“The Skyline Elementary School in Solana Beach will have its fifth annual talent show,” the announcement read. The students were all abuzz with who would try out, who would “make the cut,” and just how many would have the courage to stand before a couple hundred of their peers and parents and perform. Entries ranged from joke tellers, original skits, and—the most popular—musical acts.
Natalia came home psyched up to perform a lip-sync with half-a-dozen of her friends to the music of a popular teenage boy group currently adored by elementary school girls who know every word of their every song. Nine-year-old Natalia, it seemed to me, would be a bright and cheery addition to any eager chorus line of fourth-graders. She was born with spina bifida, a severe disability where a spinal lesion prevented nerves from growing into her legs. This resulted in her having no feeling below the knees. After several operations on her feet, ankles, legs, and spine, with the help of leg braces, Natalia is able to get around for short distances without her wheelchair.
A few days later, Natalia came home from school fighting an emotion that crisscrossed her lovely little face until she finally fell to her bed and let the tears flow. “One of my friends told me I couldn’t do the song with them. She said, ‘Natalia, you can’t dance.’” She buried her face in her pillow and was inconsolable.
I was never one to take “No” for an answer and saw this as a growing-up opportunity for Natalia. I suggested that if no one would work with her, she might do a different number on her own. I explained that when a door closes, it is not necessarily locked.
Natalia was initially reluctant, but a deep-felt desire to perform surged to the surface. She was soon flipping through my CDs looking for just the right song. She picked out one by Garth Brooks. I smiled when I heard her choice: “Walking After Midnight.” The next day we found a CD with Patsy Cline’s rendition from the ’50s, and she began to practice.
Natalia learned all the words in a flash. We bought a wireless microphone that feeds into our FM radio so she could sing along with the CD on the big speakers. She began to put real life and feeling into the words, but then came the choreography.
With her leg braces, Natalia’s walk is fairly level, though a little rocky. When she’s in a hurry, she has a glide step that cants her hips and knees at angles but gets her where she wants to go just fine. But could she make it on stage? A parent will always harbor greater fear than the child, whose heart must carry her through the experience. No parent’s hand can ever reach far or fast enough to catch her if she begins to falter. I could only stand back and watch and hope.
The tryouts turned into show-ups; if you showed up, you made it into the show. There were two dozen “acts” on the program, and Natalia was number 18. At a rehearsal, while walking during her song, she tripped and went down. I heard everyone gasp and hold their breath.
She looked surprised by the bump to her rump and remained seated to finish out the line. She smiled in the direction of the not-present audience, then climbed back up to finish the song. Looking around, I saw a couple dozen parents exhale with relief. At the end, a mother I didn’t know came over and cried on my shoulder. I was amazed, for I myself hadn’t gasped. Perhaps I had become too accustomed to my own daughter.
There were three days of rehearsals. Teachers put the acts in order and stagehands made everything ready. By now, the programs had been printed, so there was no time left to chicken out. Natalia had practiced her song a hundred times at home, but does a child ever feel completely ready for such a performance?
Then the big night arrived. Over 300 people lined up all the way to the parking lot to pay $5 apiece for tickets. Volunteers manned concession stands just like the ones at theaters downtown, except that our fare was nothing fancier than pizza, and the prices were a bit less than at the San Diego Opera. The auditorium filled with parents and grandparents, teachers, families, and friends. It was showtime.
The junior comedians and actors laughed through some of their lines and forgot others, but it didn’t diminish the laughter from the audience. If some of the little musicians were off-key, nobody cared. After all, it was your child or your neighbors’ children performing. Dads and moms excused their way to the front, cameras at the ready, to capture their child’s big moment. Then it was Natalia’s turn.
She wore black boots and a tan pleated skirt that had taken me forever to iron to be just right, a flowered blouse that matched her turquoise neckerchief and a black cowboy hat left over from a Grand Canyon trip a couple of years before. Her three large brothers led the crowd with shouts of “Go, Natalia,” and “Diva, Diva!” Natalia bounded out of her wheelchair and bounced across the stage to get the mike. Her blond pigtails dangled to and fro, and her elfin smile rounded out what everyone wanted to see in a little girl performing. The mood was set, and the music began. She took her pose, canted her head, and she was on.
“I go out walkin’ … after midnight … in the moonlight … just like we used to do … I go out walking … after midnight … searching fo-o-or yo-o-o-u.” She walked with the words and, at the end of the line, spun around to walk back again. Sure, it was an unsteady gait, but it was her gait. Natalia was alone up on the stage without any girlfriends to lean on, and she had mustered up the gumption to take on the task. Her miniature melodic voice captured the crowd, and she kept the walking timed with the tune, just so.
In the middle of the song, the lyrics paused while the music went on, and then Natalia did her dance. She held the mike above her head and spun around once. Then she did a double. There was a moment of anguish when the crowd, fearing she might topple over, went hush silent—but she retained her balance and gave that smile of triumph.
She belted out the last few lines of the song so even Patsy Cline, looking down from on high, would have had a tear in her eye.
“I go out walking, after midnight, in the starlight, just hoping you will be … a-walking … after midnight … searching fo-o-o-r me-e-e-e-e-e.”
The song ended. She took a pose, one hand extended to the audience, the other above her head, a braced foot tilted up on its heel, a toss of her chin into the air—and that smile.
Thunderous applause erupted, partly from relief that she had made it through without falling, but mostly in appreciation of her performance. It was more, much more, than even her own family had expected. We had been there for moral support, fearing against the worst but always hoping for the best. But the crowd went on. They yelled and cheered and stomped, thoroughly embarrassing my little blond who took her required bow and then quickly whisked herself offstage.
When the show ended, I was approached by many. There’s a difference between well-wishers and those who are genuinely impressed. People you don’t know don’t hug you very often. Friends and new faces alike had tears in their eyes as they shook my hand and patted me, the Dad, on the back. It took forever to reach Natalia amid a throng of admirers. And, her friends with the lip-sync plans never did perform. Sure enough, a door had been closed, but Natalia had stepped up and thrown it wide open. She had marched across the threshold carrying her own tune and, in a way, had carried the night as well. She had entered the arena—and emerged victorious.
15 Years Later
[Editor’s note: Natalia Barnes is currently a certified spin instructor and personal trainer in Baltimore. The talent show took place in 1999. In 2014, a series of events occurred that the author thought deserved to be an addendum to this essay. At the time, Natalia was working as a hostess at a Gordon Biersch restaurant on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. She chronicled what happened in the Facebook posts that follow.]
March 12, 2014:
I think I just had one of the best moments of my life. I sat a man at a table in GB (Gordon Biersch) today who noticed my leg braces. He asked me about them and said, “My daughter has leg braces.” I freaked out and said, “What does she have?!” “Spina bifida,” he said!! I said that I did too and the look he gave me was indescribable. Maybe shock is the closest, but overjoyed certainly. He said, “but look at you walking around, wearing heels!” and I said that it took me forever to learn and they’re tiny heels but yes, I swear it’s possible!
He shared the story with me that my own father has told so many times. They were completely blind-sided by the birth defect and were so concerned how their daughter would turn out. Would she be happy? Would she make friends? Date? Travel? Dance? His daughter, Isabella, is only four and has just learned to walk. I know what lies ahead for her and it’s incredible but he feels so lost and in the dark, he said. He had so many questions about my life and how I am, and I told him the one thing I know he wanted and needed to hear “She is going to be so happy. More than fine. She is going to have a wonderful life. I know.” He cried and so did I.
We exchanged numbers and I’ll meet little Isabella soon. I’ll help them in any way I can so they have an advantage neither I nor my parents did. But the thing that knocks the wind right out of me is that since I was about 14, I got the idea that if I could travel back in time I’d pick the day I was born just to show my parents how things would turn out. I’d never say who I was, but I’d show them how life for a bifida baby could be so they wouldn’t have to be so scared. I never thought I might actually get such an opportunity. I realized it the second he gave me that look of shock. Today my mere presence gave someone hope. I’m still crying. Today was a good day.
March 27, 2014:
Me and little Bella (right) and her big sister Gabby (left)! Just came back from dinner with these beautiful ladies and their parents! Bella is the one with spina bifida and the very first thing she said to me was “Are you her?” and I cheerfully said yes and she then immediately came in for a hug. Lots and lots of them. Didn’t want to let go and neither did I! We held hands on the way back to my car and I swear her little wobble is so sweet I immediately caught diabetes. Best. Night. EVER.
Additionally, she tried to run ahead of us at one point and I now understand the terror that you all feel watching me do things you’re not sure I can do. I mean, I’m not going to stop, but I understand. Frankly, if it wasn’t for gravity and law enforcement I’D BE UNSTOPPABLE.
Wayne A. Barnes was an FBI agent for 29 years working counterintelligence. He had many undercover assignments, including as a member of the Black Panthers. His first spy stories were from debriefing Soviet KGB defectors. He now investigates privately in South Florida.