It all started in the summer of 1991. (cue harmonica music)
I was “Reet Petite and how d’ya” do with my government job cashing unemployment checks, waiting for my next raise. I had been fired the previous year from my lucrative position as a software/hardware salesperson at Ingram Micro. I was playing in a band, delving, in a pinch, into the powdered remnants of my long-abandoned Slim Fast regimen. And somewhere within the din of this self-made miasma, the phone rang. It was my old friend Dan Lewis.
He had “had to” “refuse” an “opportunity” to teach music at a South Buffalo Catholic elementary school, but he suggested I might be a good “fit”. That little prankster. He had assumed that his lack of proper accreditation would make the interview process futile. That made perfect sense. However, as I spoke to the nun in charge on the phone (I have forgotten her name, but for this story, let us refer to her as “Nunzilla”.), it became clear that this would not be an impediment. I think they just needed a warm body to spell the “real” teachers for an hour or so on Tuesdays or Thursdays. And I did what any college graduate with an Associates Degree in Music Performance from Villa Maria College was expected to do. Teach music.
I took the job. I took the first step toward fulfillment of my destiny. To change young lives. To transcend the banality of the elementary school teachers I remembered. Miss Nixon with the gray beehive, neck mole, and predilection for irrelevant Americana. Miss Mohr, a stern yet bewildered woman with the countenance of a very unamused Industrial Revolution-era matriarch. I remember how unlucky I felt as our 7th grade chorus endured the verbal derision of our peers as we traipsed through a tepid rendition of “A Little Bit o luck”.
There’s the Casio (a tiny keyboard that fit in a closet and had its own speakers – she called it the “piano”). There’s your desk. This is your room. You can design it the way you wish.
I chose to keep thing fairly austere. Stark, in fact. I eschewed the heavily thumb-tack-holed array of light cardboard half-notes and dancing G-clefs. I jettisoned the 5-stick chalk holder and decided instead to write two simple words on the blackboard. “Rhythm” and “Melody”. What was I thinking? I was thinking the thoughts of a man who had never been in a room with two children, much less 22, at a time. And Nunzilla led the polite 1st graders into their seats, instructing them to behave for the new teacher. The new teacher could swear that the entire lot of them could literally smell the fear coursing through his blood. As soon as the nun left, the muttering began. And I sat there. Paralyzed. A fake. A fraud.
Then, as the din subsided, a sweet toe-headed boy approached my desk. Was he going to ask me about music? Was he going to ask me about my experiences in music? My education? Was he going to tell me how cool I was?
“Mr. Neal, what does the INRI on Jesus’ cross mean?”
“I don’t know.”
And as deadpan as a six year old boy can muster, “It means ‘I’m nailed right in…‘” and he returned to his seat. I honestly don’t think I heard another word from him the whole year. That was the first day.
I taught every grade from 1-8. I tried everything. Teaching rhythms, having everyone try clapping along to my terrible piano playing. Singing the songs in the tattered old songbooks that they had no doubt been used to from years past. I took attendance. Why? I graded them. On what? At a loss, I resorted to what Miss Nixon did when I was that age. I made them sing. We sang “Kookaburra”.
Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Merry, merry king of the bush is he
Laugh, Kookaburra! Laugh, Kookaburra!
Gay your life must be
Each and every time we sang it, the coda was greeted with snickering, from grade 1 to grade 8 (yes, I had 8th graders singing Kookaburra). And after a while, the best part of my day became pretending I had no idea what anyone was laughing at.
We sang “My Favorite Things”.
….and then I don’t feel…so…bad…
And as the year went on, I would start sneering the last few words out, as if I was making fun of the composers to their faces, which I had totally earned the right to do. When the kids would make it through a song a few times without anyone getting hurt, they would ask if I could invite Nunzilla in to hear it. They dutifully sang, with their best posture, she would complement them. But without fail, she would turn around before departing and give me this combination smirk/glare, like she knew I was a fake, and she knew that I knew that she knew I was a fake.
I got in trouble. Once I was trying to impart the history of rock and roll to the apathetic 8th graders. I felt I was in my element. Hip, speaking their language. Snapping my fingers. I sat on the front of the desk like those cool teachers we all liked back in the day. I could be their buddy, their confidant. I figured some of them were getting the shit kicked out of them at home. This was South Buffalo, after all. I could be their refuge. To Sir With Love and all that. Feeling self-satisfied, I went home. There was a message on my answering machine from Nunzilla, telling me that some of the female students were upset because of the proximity of my groin to their faces. Could I please remain behind the desk?
I was a terrible teacher, and the guilt I felt every day kept me up at night. How laughable that I was thinking I could be the spark that could ignite their love for harmony, The Beatles, Stravinsky, I had momentary dreams that I could stage a giant extravaganza featuring all the grades performing in harmony with the others. A seminal music program to rival any private school in the state. The truth was that I could barely get them through “Erie Canal”. For the more advanced grades I tried to teach actual theory, but that was a waste of time. Their half-notes (especially the male students) tended to look like little penises. Why were they laughing as they handed them in? And how was I to grade if every single person in the room was waiting for my pants to split?
The highlight of my experience was when I was trying to get the 3rd graders to pay attention, and I shouted “GODDAMMIT SHUT UP!” And needless to say, there was a message on my machine when I got home, telling me that swearing and taking the lord’s name in vain was not to be tolerated. So the next day I meekly apologized to everyone. “Sorry, kids. I fucked up…”
I didn’t really say that last thing.
What a year it was. I wanted to quit very badly, but I’m a real bulldog when it comes to avoiding being seen as a quitter (which will come in handy should any of you decide to include me in your future poker games) and those kids needed me. I think the last thing we did was a talent show which lasted something like 4 hours because I let everyone do anything they wanted to. And everyone wanted to dance to Paula Abdul. Every class. Every girl. Over and over. “Opposites Attract”. About 10 times. I was a terrible teacher. Nunzilla pointed to her watch and gave me the sneer.
Nunzilla said that the music program would be discontinued the next school year. I had destroyed music. No more music. And as I walked past the hand-made “Why God Hates Abortion” posters the 5th graders had crafted, with their Swede-porn-red depictions of what looked like borscht but was, in truth, an array of aborted fetuses, I hung my head in shame, ruing the day that I said yes to this pristine example of the Peter Principle writ large.
The next fall, I went to pick our drummer up on the way to practice and as I pulled up, a kid from the 2nd grade class stepped up to my window in the middle of a street hockey game. He said “Mr. Neal, you’re way better than the music teacher we have this year…”