This Veterans Day, by Sean Dietrich

Boaz is a town about as big as your average water heater closet. It was a quiet night. The sun had set. Houses were lit from the insides.

The Bevill Center was packed. The parking lot was slammed. Families of all kinds gathered in the auditorium for this upcoming Veterans Day, to watch their fifth-graders put on a concert.

Demographically, the audience was all over the map. The place was full of pre-concert chatter. A happy, bubbly sound that filled the room.

Kids were horsing around. Babies were crying. Dads were shaking hands and slapping each other’s shoulders to prove that they were good shoulder slappers. Mothers were catching up on local gossip. Teens were forming respective clots.

Then the curtain lifted.

Onstage, the Boaz fifth-graders were all wearing red, white, and blue T-shirts. Organized to form a living flag.

Mrs. Richey took the stage.

“She’s been directing choir here since I was a kid,” said one woman in the audience. “Most of the people in this room had Mrs. Richey for choir.”

Mrs. Richey had the troops in good shape. The fifth-graders occupied the risers in order according to height. Little kids below deck. Tall kids topside.

I noticed they were wearing looks of nervousness. The kind you see at all school programs. I could see one boy’s hands were quivering. Another girl was bouncing her legs in her chair.

My first thought at school concerts is always: “Why do we do this to our kids?”

I remember doing these same concerts from when I was a kid. I was so nervous on that stag I might as well have been naked. I remember thinking: “Why are the adults making us do this?”

After all, not everyone wants to be a singer. Not everyone wants to be on a stage before a trillion people. Even fewer will sign up for public-speaking electives in high school.

Fact: Public speaking is the world’s number one phobia. It affects 75 percent of the globe. Glossophobia, it’s called. Those who suffer, often vomit before making public appearances. Others have to change their trousers. Many do both.

So why do this to our kids? What’s the point? Especially when there is no greater state of under-confidence than being in fifth grade.

The nerves on stage were palpable. Some kids looked like they wanted to disappear. Others looked like the proverbial doe in the high beams.

The concert began.

They sang songs about America. There were recitations. Poems. Dances. One girl wore an oversized Uncle Sam hat.

Midway through the performance, a projection screen unfurled to display a slideshow of old photographs of veterans. Some deceased. Some living. All veterans were related, somehow, to the people in this auditorium.

A black-and-white image of a serviceman from Vietnam. Pictures from Korea. Hitler’s War. Iraq. Afghanistan. An image of a young seaman in his Dixie-cup hat. A soldier in digicam fatigues, wearing ACH headwear. National Guardsmen. Marines. Air Force captains. Rear echelon guys. COs.

There must have been hundreds of photos shown. And for each photo, the room applauded. Kids and audience members.

One boy on stage showed full salute the whole time.

Then, the kids sang the official songs of the military branches. “Caissons.” “Anchors Aweigh.” “From the halls of Montezuma…” “Off we go, into the wild blue yonder…” The official song of the Coast Guard. The Space Force.

With each song, veterans in the audience stood. Male and female. Young and old. They stood at attention. Shoulders back.

There were several vets who stood to represent the Air Force. Even more stood to represent the Army and Navy.

Only one Marine.

Then, a little girl who was blind took center stage. A fifth-grader. She was fidgeting with her T-shirt. Nervous, probably. The girl sang “We honor you, on Veterans Day…” with the voice of a cherub.

People cried. The song ended. The place came unglued.

Whereupon Mrs. Richey finished by leading us all in a rendition of “God Bless America.”

I sang. So did everyone else. A few sang harmony. Everyone knew the words. And that’s when I suddenly realized why we do this to our children.

And I pray we never quit.

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