Shine the Light

Shine the Light: Love and Music Bring Strength to a Young Girl
By Tina Traster
February 02, 2012

Shine the LightI heard her calling “Mommy, Mommy” before I opened the door. She tore off the school bus as though it were on fire.

“I tried out for solo, I tried out for solo,” she squealed, pushing open the door. “I’m going to get it this time. Mrs. Sanders said I was great!”

“I think you’re going to get it, too,” I said.

“Listen to this, Mommy,” she said, still wearing her winter jacket and hat and over-stuffed purple backpack. She spread her feet apart, took a breath and belted out “Shine the Light, Shine The Light…” with Gospel-singer force.

“Wow, Julia,” I said, amazed at my nine-year-old. “You really deserve the solo this year.”

“Thanks, Mom,” she said, peeling off her coat.

Six years earlier, when Julia was in nursery school, she could not learn lyrics or hand movements.

Year-end winter concerts caused unspeakable dread in our household. It bothered me more than it did my husband Rick. It was painful to watch our daughter on stage, participating but not really there. No one thought she had a learning disability because she didn’t. Nursery school teachers didn’t understand why Julia had trouble being part of a group. They didn’t know why she hid under a desk or kept to herself. They didn’t know she’d been behaving like this since we’d adopted her from Siberia when she was eight months old. They didn’t know because we didn’t tell them.

The nursery school folks were doing their best to “manage” her, as were we. Rick and I convinced ourselves she’d come around, she’d become “normal.” We hoped and prayed she’d find her way into the fabric of her family, her community. I tried not to think about the implications of a baby starting her life as one in ten in a sterile little room in a Siberian orphanage. I’d push away the memory of seeing her in that crib, a brown tea concoction in a bottle at her lips, swaddled so tightly she couldn’t fuss. This way caretakers could attend to all the babies.

Because we took her home at eight months, I figured we’d love her to pieces and erase early damage.

I didn’t want to believe I could be wrong. But during Julia’s year-end concert at nursery school, I broke down. She was disruptive on stage. Jocelyn pulled her off after the first song and held her in her lap. I cried, hoping no one would notice.

Then Rick and I got busy. It was time to learn about Reactive Attachment Disorder–a syndrome I was vaguely familiar with but didn’t want to believe had anything to do with my child. Julia was the textbook case, she exhibited a host of behaviors associated with foreign adoptees who have difficulty attaching when they are brought home. Academics say early, painful separation from a birth mother causes trauma. The child internalizes the belief she can rely on no one other than herself. Along the way she learns crying is pointless, the world is not a nurturing place. Children like this endlessly seek attention but they’re never sated. What we saw in Julia was a child who was always trying to control her world, and others in it. She had trouble relaxing into an embrace. I remember the days when she was in her stroller. She viewed it as confinement; she could never sit back and enjoy the ride. 

The more we read the more we understood Julia. Now it made sense why she recoiled when she was held, that she hardly cried and when she did it was always brief. Why she never chose a favorite teddy.

After many long nights of conversation, Rick and I decided to undertake “Operation Love.” We were hell-bent on bringing Julia back from the abyss. We felt we had a good understanding of the problem and between us, we believed if we worked with her, we stood a chance of rescuing her from a life of isolation. It was–and remains–a daily effort. It is unnatural for a child to be so resistant to love. We found ourselves saying things like “I know it’s scary to love your Mommy and Daddy, but it’s okay. They love you and they always will.”

We also figured out that Julia found relief in the refuge of punishment. A time-out for a normal kid might be a hardship; or at least a time to contemplate bad behavior. For Julia, it was a relief and a chance to re-charge her batteries; to retreat and later create more chaos. Chaos, we learned, is the weapon of the child who suffers from Reactive Attachment Disorder. We learned how to counter its weight by underplaying our reactions to her.

Over the years, we learned to live with patience, disappointment and poignant victories. Perhaps that’s any parent’s story. But holiday concerts remained a challenge. By first and second grades, we’d begun to offer rewards–“if you do a good job at the holiday concert, you’ll get a present.” Indeed, the prospect of a new Lego set worked somewhat.

On a late December day, when Julia was in third grade, I asked her how the holiday concert songs were going. She shrugged.

“Let me see the lyrics,” I said.

She thumbed through her messy folder.

“I don’t have them,” she said.

“Well can you sing them?”

She didn’t know a word. The concert was a week away. Dread encased me.

I got hold of the music teacher the next day to get the lyrics. I worked with Julia tirelessly day and night to make sure she new every word. We fought all the way through. The night of the concert, I left my seat in mid-auditorium and sat at the foot of the stage. Julia waved at me nervously. Then the music began and she shot me a quick smile. She sang every word. She belonged.

Afterward she asked for a present.

I said “We have a big hug and we are very proud.”

She seemed okay with that.

I admit I was surprised when six months later, for the June concert, Julia announced her intention to try out for a solo. At every concert, six kids sing a couple of lines in one of three songs. Every night I heard her rehearsing in her bedroom.

“She really, really wants that solo,” I said to Rick, gauging his reaction.

He gave me one of his long gazes and said, “I’m going to write to Mrs. Sanders.”

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” I asked.

“Just something gentle to say Julia’s been working really hard and she’d love to be picked for a solo.”

I half-wished we could explain the whole thing to Mrs. Sanders. To tell her what a long and hard road it has been to get Julia engaged in her life. I gave Mrs. Sanders the benefit of the doubt. She must see how far Julia’s come, I thought, hopefully.

Julia was not picked for the solo.

In a follow-up email, Mrs. Sanders told my husband she didn’t think Julia was serious enough about wanting the solo.

A few weeks later, Julia left for a sleep-away camp that specializes in theater and performance. On visiting day we watched her do a solo magic act, dance in a musical and recite lines. In this magical place in the Catskill Mountains Julia had learned the joy of being part of something; she learned it’s okay to trust others and to have others trust you.

When we picked her up in August she chattered incessantly about camp and her friends and the shows she was in. Out of nowhere she said, “I’m going to try out for solo again this year, Mommy.” She was talking about her fourth-grade winter concert in August!

She made good on her declaration. For two weeks in early December she practiced “Shine the light.” She was sure she’d get it this year. She was called back twice. But on the day before the concert-a day after she’d skipped down the path to tell me how good her tryout went–she was crushed.

I opened the front door and she collapsed into tears. Through gasping breathes she said she didn’t get it.

“And you know what else?” she asked.

“What?” I said.

“Mrs. Sanders came to get me and a couple of other kids for the final tryout and in front of them she said to me “Now don’t have your Mommy and Daddy call me if you don’t get the solo.”

You know those moments in life when you feel as though you could wring someone’s neck with your bare hands?

I had Julia repeat the story twice just to make sure I heard it right and to check that she was telling the truth.

Then I said “If you want to boycott the concert, that is fine with me.”

She looked at me quizzically, as if to say “why does that work? How does that make you feel better?” I was too busy muttering with anger to explain. I called Rick. He said he’d arrange a meeting with the principal because he viewed Mrs. Sanders’s words as abusive.

When I kissed Julia good-night, I said, “Forget about the solo. It’s not important. And remember, you can boycott if you want.”

The next morning Julia tore down the steps yelling, “Daddy, where’s the white shirt you ironed for me? I need it for tonight’s concert.”

Julia looked big on the stage that night. She knew the words cold. She was somewhat forlorn afterward, still smarting over not being given the solo.

“You don’t have to try out for solo in June,” I said, on the ride back home.

“I’m not going to,” she said. “Never again.”

The next day my husband and I met with the principal and Mrs. Sanders. Mrs. Sanders half-admitted she’d said something about “not telling your parents to call me if you don’t get the solo” but she watered down the story and pretended she’d said it to several children. We knew Julia’s version was truthful.

More importantly than admonishing Mrs. Sanders for her inappropriate remark, I told her how defeated Julia felt and I thought it was a shame she couldn’t see how far Julia had come. The discussion got heated but in fleeting moments I actually felt sorry for Mrs. Sanders because behind her bravado and defensiveness, I suspected this teacher, this woman with bad teeth and nervous gestures, may have once been an outsider herself.

Mrs. Sanders agreed to meet with Julia and apologize.

That afternoon, Julia bounded down our path with her usual verve.

“Anything unusual happen this afternoon?” I asked.

“How do you know?” she said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “What happened?”

“Mrs. Sanders said she was sorry and she said I should keep trying,” she said.

“Okay, but you don’t have to,” I said.

“I know, but I’m going to,” she said. “I’m going to keep trying until I get it.”


Tina Traster is the author of Burb Appeal: The Collection, on Amazon. These humorous essays are a collection of her New York Post Burb Appeal column. In these stories, we meet nutty neighbors, bumbling town officials, a plethora of wild and domestic animals, and of course, the author’s family. Traster also writes The Great Divide blog for The Huffington Post. Her work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, literary journals and on NPR. Her essays have been anthologized in literary collections Living Lessons and Mammas and Pappas. When Traster is not raising chickens or raising hell, she can be found reading, hiking or swimming. She lives in an old but renovated farmhouse with her husband, daughter, five rescued cats and six hens. Traster’s work can be seen on her website

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