Singing Like No One Can Hear

Dear Ellie — Today’s your first day in daycare. Not ones to let anything in your life go undocumented, your parents have snapped your first day below. You’re in a Spanish immersion daycare, which means you’ll soon be running circles around us in two languages, instead of just one.

Notice you seem much calmer than your parents

Notice you seem much calmer than your parents

School! Good grief. You’re already growing up too fast. I’d better try to calm down or I’ll become a total basket case of a grandmother, whining about your lost youth and how it all went by in a flash. At almost 13 months, you’re not too long in the four teeth you’ve sprouted recently. I need to keep perspective.

But school! Peer pressure and competition and striving to be cool — it’s all starting. And, in some ways, it never ends — which is why many of us are still relieved to wake up and find out we’re not still in high school. Let me explain.

School is the beginning of a bigger world, beyond your adoring family. You’ll be around other kids your age, even if you don’t notice them much right now. Over the months and years, though, you’ll become more and more aware of them. Eventually, you’ll care whether they like you and whether you fit in. Right now, you only want to please yourself; as you grow up, though, you’ll also care about pleasing other people.

It’s funny to think about that. You’ll change from being completely self-involved to being a social creature who interacts in the world. On the one hand, that’s as it should be. All of us are part of something bigger — a family, a school, a city, a country, a planet — and we learn we’re not the only one who counts.

On the other hand, you can lose something if you focus too much on doing as others do and trying to please them. You can forget to ask yourself who it is you are and who you want to be. (This is called middle school and high school. I don’t have anything good to say about either one, except that we all have to go through them, and the rest of life is a lot better.)

I was thinking about all of that after your grandfather and I went to see the movie “Florence Foster Jenkins” last week. (Yes, I read books and watch movies and TV shows and plays and think they tell me about real life. That’s just how I am.)

Anyway, Florence Foster Jenkins was a real person and a great patron of the arts. Above all, she loved music. She supported cultural organizations and gatherings all over New York, where she usually sang the lead roles, sometimes attired in angel wings and a tiara. She was, according to just about everybody, a truly terrible singer. But, since she was footing the bill, she kept on singing.


Over the years, crowds turned out to wildly applaud her and cheer and gasp and hold their ears. She even sang a concert in Carnegie Hall in 1944. Why would anybody turn out to see a rich woman who couldn’t sing? I don’t know. Maybe it was the idea of watching and listening to someone who lacked the self-consciousness to realize she couldn’t sing.

But forget self-consciousness for a nano. Florence Foster Jenkins radiated some kind of pure joy and innocence and sheer love of music. Maybe audiences showed up simply to revel in her effrontery and high spirits and enjoyment in what she was doing. Maybe they wished they could be the same way.

I know, I know. That’s a long way from the first week of daycare. Just try to remember:

  1. It’s lovely to please other people — but don’t forget who you want to be. That can get lost so easily.
  2. Being cool is one of those things you’ll probably strive to be. We all do. But, at a later age, you might find yourself asking why you want to be cool, why you want to act like you don’t care — when caring is one of the most important things you’ll do in your life.
  3. Talk about the opposite of cool — that would be Florence Foster Jenkins, a woman who wore her heart as openly as she did angel wings and a tiara. That and her money got her to Carnegie Hall, but the rest of us have to practice, practice, practice.

(Copyright 2016 by Ruth Pennebaker)


  1. Brette Sember · September 6, 2016

    I hope Ellie enjoys school. It’s such a big transition for parents. One day you know every single thing your kid did every minute and the next you get a two sentence summary that says she ate her lunch and played with blocks.

  2. Sheryl · September 6, 2016

    Oh, Ruth. This is priceless! So many truths here. And memories of the angst of growing up and caring – and worrying – about all the wrong things. It feels good to have that behind me!

  3. Roxanne · September 6, 2016

    So great that she has the chance to learn 2 languages from the get-go. l

  4. Kerry Dexter · September 6, 2016

    Ruth, I know Ellie will enjoy the wisdom you share in this, probably several times along her life’s journey. Good for your daughter and son in law on the Spanish immersion, too. Knowing more than one language is a great gift at any age. I expect all three of them will have fun with that aspect of Ellie’s education.