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On December 6, 2011, my daughter McKayla got ready for the Harwood Winter Concert. She was nervous with anticipation and was excited to go and sing with her friends. McKayla was diagnosed with Williams Syndrome at the age of 2, a rare genetic disorder that effects 1 in 20,000 births. Children with Williams Syndrome have a natural affinity towards music.
Happy with the thought of performing in front of a crowd, McKayla did not seem to mind when she was told to take a seat with the other kids with disabilities in the auditorium. McKayla in fact did not notice that all of her other high school peers who were in the chorus with her were not sitting in the empty seats behind her.
As she sat there chatting with her friends, most of the Harwood chorus group was backstage warming up and practicing for that night’s performance. After awhile the reserved seats behind my daughter began to fill with the other teenagers awaiting their turn on the stage.
After a stunning performance given by Chris Rivers and the Harwood Band, the children in the advanced choir group got up and proceeded on stage. The “I Cantori” group, as they were called, mesmerized the audience with angelic vocals that demonstrated not only these kids’ talents and natural abilities but their many hours of commitment to the songs that they performed.
Special mention was given to two students as they were invited to Carnegie Hall in New York to demonstrate their musical skill. A fundraiser was just outside the doors of the lobby and people were encouraged to contribute to their trip. After a standing ovation, the students left the stage. Up next was the Harwood High School Choir.
I first discovered something was amiss when all of the students (except those in this picture) left the auditorium. In a few moments I saw the students entering backstage, each receiving a “high five” as they passed by Diane Phillips on their way to their place on the stage. Within a brief moment the students were settled and a new set of music began.
All along, my daughter and her friends who practiced and worked so hard throughout the fall sat there in the front row waiting with anticipation to be called up to join their peers on stage. When the music began, I could not hear it because of the intense pain that I felt in my heart, as again my child was not accepted in our society of normalcy. If only she had not been born with a disability she would be accepted and would share the music of this night instead of the silence of discrimination.
After the first song, the music paused and all eyes focused on Diane Phillips as she walked down the steps to take my daughter’s hand and lead her onstage. An awkward moment was had as McKayla was moved onto the stage. McKayla beamed with pride, she sneezed startling the student in front of her bringing lightness to the tension in the air. Over the next several songs I was nervous that McKayla might mess things up, have an off pitch, or wave to a friend in the audience. She performed beautifully! After a few more songs the music was stopped again.
Diane Phillips walked down the steps to the other girls with disabilities and assisted them up to join their peers. This time, however, she did not place the other six girls in amongst the other students. She arranged them on the sides in a way that stood out. Again there was a long awkward silence as things were arranged for the new performers. The music began again for the last two songs of the set, and I finally heard for the first time that night a balance and harmony that made the songs feel right. For McKayla and our family, it was our night at Carnegie Hall.
The tragedy of this story, besides the fact that it is true, is that my wife found out on December 2 that Diane Phillips had planned to have our daughter sing only two songs. We went to the right people within the school and voiced our concern and we were told that “Michael Woods spoke with the chorus teacher after school. The teacher agreed that all of the students will be included in all six songs. I am pleased that the problem has been resolved. Thank you for making me aware of the problem.”
The problem still remains. I am not sure as to how this story will end. That will be a journey in itself. My hope is that these students will gain the respect, equality and inclusion that they rightfully deserve so that they can be heard.
Kingsbury lives in Waitsfield.