Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bye Bye Braves

 
Coda, outro, final cadence, fermata, cut-off: I'm out.
 
Last days with students always have a bittersweet quality. Students are children on loan, young people I have the privilege (usually), responsibility (always), or obligation (rarely) to work with, nurturing their development into musically literate human beings. I take this responsibility very seriously, and I never take the privilege for granted. Two years of layoff, followed by two years of only half-time employment, have taught me just how fragile is my hold on this vocation.
 
I came to Banks hoping it would be the final stop on my vocational pilgrimage. It was a promising setting: an elementary school with a dedicated music room that had been designed by a music teacher, separated from the classroom wing, connected to the stage; and then a PTO that jumped at the chance to purchase, in just two years, enough Orff instruments for a class of 30. Add to that a rapidly growing children's choir, and I couldn't have asked for a better position.
 
And then it all went away.
 
I was about halfway through my second year when I began to feel the rumblings: the economy was collapsing, people were losing their homes, their livelihoods, their pensions. We had a new president who had campaigned on hope, and had a generous stimulus plan to inject money and jobs back into the economy, to invest in schools just as they were being threatened with cutbacks. But he couldn't sell the whole thing. And in Oregon, perhaps more than anywhere else, that meant schools bearing the brunt of the recession.
 
I held out hope to the very end of the year that somehow I wouldn't be "riffed" (for Reduction in Force), only getting confirmation on my last day that, for all the public outcry about cutting music and the teacher outcry that their students should be doing something besides recess during their planning time, my position was gone, as was that of the secondary choir director. Only the band director was left. I packed up my room, mothballing the Orff instruments, and drove away from Banks, doubting I would ever be back.
 
The first year of layoff was hard. There was nothing for me but unemployment. It helped--I never missed a rent check, made my car payments, and with the help of the Peace House, kept my pantry stocked--but I had entirely too much time on my hands. I spent much of that time with Amy, spent some of it honing my skills as a soloist, took on a few private students, began playing for Comedy Sportz, rewrote my novel, began playing for a big band, then a garage band. Overall, though, I had too much time on my hands. The second year, I picked up a 0.1 FTE band directing job in Portland, expanded my private student base, began playing for Parkrose UCC. I also took two summer Orff courses, bringing my certification up to Level III. By the end of the second year, I was beginning to get interviews, though none panned out.
 
And then Banks made another cut: the remaining job was now 0.5 FTE. The band director brushed the Banks dust from his shoes and found a full-time job elsewhere, and with the help of the OEA reminding the administration I was still under contract, Banks hired me back to teach band and choir.
 
The first year was rough. There were many hard feelings about the loss of a popular band director, and his replacement by an older man with a far less gregarious personality. Seniors, in particular, found me a hard pill to swallow: they'd ended the previous year by marching in the Grand Floral Parade. What did I have to offer? Gradually, the grumbling faded, and I detected a growing, if grudging, respect. Younger students, especially those (junior high and freshmen) who remembered me from my elementary days, were more open to what I had to offer. But I had much to learn. In many ways, it was like starting teaching all over again: I had never run a secondary program, and there was no user's manual to help me figure it out.
 
Much about teaching has to be learned on the job. There were hard lessons my first year. My second year was smoother, though it had challenges of its own. By the end of the year, I felt like I had finally hit my stride, and when I came back, I would settle comfortably into this job, enjoying my growing relationship with students who had now known me for longer than any previous students in my teaching career.
 
That didn't keep me from looking for full-time elementary work, though. I had half a dozen interviews this summer, roaming about the Portland area, and while none of them bore fruit, the principals who called to share the disappointing news with me were always positive about what a strong candidate I was. Finally, just over a week before in-service week, I got the call from Reynolds, which then became two interviews that caused me to have to take the bus to Ashland, and then to miss the final performance of Trek in the Park. And they were utterly worth it, because as of today, I am a full-time elementary music teacher in the Reynolds School District.
 
Today was my last day with Banks. I showed my successor around, got her set up with email and keys, introduced her to students, let her watch me teach for two periods, then went around shaking a few hands and collecting my final release letter from the district office. It wasn't easy, and not because I had to teach. I hadn't expected to have to teach three hours of model lessons, but I improvised them just fine. No, what was hardest about it was the goodbyes.
 
I've had more than my share of goodbyes over the years. Moving around, working in ministry and education, there have been a lot of people who've mattered to me, and to whom I've mattered, that had to be left behind. At times I have felt like Mary Poppins, sitting up in the clouds catching one last glimpse of the children whose lives she's transformed before moving on to her next assignment. I do care about them, all of them, but saying goodbye is part of the job. I'm there to ready them for a life without me, to equip them with skills they can use as they grow into singers and players and appreciators of music.
I understand and accept this truth, as does every educator I know. These children are on loan to us for a time, until we hand them on their next teacher, back to their parents, or release them into the world. Saying a proper goodbye, one that is both heartfelt and reserved, is essential to that ultimate transition away from us and to someone else.
 
Ministry prepared me for this as no other profession could have. Growing up a preacher's kid, I developed a sense of the importance of clean breaks, and I lived that out as a pastor. Once I left a church, my contact with my former parishioners was minimal. And don't forget funerals. Performing a memorial service for someone I've cared about is the ultimate test of being simultaneously sincerely engaged and professional distant.
 
I'm good at goodbyes, then. But they can still hurt. The hardest moment today came at the end of my time with the high school band. With an eye on the clock, I decided to finish our all-too-brief time together by playing the Banks fight song. We ran through it several times, stopping to work the more difficult passages with the two freshman trumpet players. As the time ticked away, I felt a growing ache in my throat, the anticipatory grief of watching these young people walk out through the door for the last time. And then they left. I managed to keep it in--at most, I got misty--but it wasn't easy.
 
I saw a few of them later that afternoon, as I was introducing the new band director to the elementary school staff, showing her where the equipment is in that building in case she needs to borrow some. Three of my favorites were in the office there, perhaps reporting to do some community service. I waved, they smiled, and I left.
 
Bye bye.

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