Piano Lessons, the Olympics, Eating Chips, and Wearing a Crown…

It’s remarkable how memories about a person or place can remind you of something completely unrelated. Every four years, when the Olympics roll around, I always think of Lovis Owens, because the Olympics remind me of the track superstar, Jesse Owens.  For most of my childhood, I believed that THE Jesse Owens was married to our babysitter, housekeeper, and sweet friend. The great Olympic runner once said, “If you don’t try to win you might as well hold the Olympics in somebody’s backyard.”

I have to admit, I find it both amazing and awe-inspiring when I hear the stories about the time, dedication and sacrifices Olympic athletes and their parents have made in pursuit of their dreams. As I pause to reflect on this, I think about my own parents, who also gave much time, money and gasoline to drive me all over East Texas to participate in a plethora of activities and lessons, knowing there would never be any future payoffs or endorsements.

I was a young “Sue Heck,” somewhat socially awkward, skinny with big teeth, but always wanting to be a part of ordinary things in the grandest of ways. I was a joiner. Being in the Olympics, however, was never one of my goals and the only long-term use for any sort of lessons that I could see would be preparation for my quest of possibly being crowned “Miss Camp Huawni” one day.

Chasing after the seemingly elusive pageant title wasn’t always my dream, and my mom was definitely the farthest thing in the world from being a “stage mother.”  When it came to beauty queen status, I fell somewhere between “not being the belle of the ball, but not being a wallflower either.”

My mother’s motive for enrolling me in various lessons and activities was simple. When I was very young, I was extremely shy and my journey through dance, twirling, tumbling, Children’s Summer Theater, sewing lessons and piano lessons began as a pathway to socialization more than becoming an accomplished virtuoso in any of these endeavors.

At age four, I was enrolled in the Denard Hayden School of Dance. The instructor, Mr. Hayden, was an older man who wore glasses and for some reason reminded me of Milton Berle. He was usually smoking a cigarette, and I faintly remember him using a cigarette holder which put him in the same sort of scary/creepy category as Cruella Deville and my neighbor, Dr. Vera Dugas.

The dance floor in his studio was wooden which made the sound of disapproval that much louder as he tapped his cane to get our attention or correct our missteps. I don’t remember much about dancing lessons except when our lesson was over and it was time to go, the little ballerinas lined up and individually said “thank you” to Mr. Hayden and in return he gave us a piece of coffee flavored candy. Coffee flavored candy for kids? That flavor choice truly has been one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of my life.

I took a hiatus from dancing lessons for several years until Judy Ann’s School of Dance opened in Nacogdoches. In a time before Madonna, Cher, Pink and Adele, and The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, it was pretty cool to have a dance teacher known only by her first name. We thought her studio was so fancy because with our leotard we were required to wear pink tights, rather than the ordinary black ones.

I thoroughly enjoyed taking tap, ballet and jazz and my first recital was “The Wizard of Oz.” To this day I can still do the tap dance I performed as a “Munchkin.” (Shuffle step, pull step, step. Shuffle step, shuffle hop step). When I was in fifth grade, Judy Ann moved her studio to Lufkin and my mom traded out with Karen Roeseler’s mom, and they chauffeured us to lessons twice a week.

Sadly, by then the thrill of dance was gone. Ballet became a real drag, and my heart just wasn’t in it. Words like “battement tendu, demi and grande plié” kept me awake at night. The rule in our house was you could never quit any activity during the year or the season. When you did decide to no longer participate, then it was up to the lesson taker (me) to tell the teacher. This was one time my parents bent the rule and let me quit during the year, not so much because they gave in to my whining, but it was very difficult to get me to Lufkin twice a week with everyone else’s busy schedule, and let’s face it, I seriously had no future in dance.

So there you have it. I would never be in “Swan Lake,” but my final swan song was epic when I skipped out of Judy Ann’s dance studio, felt the rush of sweet freedom flowing through my veins, kicked off my “dancing shoes” and never looked back. I’m still known to two-step from time to time, and enjoy dancing in general, but all in all, if I were critiqued, I’m sure the comments from the judges would be, “She dances like a stiff, uptight white girl.” Elaine Benes comes to mind.

For a brief period, I went through a phase of wanting to be a “Twirl-O-Jack” after watching them perform at SFA football games. The shiny sequined costumes were most alluring, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the feature twirler, who not only threw several batons in the air and caught them, but also twirled with knives and fire. Needless to say, my twirling lessons didn’t last long, much to the relief of firemen and Emergency Medical Technicians everywhere.

The lessons and genre which held the most promise in my parents’ quest to educate me culturally, or find out if I had any kind of aptitude or talent, seemed to be piano lessons. I began taking lessons in third grade from Irene Waters, arguably one of the best piano teachers anywhere. Mrs. Waters lived in a split level house several blocks from my elementary school. I had lessons twice a week, a private lesson and a group lesson, and I felt so very grown up as my parents let me walk to my lessons after school.

I always arrived on time, ready to learn. Unfortunately, my parents weren’t always there on time to pick me up, and on one occasion, I was actually forgotten! It was utterly humiliating. Once students completed their lessons, we were to remain outside until our parents showed up. It was completely embarrassing and nerve-racking to watch as two other kids came and went and were picked up by their parents while I was still waiting, literally feeling like “a child who was left behind,” acting as if it was my choice to sit outside for over an hour, hoping my parents would someday remember me and take me home.

The story has been maintained to this day that my parents were simply running late and/or there was some sort of miscommunication and I was not “forgotten,” but I’m old enough now to know the truth, and have to say, as a parent, much to my shame, I’ve done the same thing.

I really enjoyed playing the piano at first, and learned fairly quickly. Reading music came easily for me, and I could play pretty well, although it was sort of choppy. I had small fingers and sometimes found it difficult to make them do what they were supposed to.

During my second year of lessons, my long-time friend John Dickson joined the group, and just like the book series, I soon found myself “Left Behind.” John, who has composed music for “General Hospital,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and “Burn Notice,” to name a few, was and still is a prodigy on the piano, as well as many other instruments. He could play anything by ear, and was simply amazing. To add to his resume, as a third grader, he also knew how to use the word “substantial” correctly in a sentence. After all these years, whenever I use or hear that word I still think of him.

At the end of our group lesson each week, Mrs. Waters gave us an assignment sheet which listed what we needed to practice and also had instructions for what to include in our “make up” piece.  Yes, each week we had to play an original piece, complete with a title, for the other students in the class.

John composed the most awesome songs, always with a catchy title and over the top in both creativity and performance. My enthusiasm for piano lessons was waning and I took laziness and lack of practice to a new level by sitting down at the piano during my lessons and making up my piece then and there. I lasted two more years and then I decided I didn’t want to take piano anymore. I wanted to grow my fingernails out and as a student of the piano that was forbidden.

When I told Mrs. Waters that I would no longer be taking piano lessons, her response was, “That is probably for the best.” To this day, however, I attribute my love for music and my ability to successfully run a music category on “Jeopardy” to Mrs. Waters.


Throughout my growing up years, I participated in the Children’s Summer Theater, tumbling, and was enrolled in a two week sewing course offered by the County Extension Agency. The red skirt I attempted to make was never completed, but I did have a blast watching Carla Johnson put the pedal to the metal on the sewing machine next to me. If those machines had speedometers, I’m sure she would have been clocked going over 100 miles per hour.

As I mentioned earlier, I always wanted to participate in every program, play, talent show or competition. I feel at this time, I should make a public apology to all the students and teachers who had to witness my dance routine to the theme from “Hawaii 5-0” in the Raguet Elementary Talent Show of 1973. Looking back, I know it had to be painful to watch, but maybe my enthusiasm and zest for life made up for my complete lack of skill and talent.

My performance was not unlike Olive’s dance to “Superfreak” in “Little Miss Sunshine,” except, thankfully, my family didn’t come on stage and join in on the humiliation.

Click here to watch the dance to Super Freak

The sad thing is, later that year I reprised the same dance (the one performed at Raguet Elementary, not “Little Miss Sunshine”) in the talent competition portion of the Miss Camp Huawni pageant, except I changed the song to “Down by the Lazy River.”  I truly thought my ending of a cartwheel landing into the splits would catch the eyes of the judges. It didn’t, but on a positive note, I was given the honor of being named “Miss Congeniality.” One of the other contestants even told me that everyone voted for me in that category because they knew I didn’t have a shot at winning anything else!  Hey, I’ll take it!

I’m not sure of the reason or how it actually happened, but my last year at camp, when I represented the campers from my cabin as Miss Cedar Ridge, the honor of finally being named Miss Huawni was bestowed upon me. Maybe after many years I’d finally worn the judges down and they felt if they gave me the crown I would forever be excluded from being in the pageant again. I know it wasn’t based on my talent but maybe somewhere within me they saw persistence and dedication, the spirit of never giving up.

I believe through all the years of lessons and training, I had gained something called confidence and the ability to be comfortable in my own skin.

I am truly thankful that throughout all of these lessons and activities, my parents kept their perspective and sanity. They never pushed me to do things so they could live vicariously through me, but rather intended each opportunity to be an experience which would somehow help me learn about life, competition, friendship and growing up.

Several years ago, I was watching an episode of “Dance Moms,” and someone asked this poor frazzled little girl, whose mother was obviously pushing her to be a dancer, if she enjoyed dancing. The little girl replied, “I just want to watch TV and eat chips.” A girl after my own heart!

I think, at times, in all the madness of sports events, dance, music lessons, and school, we forget that these little people have the right to a childhood; to play, to laugh, to run barefooted, to watch TV and to eat chips and even briefly wear a crown. Growing up isn’t something that should be hurried. We have a whole lifetime to be adults and deal with the issues and problems of maturity.

In time, we will all eventually find ourselves and maybe even discover gifts and talents we never knew we had, or never fully developed and the reward will be happiness and pride in a job well done. May we enjoy our journey to self-discovery and all the roads that take us to our final destination.

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