Children shine at Philly Shadow 2000

By Jillian Armsbury

The train ride from New York City to Philadelphia is about an hour and a half, pretty quick compared to driving, an easy ride; the train moves fast. I finished my gig at the illustrious "Tavern On The Green" and rushed down to Penn Station to catch the 12:30 a.m. train to Philly - "Shadow Convention" here I come! I was going to say something, have an opportunity to sing my heart out, share the experiences of my hard life through my music. I was also going to direct a children's choir I had never met.

I arrived at 2 a.m., tired, red eyes, overwhelmed by personal difficulties, my own problems truly preoccupying me. Dad picked me up at the Philly Station, and we walked back to the dorm to meet Nora, Mary, Mattie, other chaperones, and the children, the short walk full of information about these kids, their histories, their stories. Dad told me there was to be a rehearsal shortly. Now! At 2 a.m.? Well OK, I could do this. I must say I was curious about the kids, curious and a bit wary. Dad had mentioned that they weren't really a choir, and half of them had never met the other half.

Once in the (Drexel University) dormitory, I left my few belongings in our assigned room, breathed a sigh of relief, brushed my teeth, fixed my hair a little, put on some lipstick, sucked it up and went down the hall to the "rehearsal" area, a hallway bulge, circular. The group of 25 was sitting around, some wrapped in blankets, kind of quiet, not what you expect from kids - ranging in age from babies to late teens. There was no particular excitement or exuberance. In fact, I felt at first a sense of gloom amongst them, a light turned off - the shine in some eyes dimmed. Yet, it is very late in the night for all of us.

I extended my hand to a young man, expecting he would be happy to meet me, even at 3 a.m. After all, I was the "professional" singer from New York City they had been told about. He shrunk away in what felt like fear. It hurt me for a moment. I pulled inside myself for a moment to consider the situation. The song copies were arranged in front of them - "People Get Ready", a classic, uplifting, rejoicing song of inspiration and hope!

All right, they would CERTAINLY get into this! So, they started to sing, and let me hear a few voices. Several voices came through sweet and pretty, but we were a long way from being a choir. I had to find the leaders in the group. I got a vibe from a few of them, the less fearful, the ones with little smiles peeking through timid faces, the youngest ones at first. I decided to focus on these young faces, pull it out of them if it meant the risk of getting tough. We had NO TIME! The performance was tomorrow morning!

I held my head up, decided it was mostly up to me at that very moment to convince them they could do it; they could pull this off, but they HAD to BELIEVE in what it was they were about to do. They were about to become the 'Minnesota children's choir', as the formal agenda had billed their appearance. I held back the tears as I raised my voice. They AND me did not travel all this way to mess this up, and they could MAKE this thing happen. They had something to say and had to make people listen.

The room was hushed; some eyes now widened. I had them all now, looking to me for guidance. So we did People get ready over and over again, putting steps with the music, swaying back and forth together, soon waking and annoying other dorm residents. We got solos from the bravest vocalists, and the words were drilled into their tired heads for memory's sake until it was at last a "piece", a credible representation of who they are in song, if not a well rehearsed choir. We did have two songs and two original poems of the heart.

Besides, the main mission was to assure that people and press attending this first Shadow Convention in historic Philadelphia would hear the cries of these children, and they were indeed crying. I weep again in sympathy for this crying too. My father was taken from me when I was 11 years old. The judge gave my dad 18 years. I thought I'd never see him again. What I remember is how much it hurt to see him being driven away, the handcuffs, his eyes peering out the back window of the police car, pulling away from me, tearing away our life, piercing my heart with pain and deep sorrow.

Yes, I read these young faces all too well. All of them are together now, but yet alone, missing integral parts of their families, scared and toughing it out in some of the hardest circumstances imaginable. Performance hour arrives on The Annenberg Center stage (about 10 a.m., just 7 hours after our dorm meeting), and the kids are nervous and excited. They have warmed up to me considerably, and I to them; hugs are happening, smiles present, dialogue going on. We were going to have fun! The pep talk about having something to say kicked in, and they were about as ready as they were going to be, considering our unique rehearsal process. I really had to give it to them. It's not easy to make a 'joyful noise'.

They were going to get on that stage and open their mouths and "sing" to the world, a scary thing let me tell you! So, all lined up, faces softened a bit, vulnerability present, looking to me with those dead eyes come to life, they marched onto that stage and did their thing. No cliché here, there was not a dry eye in the house.

The feeling in the packed room was so intense, so profoundly sad, all souls touched by the simplicity of the display, the youth, the innocence, the pain in their eyes, finally coming through in song and poetry. Yes, these children rose to the occasion alright, as voices speaking loud and clear, saying to the world, "We miss our moms, we miss our dads".

I let my tears fall; I was so proud of their valiant effort. And as they filed off the stage to a standing ovation, they too let their tears fall, a relief for them, so young and knowing fear. We took the burden for a brief moment, let them lean on all who heard their cries and rejoiced in that special moment.

Excerpts from a daughter to her imprisoned father.

Dear Daddy Chuck,

How's my dad? I hope you are doing good. I just got my ears pierced today. Auntie Patty took me to a shopping center where they did it with one of those air gun things. Dad, I'm glad to be here with my family again. I really like it here dad; I have adjusted pretty well. Patty is pretty strict about some things, but that's good for us.

We are going to have a big Christmas this year. Grandma Mae is going to come down and so is Doug's family. I haven't been to one of those in a long time.

Dad, I've been to so many lifestyles. I'd like to just take one and stick with it cause I'm so tired. I still cry sometimes because I want my mom and dad. I still have a lot of stuff to face.

When mom comes back, when you get back out of the joint, my future, and all of those things are tough decisions.

I'm going to learn how to play the piano and guitar and be a singer at hotels and things like that. I also want to work my way towards being an actress. I really like that stuff, and I think I'm good at it.

This must have been one of the longest letters I've ever written. I guess I just had a lot to say to you. I'll close this letter with my utmost love. - Jill Armsbury

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