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Yesterday one of my students walked into my office and shut the door. She’s a junior, a gifted alto who can sing everything from Mary Wells to Palestrina, and she has a younger sister, a freshman soprano, who’s equally talented. I’ll call them Tansy and Dalia just for the sake of discussion.

 

This is Tansy’s second year in choir; my introduction to Dalia came last May when she auditioned for Advanced Chorus. Dalia was nervous about singing by herself, so Tansy stayed with her. After the audition (which went very well), the girls asked if they could sing me an a capella duet that they often sing in church (they’re pastor’s daughters). I stood there with my mouth open and chillbumps running up my arms. I’d never heard anything so beautiful.

 

Fast-forward to this spring, when I was casting the Motown revue, which we’d been talking about doing for nearly a year. Tansy and Dalia’s parents put the hammer down on their daughters singing soul and R&B—and Dalia certainly wasn’t going to be allowed to dress up like Michael Jackson. I explained that we weren’t going to do anything risque, but no dice. Those beautiful voices were consecrated to the Lord.

 

I realize that sounds crazy to a lot of people, but I have to respect parents who maintain a commitment to spiritual boundaries even at the risk of disappointing their kids. So I agreed to allow Tansy and Dalia to write a paper in lieu of the Motown performances. But as the weeks passed, the girls must have worked on their mom and dad and gained the right to make their own decision about singing in the show. I wound up giving them both solos and parts in back-up groups, as well as the four or five pieces the whole choir sang.

 

They’re both natural performers, and Tansy brought down the house as Mary Wells. They even participated in the final performance on the day their older sister gave birth to a new baby, rushing off to the hospital after the final curtain.

 

Then…we decided to encore the show for a middle school which couldn’t make it on the original dates. Everybody was fired up about getting to perform for students and teachers from their alma mater—except Tansy. On Monday, I could tell something was bothering her. Then before class started on Tuesday, she asked if she could speak to me privately. She told me she hated to disappoint me and let her fellow students down, but she didn’t want to sing the Motown music anymore—that she would “lose her anointing” if she did.

 

I put those words in quotes judiciously. I don’t want anyone to think I’m making fun of her. Far from it, I take the idea of God’s anointing very seriously. I could have reassured her that singing a couple of catchy, innocent love songs will hardly ruin her life. But how could I presume to override what she feels God is speaking into her heart? This is a very strange and beautiful thing to me, when public education gets tangled up with faith. A teenager brave enough to risk the ridicule of her peers deserves my admiration, and certainly requires my sensitivity. 

 

Some might argue that talking about it here on an Internet blog is somewhat of an invasion of privacy. But I’ve learned something from this young lady, and I think it’s worth sharing. I’ve learned that I should listen to the Holy Spirit the first time He speaks, and not wait for Him to bang me over the head with guilt six weeks later. I’ve learned that the admiration of strangers is not worth the risk of damaging far more important relationships. And I’ve learned that one person’s influence spills over in all directions—to peers and younger siblings and even to those in charge of us. Remember Daniel, who influenced his generation—including the King of Persia—in the name of Jehovah? You just never know who’s watching.

 

Well, this little tale of “The Sublime” got kind of long. I’ll get into “The Ridiculous” tomorrow.

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New Beginnings

It’s Resurrection Sunday! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

I’ll be spending the morning with my church family at First Baptist North Mobile. We’re having a glorious worship service filled with music and joy and fellowship. I play flute in our church orchestra, and making music with such a talented, Spirit-filled congregation is one of my dearest treasures in this life. If you don’t have a place of worship already, I hope you’ll join us at 9 AM or 10:30 AM.

Thanks again for stopping by—I’d love it if you’d leave a comment or reflection on what Easter means to you and your family.

Warmly,

Beth

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Mobile County Honor Choir 2010

I have taught in the Mobile County Public School System off and on for nearly twenty-five years. Like most people, I kind of have a love-hate relationship with it. You know, everybody thinks education is a good thing. We ought to encourage boys and girls to learn to read, write, and do enough math to become a good citizen. There’s a lot of disagreement about the outside details, though. (Do we teach them sex education? How much recreation and play time do they need? What percentage of time should be allotted for sports and the fine arts?) And how many stinkin’ tax dollars are enough to fund it?

My first experience was at Blount High School, which is traditionally an all-black school, not too far from LeFlore, where I teach now. At the time, the Birdie Mae Davis Civil Rights suit had just been settled with the agreement to relocate the entire faculty of Blount (who all  happened to be black) to other schools, and re-hire a half-and-half color mix. I was one of the white half.

The Boys After the Concert

It was an interesting year. I was assigned to teach four sections of ninth grade English (try teaching Romeo and Juliet to a bunch of urban kids who spoke a fine version of Ebonics), and one section of chorus. The chorus room was in such bad shape (no heat or air-conditioning, broken windows, mildew everywhere) that I simply moved the piano to my English classroom and entertained the whole English wing during 3rd period chorus. Though my English classes were an exercise in frustration, I discovered that my chorus students loved music and would try anything I handed them. I might still be at Blount today if I hadn’t had two babies in diapers back then, and it absolutely broke my heart to drop them off at daycare every day. My husband and I decided I needed to be home with them, so I taught piano lessons out of my home and did a part-time gig with the Dauphin Way Baptist Church children’s choir program. Good decision, looking back.

The Girls After the Concert

Anyway, by the time I went back to teach full-time after sending Ryan and Hannah off to the Navy and college respectively, my interests had drifted away from music toward creative writing. I needed a full-time job, so I took the Praxis exam and recertified to teach Language Arts. Found a job pretty quickly at Causey Middle School, where my relationship with Mobile County Public Schools took a swing to the dark side. I found myself doing daily battle with adolescent hormones, a portable classroom infested by chronic dust and roaches, a disorganized principal, and an insane amount of paperwork.

Um, no thanks. I finished out the year, then quit my job, enrolled in grad school at the University of South Alabama and taught Freshman Composition as a teaching assistant. Absolutely loved that year hanging out with college students. But with Masters in Creative Writing in hand, I started looking for a high school English job.

Which is how I wound up at LeFlore. They needed a chorus director worse than they needed a reading specialist (school had been in session for 4 weeks already), so the principal asked me if I’d be willing to take the music Praxis and get recertified [yikes, cramming music theory and history for two months!]. But I passed by the grace of God, and here I am doing what I’m born to do.

Rehearsal Day - The Girls

There are frustrating days, of course, but there are days like Monday and Tuesday of this week when I got to watch and listen to nine of my top students experience the joy of participating in County Honor Choir. The public school system has its problems for sure, but there are moments of shining glory when I wouldn’t want to be anyplace else. Imagine 140 gifted teenagers singing Randall Thompson’s Last Words of David…”Cantate Domino” by Hassler…Moses Hogan’s arrangement of “I’m Gonna Sing ‘Til the Spirit Moves in My Heart”…”Salmo 150”, which is a glorious, sort of Spanish-influenced piece in Latin.

Rehearsal Day - The Boys

I wish I could share the music, but these photos will give you a little flavor of the event. Maybe one day I’ll write a book, sort of my Lower Alabama version of Pat Conroy’s magnificent The Water is Wide.

But right now I’m too busy teaching music.

Performance Warm-Up

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My former church home—Dauphin Way Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama—is hosting an expo this Friday, March 12, in their grand foyer. I’ll have copies of most of my backlist available for sale from 9 AM until 2 PM. However, since I have a full-time job, I’ll only be there to sign books from 9:30 until 11 AM (during my planning/lunch break). If you’re missing one from your “Elizabeth White” collection, stop by and take advantage.

I’m not sure what else will be going on that day, but it’s bound to be interesting! Dauphin Way is a wonderful church full of warm, community focused brothers and sisters in Christ—and the building they meet in is absolutely gorgeous.

Please come check it out!

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Sometimes you just need a treat—whether you’re good or bad, tone-deaf or a future Beyonce.

So I let my rowdy fourth-block beginner choir go next door to the gym concession stand, right in the middle of class, and plunk down their dollars for a plastic cup full of red-and-green sugary juicy ground-up ice. Turns your lips and tongue and teeth the color of a lizard. Terrible for the vocal cords. Bad for the waistline. Absolutely no nutritional value.

But hey, the kids were working hard for a change. Besides, I wanted one too.

So we all came back to the choir room and sipped our drinks and chanted the words of “Under the Sea” in syncopated rhythm. And you know what? I got more out of them in the last thirty minutes of class than I normally get in the whole block.

Lizard lips and all.

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Early in my career at my favorite writing spot--Carpe Diem Coffee Shop

How’s that for a self-absorbed title? But me is all I’ve got. Wait, I am all I have. Never mind.

What I mean to say is, I’ve always liked my names. All forty-five of them, and I never particularly cared what anybody called me. My mom and dad named me Tomi Elizabeth Cook. “Tomi” is sort of after my grandfather, Thomas Evans. “Elizabeth” is, I think, my father’s wistful recollection of a a woman he knew while he was stationed in Germany during the Korean War. But my mother wanted to call me “Beth” after the sweet tragic character in Little Women (Mama played the role of Beth in her high school play).

My sisters have always called me “Bethie,” and my dad would call me “Tomi Beth” when I was in trouble. High school friends at church nick-named me “Cookie” but that never stuck very hard. Teachers of course wanted to start out the school year calling “Tomi” from the roll…and I was so shy it was often weeks before I got up the nerve to whisper that I like to be called “Beth” instead. Being called by a nickname taken from the end of your middle name requires way too much explanation.

And then I got married, and things really got complicated. When you fill out your marriage license you need your whole legal name. And I was about to stick a fourth one on the end of it. I knew I’d need to use my maiden name for most legal forms, like Social Security. So I decided to drop the whole “Tomi Elizabeth” thing and just go for Beth Cook White. Simple and clean.

But wait! Drivers license administrators do not like nicknames. They insisted on the one from my birth certificate. So for many years my Social Security card and drivers license didn’t match, which created innumerable headaches when applying for jobs and graduate school. I developed a sort of identity schizophrenia, which may be redundant, I don’t know.

My students know me as Mrs. White, though one insists on referring to me as “Hattie” for reasons known only to her.

You may be wondering what this has to do with writing and publishing. And who cares anyway?

Well, when I sold my first novella to Tyndale back in 1998, I had to pick a name to write under. It’s quite an important decision, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Do you write under your own name and capitalize on the friends and relatives who *should* be automatic buys? Or is it more important to protect your identity? Do you go for legal simplicity and use your own name, or take the opportunity to create the perfect persona for the type of book you write?

I didn’t have an agent at the time, but I had several friends who had published books. Everybody but my husband went with the “pick an elegant, romantic professional name.” One day, they said, you’ll want a little distance from the reader on the street. Frankly I had no illusions that I’d ever be remotely famous. I mean, you always hope you’ll become a best-selling author, but really. Seriously? No.

So I sort of compromised and chose my legal married name, Elizabeth White (by this time I’d changed my Social Security listing for simplicity’s sake). It was my real name and it sounded romantic and elegant.

Unnnnnfortunately, all my high school and college friends knew me as Beth Cook. Some people to whom I sent free copies of my first book never connected it with me and discarded it! What?! Yes really. Who’s this Elizabeth White person? And the longer I’ve used that name to write under, the more uncomfortable it becomes to say “I write as Elizabeth but please call me Beth.” It sounds so pretentious.

So here I am, taking a corner in my writing career. I’m not famous, but I have a few loyal fans. I may annoy the heck out of them by changing anything about the books and the author they like. I may confuse some people. Are the stories the same? Will the writing style change? After all, some authors pick a pseudonym when they switch genres.

But you know what? I kind of like the idea of starting fresh. There’s nothing wrong with what I’ve been writing—in fact, I’m pretty proud of most of my published work—but I want to stretch myself. I want to reach a broader audience. I want to be more professionally accessible.

And here’s the deal. I’m tired of pretending to be romantic and elegant and erudite. I’m just a quirky Southern girl with a wide range of interests from teaching to art to music to literature. And I want to write about that. In my own name.

I’m just Beth. Can I get away with that?

Feedback welcome.

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First released in 2001, Beneath a Southern Sky, has been reissued with a new cover as part of WaterBrook Press’s new value line fiction.

SYNOPSIS:

Her Second Husband Healed the Sorrow of a Tragic Loss.

Her First Has Just Returned from the Dead.

Which Man Has the Right to Claim Daria’s Heart?

After two years of serving as a missionary in a remote area of South America, Daria Camfield has returned to the States to mourn her husband, reportedly killed while providing medical aid to a neighboring Colombian village.

One family discovers how God can redeem any tragedy.

At first, Daria finds comfort only in the daughter born to her after Nate’s tragic death. As she begins to heal, she also finds a listening ear and a tender heart in her new boss, veterinarian Colson Hunter. Determined to move forward with life, Daria ignores the still small voice calling her to wait and accepts Cole’s marriage proposal. But after the wedding, Daria’s new dream life turns into a nightmare with the arrival of an unbelievable telegram: “Nathan Camfield found alive. Flying into K.C. Int’l. via Bogota…”

Now two men have the right to her daughter, her life, and her love. Will Daria return to her beloved first  husband, abandoning Cole? Or will she reject Nate and choose the only man her daughter has ever called “Daddy”–a man she has come to cherish with all her heart?

AWARDS:

• 2002 RITA Award from RWA
• 2002 FH&L Inspirational Readers’ Choice Award
• Book of the Year for American Christian Romance Writers (now ACFW)
• 2001 Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award
• 2002 HOLT Medallion Finalist
• 2002 Aspen Gold Award, 2nd place
• Named one of christianbook.com‘s Top 10 Fiction book of 2001

BIO: DEBORAH RANEY is at work on her 20th novel. Her books have won the RITA Award, HOLT Medallion, National Readers’ Choice Award, Silver Angel, and have twice been Christy Award finalists. Her first novel, A Vow to Cherish, inspired the World Wide Pictures film of the same title. Almost Forever, first in her new Hanover Falls Novels series, will release in May from Howard/Simon & Schuster. Deb and her husband, Ken Raney, enjoy small-town life in Kansas. They are new empty nesters with four grown children and two precious grandsons, all of whom live much too far away.

WEBSITE: http://www.deborahraney.com

PURCHASE THIS BOOK: http://www.christianbook.com/Christian/Books/cms_content?event=AFF&p=1142383&page=561314&sp=67484

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