Wineskins Archive

January 23, 2014

To Sing With Soul (Nov-Dec 2008)

Filed under: — @ 4:17 pm and

by Carol Kehlmeier
November – December, 2008

When most boys wore their hair cut short, Paul Kline’s hung down over his ears and curled over his collar. His clothes were tattered and patched and he wore cardboard inside his shoes so his bony feet wouldn’t touch the cold concrete when he walked to school.
We all knew he was the poorest boy in our sixth-grade class. He had eight brothers and sisters and lived near the railroad tracks in a rickety old house. Rumor had it his family couldn’t afford soap because more often than not he came to school with a dirty neck. Kids who sat close to him said he had a bad smell.

Christmas was coming and we were all excited. We talked about what we expected to find under our trees and we brought our nickels and dimes in for the “shoe fund.” The shoe fund was set up for poor kids who couldn’t afford to buy shoes and we were all encouraged to donate to it. I even saw Paul Kline drop a penny in one day.

Paul usually kept to himself. He was a loner and nobody bothered him, not even Mrs. Plank.

Mrs. Plank was getting us ready for the annual Christmas Program. She was trying to convince John Stark, the smartest and handsomest boy in the class, to sing the solo in “Oh, Holy Night.” He kept saying he didn’t want to do it. But we had known him since kindergarten and were certain he wanted to be coaxed into it.

It was the first time many of us had ever heard the beautiful French Carol and every time I tried to sing with the others, I choked up. We practiced the carol every day and every day Mrs. Plank begged John Stark to sing the solo. Finally, John consented. Those of us who knew him weren’t surprised.

During rehearsals Paul Kline sat in the back row staring up at the ceiling and drumming the desk top with his grimy fingernails. No one paid him any special attention. We figured he wasn’t interested and wouldn’t even come to the program.

On the day of the Christmas program, John Stark didn’t show up at school. His little sister brought in a note from their mother saying he was sick with a bad cold. We were all disappointed because Mrs. Plank had said if there was no soloist we couldn’t sing the song.

There was a lot of commotion in class that day. We had practiced so hard and we were anxious to sing for our parents that evening.

“I just don’t think it will be nearly as nice without a soloist,” Mrs. Plank said from in front of the room. “We’ll have to sing something else we all know . . . like Jingle Bells!”

In unison, the class groaned.

Mrs. Plank tapped her pencil on the desk like she always did when she wanted silence. We settled into silence.

“I’m just as disappointed as you are,” she said, her voice trembling. “But sometimes these things happen and we just have to go on.”

She turned to write something on the blackboard.

Unexpectedly a clear golden voice traveled from the back of the classroom. Together, as though rehearsed, our heads all turned to face the back.

Paul Kline was standing, his eyes closed and his hands clasped in a gesture of prayer, as he sang a cappella with a voice more soulfully beautiful than John Stark or anyone else in the sixth grade.

We listened, amazed. And when he finished, we were speechless. Then our teacher spoke.

“Why, Paul, where did you learn to sing like that?”

“We sing all the time at home,” he answered, looking to the floor.

Right then and there, Mrs. Plank told everyone he would be soloist that night.

We practiced the carol over and over and every time I heard Paul Kline’s tender voice, my throat tightened.

At recess several girls gathered to talk about Paul’s appearance. Would he come to the program in his patched-up clothes and long hair? Would he have any soap to wash his neck? And what about those worn-out shoes?

“He sings so pretty maybe no one will notice how he looks,” I said, not really believing it. The other girls looked at me in a way that told me they didn’t believe it either.

When we went back to the classroom we skipped right over our geography and history lessons to practice some more, but no one complained. When Mrs. Plank dismissed us that afternoon she asked Paul to stay and talk about the program.

That night Paul arrived in new shoes, apparently in his Sunday best, with his hair combed neatly and his face and neck shining clean.

And the entire back row was filled with Klines.

When he sang his solo there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Even Mrs. Plank, standing in front of us directing, had tears streaming down her rouge-brushed cheeks.

Later, we girls talked about how clean and nice Paul looked for the program. We all knew where he got his new shoes, but we were polite enough not to talk about it.

We all looked at Paul differently after that night . . . and I think he saw himself differently, too. He became part of our class, less of a loner.

And we learned that money is not what makes hearts good, nor voices golden.

Previously published in the southern Ohio journal Over the Back Fence, Winter 2007.New Wineskins

Carol KehlmeierCarol Kehlmeier is a former newspaperwoman and columnist. Her work has been published in both secular and Christian publications.

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