A Hard, Hard Week

It’s been a hard week.

At least 90 per cent of the children I teach live in poverty. Their home lives are more stressful than I can imagine. I’ve had kindergartners pole dancing in my classes, third graders shrinking from a tap on the shoulder to get their attention, fifth graders snapping a “WHAT?” at me for pointing out a behavior that was obviously ill-advised. Many of the classes arrive in the gym where I teach shouting, pushing, running, despite all my teaching and re-teaching of expectations. Attention spans can be microscopic, and even the children who are trying hard to focus find it impossible when their peers act out.

This was a week of copious acting out. In class after class, children were loud, aggressive, impulsive, hyperactive, combative, disrespectful; they pounded on the mallet instruments, had to be reminded again and again to listen to what I was saying, to watch what I was doing, to please just pay attention. It wasn’t just me, either: at both our early release training and our staff meeting, the principal acknowledged what a rough week we were all having. She talked about the many changes, the hundred students new to this school, but most of all, about the many children sent to her office who just want someone to talk to, including the boy who had to be suspended.

That’s what I keep reminding myself of, as I run to the portable during my morning duty to defuse a riot triggered by a delay in the unlocking of the building, giving children just enough time for the kids who just can’t keep their hands to themselves to push and shove and chase far too many others; as I calmly take mallets away from child after child who won’t stop playing while I’m talking; as I phone yet another parent to explain why her child will be coming home with a referral slip for acting disrespectfully: these children need me. They need all of us, from the custodian to the cafeteria workers to the secretaries to the principal to, of course, all the teachers. They need us to provide them with the structure, the meaning, the content, the connection they will not find on the big-screen TVs their parents foolishly rented-to-own, but which will be repossessed tomorrow; in the mealtime conversations that will not happen because whatever adult is in charge is out turning a trick or closing a deal or panhandling on an onramp; in the afterschool sports their parents cannot afford, the museums they will never visit, the summer camps they will never attend, the home life that can never give them what they desperately need: adults who care about them and will do whatever they can to set them on course to a future that is better than their present.

When my students descend on the Orff instruments, the xylophones, metallophones, and glockenspiels, and start working the mallets with gusto and with utter disregard to the expectation I underlined that they are to refrain from playing until instructed to do so, I have mixed emotions. On the one hand, the noise level is infuriating in the echoing space of the gym, and I know it feeds the stress of some of the children, not to mention me; but on the other hand, I can’t fault them for their hunger to make music, to rollick in the sounds that emanate from this marvelous child-sized orchestra. My most successful lessons take that enthusiasm and shape it, show them how magical it is when all the sound is coordinated so that everyone starts and stops at the same time (stage one), or that we have two or more independent parts working together (stage two), or—most magical of all—that we are so attentive to one another that we actually hear other parts, and celebrate what they are accomplishing (stage three).

We have not yet made it to stage three, and stage two proved a particular challenge this week. I spent so much of every lesson reminding students of expectations, calling again and again for “Mallets up!” Over the course of the week, it became plain to me that what I need to teach them is something far more basic than the form and structure of music. What these children need is simply to understand that stopping can be as beautiful as starting.

So that’s what we did, as it finally sank in. I played a fantastically simple pattern: C-G-C-G-C –STOP! And then we worked on stopping together. We worked at it, class after class, for five, ten, fifteen minutes, until we were finally getting the idea through, and still it was never perfect. And that was okay: most of the children got it by the end, and those who weren’t there were at least closer than when we started. Solving this puzzle, discovering the magic of starting and stopping together, was a breakthrough for them.

When I think about it, it’s not that surprising. When I think about their chaotic home lives, the insecurity, the noise, the violence and abuse and neglect they return to after school, the simple act of stopping, of experiencing the decay of the sound and the silence that follows it, takes on a magic that is foreign to my own quiet middle class existence.

This is why, however hard it is for me to teach these children, however exhausted my four hours of contact time with them may be, I still feel like this is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. However cross they’ve made me with their short attention spans and their obnoxious behavior, these children greet me with a smile and a wave whenever our paths cross. I’ve had more hugs in the last two months than in my entire previous career.

They need me, and they appreciate what I’m doing for them. They need all of us. This school is their save haven, their shelter from the cyclone that is their lives. As frustrating and challenging as it may be, as much as I may long for my students to have a breakthrough and make some wonderful music that moves audiences to tears, the very fact that they’re having music is their breakthrough. Knowing that the simple fact of my presence in their lives make a difference, even before I play a note for them: teaching does not get any more rewarding than this.


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