Rest assured. In the end, I did watch him. Finally. Last night. In his debut audition before the AGT judges back in May. And I would have to be completely tone-deaf or a walking dead if I can’t tell from his performance just how incredibly talented he was! How incredulous that a voice so powerful and emotive could actually come from so diminutive and fragile a frame as his.
22-year-old Kodi Lee from California certainly didn’t walk up on stage with the cocky confidence of many others before or after him. He didn’t swagger nor sashay his way to the spotlight, the way many a singing sensation would. Because we all know how these things go – it’s ultimately a confidence game, and true talent often takes a backseat in favor of keeping eyeballs glued to the screen with charismatic, good-looking eye candies the world constantly craves for.
It’s all about how you hold yourself up in front of a packed auditorium of seasoned audience, not to mention a panel of even more seasoned judges, including the notorious Simon Cowell and his razor-sharp tongue. A tongue that could lacerate any less-than-perfect performer into a defeated messy heap before viewers all over America and the world every week.
No. Kodi showed no such finesse.
Instead, he walked gingerly and somewhat unsteadily onto that stage with help from his walking cane and his mom Tina. The world soon learnt from her that Kodi wasn’t just legally blind, he also had autism. A double whammy in any parent’s book!
But once the initial surprise and apprehension was over, and Kodi sat down to sing and play Donny Hathaway’s classic “A Song For You” on the piano, you can literally hear the thud-thud sound of chins falling onto the ground all across the auditorium! The guy was musical talent par excellence!! And not since Susan Boyle‘s debut have I seen Simon’s eyes open that wide!
Unsurprisingly, Kodi went on to win Season 14 of AGT with a rousing duet of Calum Scott’s “You Are The Reason” with award-winning celebrity Leona Lewis.
So what stopped me before from watching Kodi you ask? And why the change of heart last night?
Well, to tell you the truth, a part of me never liked to hear of or even see yet another special needs person put on a pedestal for a spell, only to be forgotten later on, as I suspect Kodi and others like him would be.
More importantly, to be misunderstood into thinking that this will change things forever for people with autism everywhere, as though his triumph meant that others like him all over the world will now be more accepted, even celebrated wherever they can be found. It’s a mindset change I wrestle daily with as a parent to a special needs son; to have more people understand that having autism doesn’t mean one is of less worth; just a different worth. And that worth doesn’t have to be “AGT-visible” for it to stand on its own merit and be applauded!
These flitting successes on world stages like AGT’s also reveal absolutely zilch about the day-to-day mundane struggles that special needs families like Tina’s and mine deal with. The daily ‘skirmishes’, from unpleasant therapy and medical appointments to protracted and difficult homework sessions, often go unseen. They are as invisible to the casual observer as my son’s special needs.
So what if one makes his mark on the world stage today, like Kodi did? He and the rest of us still have to live on tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that. And…
In fact, as I think about it some more, someone like Kodi actually has a far greater advantage over my Caleb: Kodi is visibly disabled.
That means Caleb will be put to a higher standard of ‘accountability’ and performance than the Kodis of this world. That fact alone makes Kodi merely a spokesperson for himself, but not Caleb or anyone else. So let’s not even talk about this feat of achievement by Kodi as a new open highway for others with special needs to be better embraced and accepted by the rest of society.
Because it isn’t.
And that was when I had my change of heart.
Since I’ve concluded that it isn’t, why not just sit back, watch Kodi’s performance unencumbered by any bias, and judge his talent on its own merit, divorced of his special needs? Why not just celebrate his singing gift without any of those autism and disability filters everyone else puts on automatically?
Then I wouldn’t need to be reminded that to be affirmed by this world we live in as a person of worth, especially for persons with special needs like Kodi and Caleb, one must step into such spotlights and win competitions.
For even if I never see Caleb lift a single trophy in my lifetime, he will always be of infinite and immeasurable worth to me, just for being who he is.
And so I finally watched Kodi’s performance last night.
As I closed my eyes to listen hard and unbiasedly to him for who he was, I was… completely… utterly…blown away!