2016-06-30
After Mom dropped me off for my first day of high school, I watched her drive away. I was terrified. I had to brace myself to enter the building. School to me was a private hell, where the other kids considered me stupid-after all, I got D's and F's, and I had repeated seventh grade. They also made fun of my weight. I smoothed out the drop-waist navy blue sailor dress Mom had had a seamstress make for me, hoping the style would have a slimming effect on my 5-foot-6, 220-pound frame.

Mother had been praying for me since May and promised me this year would be different. All summer I wondered how. Would I miraculously shrink from a size 22 to a 10? That hadn't happened. Would kids finally accept me and stop calling me names like "Fatso"?

As I walked down the hall, a boy I knew from last year yelled, "Hey, Big Mama! You're back again!" My blue eyes welled with tears. Nothing had changed. My life had turned upside-down when I was ten and Dad's job took us from Indianapolis to Tupelo, Mississippi, in the middle of the school year. Feeling inferior and backward socially and academically, I became shy and reclusive. One teacher seemed to get sadistic pleasure from belittling me. He would start by asking, "Donna, what's the answer?"

I knew the answer, but I had such low self-esteem, I stammered, "I-I ..." In an exasperated tone, the teacher would say, "What's the answer, class? Give Donna the answer." It was a vicious cycle. I ballooned on the outside and closed up on the inside.

My parents took my self-esteem and poor academics very seriously. They worked extra hours to pay for me to go to summer school and have tutors and for a friend to sew me younger-looking styles than the matronly "plus sizes" on department store racks.

Every day I begged, "Mom, don't make me go to school-please!" I pretended to be sick. Once I put a thermometer in hot water and showed my Mom how high the mercury had zoomed. As supportive as my mother (who was a nurse) was, she wasn't fooled by the 106-degree temperature!

My junior high school principal thought I was mentally retarded and had gone as far as I could scholastically. He'd recommended I be physically and psychologically tested and placed in a special-education class. When he told this to my parents and me, we were stunned. Riding home, watching my parents from the backseat, I saw tears silently slide down my mother's cheeks. Just then she turned her head and exclaimed, "Sweetheart, you're brilliant! You've got it in you, Baby! It'll come out!"

My pediatrician and the psychiatrist who tested me had been kind. When I got through the tests, the psychiatrist said, "You did tremendously, Donna. You're not dumb; in fact, you're a very smart young lady. Something has happened to you that has locked you up inside."

Then he said to my parents, "Mr. and Mrs. Shepard, there is a butterfly inside Donna that wants to come out."

That summer Mom came home from her nursing supervisor job each evening and cooked supper for us, but sometimes she didn't eat herself. She was fasting and praying for me instead. One night, I overheard her in the living room: "Jesus, I don't know what's got my child closed up so that she cannot be all that you want her to be. But, God, break it!"

To me she said, "Next year you're going to high school, and you're going to be different. In September, Donna, you're going to be a jewel! I can't wait! God is going to change you!"

At the end of that first day of high school, I was so hurt and miserable that I hid in the girls' rest room, where I could cry in private.

My dream was to sing like the pastor's wife or a missionary I'd heard at church. I would love to sing like that! But then I thought, Nah, I'm not good enough to do that, and I can't think right-I'm stupid.

Our house was filled with music, from Dad's Rodgers and Hammerstein records to opera to "The Wizard of Oz." I came home from church singing hymns, although I was much too shy to consider joining the choir. While other kids my age were into the Beatles and Tupelo-born Elvis, my favorite voices were those of Julie Andrews and various gospel singers. At home, I sang in my bedroom, standing in front of my mirror, holding a hairbrush for a microphone.

Assuming I was alone in the school rest room, I started singing, holding a sustained high note like an opera singer. The acoustics were fantastic! Suddenly I heard a cough in one of the stalls. I grabbed my books and hurried down the corridor. A female voice that sounded like a drill sergeant demanded, "Wait a minute! Come here! What's your name?"

I reluctantly turned around and saw a slender, attractive woman. I lowered my eyes and mumbled, "Uh, er, my name's Donna Shepard."

"Look at me!" she commanded. "Lift your head up! What's your name again?"

"Donna Shepard," I repeated nervously, wondering what kind of trouble I was in.

"Come to my office in the morning!" she ordered.

"Wha-what do you want me to do?"

"I want you to try out for chorale."

"I can't-I can't sing," I stammered.

"I don't ever want to hear you say again that you can't do something. Do you hear me?" she barked.

"Okay," I said meekly. "Wha-what's your name?" She told me she was Mrs. Stevens.

I ran out to the car, and Mom asked, "How was it?"

"Everybody's the same, but Mother!" I said haltingly, in wonderment, "There's a woman who wants me to try out in the morning for chorale!"

"Oh, Donna, do! I want you to do it!"

"Mother, I can't! I'm not going to! I can't! I can't!" I said breathlessly.

But the next morning I forced my feet toward the music room and inched toward the piano, trembling.

"Sing! Sing a song!" Mrs. Stevens said brusquely.

 

"All I know is a Jesus song."

"Sing a Jesus song then!"

"Amazing grace ..." I began in a wobbly voice.

"Higher, higher! Look at me! Breathe!"

"Amazing grace ..."

"Higher!"

"Amazing grace ..."

"Higher!"

"Amazing grace ..."

"Higher!"

When I thought my voice would surely lift the roof, she said, "Good! I want you to sing first soprano in my chorale."

"I can't ..." I began.

"Enough! I never want to hear `I can't' again from you."

I went home shaking. "Mother! Mother, I can't believe this! I'm in chorale, and I'm first soprano!"

"Oh, Donna, that's great!"

As I got involved in chorale, I became more confident, spoke up in class, and studied harder.

Six weeks later it was report card day-traditionally, a death march for me. But this time I went home and said, "Here, Mother, I got my report card." My family gathered around.

Mom took one look and exclaimed, "Oh, Shep! [my Dad's nickname] Oh, Lord! Oh, Baby!"

I had made honor roll.

I sang a duet at church and solos at school and church. My best song was "He Touched Me." A drama teacher insisted I join the debate team, and I wrote articles for the school newspaper. Mrs. Stevens encouraged me to try out for school musicals. One of my favorite parts was being the mother in "Bye Bye Birdie." My music teacher and my drama teacher changed my whole world. When I sang and acted, I began to enjoy students who had seemed distant-like the cheerleaders. I was invited to parties. A girl I'd mistakenly thought was snobbish said, "Donna, you were just like a shadow to us; we didn't even know you existed."

Singing in the girls' sextet at school, I was cracking jokes when one girl said, "Donna, I would have never dreamed you were like you are."

"I didn't know who I was, either!" I said, surprised. God had changed me-not physically so much as by boosting my confidence, so that my intelligence and humor could blossom. Mom started a positive chain reaction when she prayed for me. My greatest fan reached the One who loves me even more than she does. Mother believes God has a plan for each person-and that included me.

Not only did I graduate from high school but I graduated with honors. And when students voted for the Friendliest Person in School, I was chosen number three out of 1,300!

I met my husband, Gary, in Bible college, and today I live my dream of being a pastor's wife who sings. I recently flew to almost forty places in one year to speak and sing about the Lord's goodness, and I was in charge of the program for twenty-five thousand at a church conference, where I spoke and sang a solo. I've sung in places as far away as Hong Kong and Papua, New Guinea. Knowing God's love, I like to sing, "You're Special to Jesus" to encourage others. I trace it all back to Mom's praying and God's answering with a music teacher with the voice of a drill sergeant.

When I sing, Mom's the first one to start clapping. She's the first to give a standing ovation. I say, "Mother, wait till someone else stands! Everybody knows you're my mother!"

And she says, "If you don't be quiet, I'm gonna get pom-poms!"

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