Sunday 14 July 2013

High School Musical

I am sitting on an uncomfortable little chair again.

The orange bucket seat is hard underneath me, its short plastic legs perilously splayed. The set-up has got no more comfortable since last year's school show, or the one before. Lines of parents in front of me shift uncomfortably in their Lilliputian pews. Betty, at my side, has already decided that she'd rather stand, and is hopping from foot to little foot, sandals clacking on the parquet floor, as she tries to launch herself above the audience blocking her view.

"Where's Grace?" she asks. "Where is she?"

I tell her that Grace is getting ready and will be along soon. Then I look down the row to Grace's dad, to her stepbrothers J and D and to her stepdad, all of whom look as though they too would be hopping from foot to foot to see her, if convention allowed. I smile, and they all smile back, and we sit a little longer listening to the blarts and burps of the band warming up, and the buzz of people arriving. It is hot, and the air conditioning is not quite keeping up. The stage is set with a canvas, bathed in a sultry red light, which bears the legend: Rydell High School. I have butterflies in my stomach.

Just as I am about to check my watch for the seventh time, two women stop beside my seat. One I know well, the other is a familiar face at the school gates for the last several years. They look down at me with the shiny excitement of people who are about to hand you the perfect present to unwrap. "Haven't you seen it yet? Haven't you seen her?" they ask. I smile and shake my head and tell them that Grace's aunties came the night before last. "She's amazing!" says one. "Amazing," concurs the other, grinning. "Such a voice!" They nudge me and then each other, mouthing O's of amazement and waggling their eyebrows in glee at me and I can feel that suddenly, I am beaming. "You wait, there'll be tears! You're going to have a little cry tonight, you are!" they promise me, and leave, chuckling and casting mischievous looks over their shoulders while bustling to their seats, for it's clear that the show is about to start.

My stomach is doing flips now: I feel as though I am perched at the top of a rollercoaster track, awaiting the swooping departure down.

Then suddenly, the band is playing that unmistakeable tune and everyone in the audience goes: ooh, and thrills a little bit, and the children are marching on and there is Grace and oh my god she's so beautiful and her eyes are bright and she's looking for me while she sings, searching the rows and she's found me and - though I wouldn't have thought it possible - she lights up a bit more and she sings straight to me, shoulder to shoulder with her classmates:

"We take the pressure and we throw away
Conventionality belongs to yesterday
There is a chance that we can make it so far
We start believing now that we can be who we are - "

and I am lost already, rummaging in my handbag for a tissue. The audience is already clapping in time and whistling and the children all stand a bit straighter and grin out at us from under the lights. The song finishes and - before a word of dialogue is uttered - the place goes barmy. Whoops and cheers and whistles from the audience seem to push out the walls and the doors and the roof - surely the room can't contain such sonic pressure - and Betty puts her hands over her ears in sudden shock. I am whooping along with the rest, while wondering how I'm going to make it through to the end without being reduced to a puddle of salt water.

But the show has started properly now and the kids are talking, exchanging pretty lines and pert put-downs, strutting around the stage like they own it - because tonight, they really do. Danny is played by a tiny trim-lined lothario in black with a bouffant and liquid eyes - a dead ringer for Prince, circa 1982, minus the stack heels; Sandy in yellow cardie and skirt is played with sweet earnestness by a blue-eyed, blonde beauty. They are lovely. But I can't take my eyes off Grace for long. She is playing one of the Pink Ladies - Marty, with her boyfriends and gum and diamante sunglasses,  big hair and vulnerable gobbiness - and she has it down pat. She lays on the wicked asides, rolling her eyes and pulling faces for the audience, and we love it. The minutes whizz by - I haven't had this much fun for ages - and suddenly it's time for her solo.

The dialogue dies away and Grace walks to the middle of the stage and her co-stars form an expectant circle around her. The band gives her a cue, and she opens her mouth and somehow Tina Turner has appeared from somewhere. Grace's voice is huge and absolutely on the money and the audience to a man sits back and goes: whoah. I am so proud I feel as though I could burst out of my clothes. And - bugger it - I am crying again, while beaming at her as she looks for my approval while she sings. When she finishes, the hall goes nuts again. As we file out for the interval several more mums come to me and tell me what a talent my daughter has, how great her singing is, and I gush back excitedly thank you, she does and it is and isn't your boy wonderful and your girl is just great and just like that old hurts pass and Grace and I are part of the community again.

Then the show goes on, and on. I can't feel my buttocks and I have cramp in my legs, but the torture of my seating barely matters. The Rizzo sisters come on - the role split into two here to showcase more talent. They are the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of tartness, the gorgeous girls playing them bubbling with wicked pleasure at some of the verbal slap-downs they get to deliver to their male classmates, who wince theatrically, and stagger about for laughs (which they get in bucket-loads.) The dance competition arrives, and the class bounces so high to the hand-jive that the audience laughs out loud and loves them all even more. Cha-Cha, stealing both Danny and the trophy, is played to delicious perfection by another beauty, with ebony hair and tight, effortless dance moves that make us all gasp.

As the children gather for the final number, my mind goes back over the past few years, over Grace's experiences at this school. I remember the hurts and the endless visits to the office, the nights in the kitchen going over the latest incident and the latest row and the latest fights in class. I remember the hours spent trying to summon up help, and cut our way through the thicket of bureaucracy put up to stop us finding the pot of gold we needed.  I remember the weeks of feeling so lonely and so worried for my lonely, worried girl. I remember that in the end, help did come, and with it awareness and tolerance and friendship.

Grace is standing in the middle of the stage now, in a row of children, with her arms around the classmates to either side, and their arms around her. They are swaying, and singing:

"We go together like ramma lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong
Chang chang changity chang shoo bop that's the way it should be, woooo yeah!"

- and in the middle of the silly lyrics it seems they all realise too that they've all come together, grown up together and made this wonderful thing together, and they hug each other and sing -

"We'll always be together
We'll always be together.."

After the show, Grace asks if she can stay for the after-party please. I hug her and tell her of course she can. I tell her she was wonderful, and I love her so much - but she is already gone, running down the corridor. Her friends are waiting.

Grace Under Pressure: Going the distance as an Asperger's Mum is published by Piatkus in the UK. Details here

It will be published in the United States by New World Library in September. Details here


  1. What a beautiful post and yes, you made me cry. I have a teen that I brought home from school five years ago ... and sometimes, just sometimes I wonder if I should have tried something else for her, a different view.
    Beautful xxx

  2. I was on the edge of my seat with expectant excitement right along with you. Such a beautiful description of the swelling of pride we feel when our show the world what they can do at the same time that they search for us to acknowledge. You are making me (probably for the first time) year for my kids to get out of the younger years. : ) I just enjoy your writing so much!

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