I had no words.
Someone mentioned recently that when people quote the famous verse in Romans 8, “All things work together for good…,” it is usually quoted without the previous verses.
“Go back and check them out,” they said, “It may change how you understand that verse.”
This is The Message paraphrase by Eugene Peterson:
“All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.
Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” (Romans 8:22-28)
I know deep in my heart there is more than this. Not all communication with Abba Father needs to be in words. (Neither English nor any other spoken tongues are his first language.) When we groan in pain beyond words he intercedes, translating our sighs into even deeper expressions of longing. We work together for good. Together we pray for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
This is what Miss Cheney was trying to tell me, and the day when I could sing Rachmaninoff’s wordless Vocalise, lost in prayer, I knew she had been a messenger of grace in my life
God bless you, dear Miss Cheney, wherever you are.
I no longer have the voice I once had, (I now use art and photography to try to say what I cannot) but this song still expresses the unexpressable in my heart. In this recording Anna Moffo sings the Rachmaninoff Vocalise No. 14.