In this story from April 2004, the star of stage, screen and television shares how a math teacher refused to allow the 12-year-old Uggams' God-given talents to go undeveloped.
Intermission at a recent concert of mine in California. I was touching up my makeup and hair when someone delivered a note to me in my dressing room. “I’m out here watching you tonight, and I couldn’t be prouder.” Signed, Mrs. Nehrens.
In an instant I was whisked back more than 40 years to the Professional Children’s School in New York. There was my math teacher, Mrs. Nehrens, her smile brighter than a spotlight and her voice like a trumpet in a jazz band. You had to listen. Still, my mind wandered sometimes—especially during geometry, which I couldn’t make heads nor tails of—and I’d cut up. I loved to do my imitation of Johnny Ray crooning “Cry.” It brought down the house at the Apollo. Mrs. Nehrens was not amused.
“Leslie,” she said, “this is not a stage. This is a place of serious study.”
Professional Children’s was a private school for young performers. In the hallway before homeroom you’d catch a ballerina sewing ribbons on her toe shoes or a violinist studying a score. It was understood that sometimes we had to dart out for auditions and rehearsals. I’d already been excused to sing on Milton Berle’s show and Arthur Godfrey’s. But there was no skipping out on academics. We had to keep up with our schoolwork.
Algebra had been a breeze. But geometry? I couldn’t figure out the difference between an equilateral triangle and an isosceles triangle—or were they the same thing? Many times Mrs. Nehrens stayed late with me after school. She guided me through the theorems and proofs and equations. One summer she even tutored me. She didn’t want me to flunk out.
We never would have been able to afford the school if it weren’t for Aunt Eloise. She was a performer too. She’d been one of the Blackbirds of 1928 on Broadway and sang in Porgy and Bess. “You’ll go to Professional Children’s,” she announced.
“We don’t have the money for that,” my mom replied. She’d quit her job to accompany me on auditions and rehearsals, and Dad had already taken on two other jobs in addition to his regular work as an elevator operator to make up the difference.
“I’ll help out,” Aunt Eloise said.
We lived in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, and I sang at St. James Presbyterian Church on 141st Street. Our choir director was always urging me to blend in better. “Don’t be so loud, Leslie,” she said. Well, I didn’t want to hold back. There was no hiding my talent under a bushel. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” I sang out. The Lord himself seemed to be doing a good job of letting that happen.
Until I turned 12. I wasn’t a cute kid anymore, but a gangly adolescent. Work dried up. I still took singing lessons and dance classes, but that was all the performing I did besides my doo-wopping in the hallway at school.
The biggest blow came that fall. One day Mom sat me down and said, “Leslie, I have some bad news. We can’t afford tuition at Professional Children’s anymore.”
“What about Aunt Eloise?” I asked.
“Work has been slow for her too,” Mom said. “It won’t be so bad. You can go to George Washington right here in the neighborhood. A lot of your friends are there.”
“But how will I be able to go on auditions? How will I get my career going again?”
Mom shook her head. In that instant I saw that light of mine go out. I would never step onstage again. All I could imagine ahead were years of drudgery. Had all the performing I’d done as a youngster been just a fluke?
Both of my grandfathers were ministers, and I was used to hearing their graces before dinner, prayers that went on and on until our food was cold. That night I got down on my knees and started praying like they prayed.
“Dear Father God, I am so grateful for all you’ve given me: Mom and Dad and Aunt Eloise. And my singing voice and my acting. You’re going to have to help me, God, because I want to keep going to this school that helps me do all that...”
But the first day of school I was trudging up the hill to George Washington, not shooting downtown on the subway to Professional Children’s.
That afternoon I sat at the kitchen table, staring at my homework. The phone rang, and I didn’t bother to answer it. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. “Yes, yes,” I heard my mother say. “Thank you so much. We can never repay you for this.”
Mom came into the kitchen, tears in her eyes.
“That was Mrs. Nehrens,” she said. Why was my old teacher calling us? “She called this morning and wanted to know why you weren’t in school,” Mom continued. “I told her we couldn’t afford Professional Children’s anymore. Well, she just found a scholarship for you from the Presbyterian Church. It will cover your tuition for the rest of the school year.”
I jumped up and gave Mom a huge hug. And back at Professional Children’s, I gave Mrs. Nehrens a hug too.
That year turned out to be an important one for me. I landed a spot on the TV show Name That Tune and won twenty-five thousand dollars. Record producer and songster Mitch Miller heard me do “The Lord’s Prayer” on the show and signed me to Columbia Records. Later, I was a regular on Mitch’s popular sing-along TV show. And that eventually led to Broadway.
So when I read Mrs. Nehrens’s note in my dressing room, I knew I had a huge debt of gratitude to repay. I stepped back onstage and announced, “Folks, I want you to meet the lady who made it possible for me to get where I am today.” I had the crew shine the spotlight on Mrs. Nehrens, because as I discovered more than 40 years ago, nobody’s light can shine all on its own. It takes help from people like my old math teacher. “Thank you, Mrs. Nehrens,” I said. “Take a bow.”
She deserved it. She taught me a lot more than just geometry.
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