My mom wanted me to be a protégé — I was anything but
When I was a child, my mother was desperate for me to be more talented than I was.
She was devastated when, at the age of five, a freak accident caused a loose nail to pierce through my right thigh, carving a jagged “L” into my flesh. The doctors said the wound would heal and disappear by the time I turned 14. Eleven stitches and more than 20 years later, the scar still remains.
My mother’s hopes for my future were further crushed when she learned that, at eight years old, I had failing eyesight.
Wearing glasses, she figured, would certainly hamper my chances of becoming the next Disney Channel starlet.
She pestered my father to pester the optometrist to double-check the exam results.
“She needs the glasses,” was the message passed on to my mother. A childhood filled with carrots as a perpetual side dish was passed on to me. “Good for your eyesight,” my mom said, shoving a bowlful of baby carrots toward me as though I were a newborn bunny.
Undeterred by my imperfect vision, she tried tapping into some below-the-surface skill that would seal my famous fate.
Since I sang along to anything and everything on Top 40 radio, my mother started nurturing my interest in singing.
Maybe I’d be the next pop princess à la Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera, both of whom I idolized but never thought I could emulate.
The same year I started wearing glasses, my mother arranged for me to sing at a Christmas party hosted by a group of Filipinas who lived in and near my hometown. It was an elaborate, lavish event filled with food, dancing, gift giving, and a lot of singing.
I chose to perform Selena’s “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” hoping I could channel some of the late singer’s infectious, glittery stage presence. When my name was called, my heart splashed onto the floor. The audience began clapping just as muscles I didn’t know I had started twitching with nerves. I asked my friend Robin, who I’d invited to the party, to please come sing with me — even though she didn’t know the words, and a duet was not part of the original plan.
She agreed, but once I got up there in front of that sea of strangers, I was paralyzed with fright.
I ran off stage, directly into my mother’s arms, sobbing and blubbering about how I don’t think I could be like Selena.
Faster than you can say bidi bidi bom bom, my singing career was over.
But when my father bought an old church piano a few years later, my mother took it as a sign that music might still provide my route to fame.
She enrolled me in piano lessons with an older woman who had long gray hair and lived in a powder blue Victorian house. She was a kind and patient teacher, but after a summer’s worth of lessons amounted to mastering “Happy Birthday,” I hit a frustrating learning curve and quit. The church piano would go on to be unplayed for years, collecting dust and used occasionally as a makeshift shelf.
It was easy for me to give up on believing I had any kind of talent to offer the world. I can’t say the same for my mother.
She decided that if I wasn’t going to be a musical prodigy, I could be a gifted athlete. After all, she had been a skilled swimmer who won championships back in her native Philippines — even swimming from island to island in her prime. Surely I had inherited some of that athletic prowess and, with enough practice and training, I’d be Olympics-bound in no time.
But after a few weeks of swimming lessons at the local YMCA, it was evident that although I could doggy paddle like a pro, I wouldn’t be swimming between islands — or earning a gold medal — any time soon (or, you know, ever).
As a compromise, I started taking dance lessons. I had been interested in dance for a while, and my mother said I would benefit from the discipline required to be a dancer (whatever that meant).
But in less than a year, I faced some disheartening realizations: I was not graceful enough for ballet, not coordinated enough for tap, and not sassy enough jazz.
Despite these failures, my mother tried identifying some semblance of talent in me one last time.
Her idea? Concrete walls.
I grew up in a tiny, gray box of a home two blocks away from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s East Campus — a quiet, agriculture-focused part of the university filled with gardens, walking trails, and an arboretum. I often accompanied my mother on her early morning and late afternoon walks through East Campus, and if I behaved, she’d treat me to a scoop or two from the university’s ice cream parlor.
One day, my mother and I ended up at a sports equipment store. The next thing you know, I’m the proud new owner of a bright purple racket and a can of yellow balls, and we’re heading toward an unfamiliar part of East Campus. When we park in the lot adjacent to the tennis courts, that familiar feeling of fright and performance anxiety sets in.
Does she really expect me to play tennis? I’ll never be as good as Serena. These thoughts of self-doubt are on repeat, and I wonder what good can possibly come out of this experiment.
“Just start off hitting the walls,” my mother says, pointing toward the 12-foot tall, 40-foot wide concrete walls next to the courts. I look over at the giant gray slabs and am not sure what to think or do. Bear in mind, this is my first time picking up a racket, let alone facing a partner who will hit the ball back 100 percent of the time and never miss.
This seems like a bad idea for an uncoordinated, nearsighted kid with no agility or sense of speed.
I nervously gulp some water as my mother demonstrates a basic serve. She says I need to focus on hitting the middle of the wall and above the yellow line. As with everything else I’ve tried up to this point in my life, it sounds a lot easier said than done.
“Okay…” I say hesitantly, placing myself in front of the wall.
I throw up the ball, take a step back, lift up my racket and — well, I hit the ball. And the wall hit the ball back. And then I sprint to where the ball is headed and hit it again. And again and again.
In an instant, I was an 11-year-old engaged in a cutthroat match with a concrete wall.
And although I knew it wasn’t the same as a real tennis match and that I could never actually beat the wall, the fact that my mother had finally singled out something that made me believe in myself was the real victory.
I understood, at last, that all of the pushing me to be good at something — to have some type of talent — wasn’t about my becoming a teen idol or the next Kerri Strug. It was about empowerment.
Just because you aren’t the prettiest or the most athletic or the most musically gifted doesn’t mean you don’t have anything to offer. Hitting concrete walls taught me that.
My mother, in her own way, taught me that.