Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Call Me Mr. Awesome

He's a little bit on the too old side, but I think the physique is about right.

Kindergartners say hilarious things. They say them with utter candor, their eyes wide, the expression in their faces so pure and passionate they would be the envy of many a thespian striving for realism. They confuse "Mr." and "Mrs." all the time; in fact, when I'm teaching kindergarten music, I am probably "Mrs. Anderson" about as often as I am "Mr. Anderson." More often than either, I'm "music teacher." Today, however, was a first: as my first class of kindergartners filed into the room and took their places in the opening circle, one of them looked me in the face and said, "Hello, Mr. Awesome!"

I was, of course, flattered, enough so that the ensuing half hour--which featured an inconsolably sobbing little girl and a sneakily violent boy punching his peers when I wasn't looking--was far more tolerable than it would have been otherwise. I chewed on the moniker for the rest of the day, in fact, posting it on Facebook and sharing it with other teachers, who also got a kick out of it.

The cool thing about it is that it finally gives a kindergarten-generated name to a phenomenon I began noticing last year: to many of my students, I'm a hero. Everywhere I go, children glimpsing me smile and wave, calling out my name, even when they're supposed to be walking silently down the hall. They're also supposed to have their hands at their sides in the hall, but passing me means half those hands come up, eager for a high-five. If they can, they often break away to fling their arms around me.

Last year I likened it to being a rock star, but that was when I was teaching in the gym. Since I moved into a classroom in the main building, the displays of affection have become more personalized. I know a big part of it is that I'm just more relaxed this year: I already know most of these kids, I'm in my second year of teaching general music after four years away, and almost everything that made teaching difficult in the gym is gone. The sole complicating factors now are high flyers, and many of them seem to be among my biggest fans, despite how frequently I am forced to discipline them. I think they can just see the difference in me: I'm not as frustrated, not as defeated by the huge echoing space I had to deal with all last year. Music is a time they can be with an adult who clearly enjoys having them around and is giving them fun, interesting things to do.

I've graduated, then, from being a celebrity to something much more accessible, and I can see this in the number of children who confide things in me, showing off their loose, missing, or new teeth, letting me know it's their birthday, talking about a significant experience, or just plain talking. One kindergarten girl has regaled me with her observations that the songs on the radio are all about "booty booty booty," and that some boy told a girl she was "poo poo." Another told me, her face shining, that her mommy was going to pick her up after school, and she just loves her mommy.

Part of what's working, I'm sure, is that without the stress of the gym, I can handle a half hour of any class without losing my cool. Many a teacher, when I tell him or her that the class has been challenging today, says "Welcome to my world"; and while I do experience every teachers world for two half-hour sessions a week, they are correct in that, like a favorite uncle or grandpa, I always get to hand the children back to the person their lives really revolve around when our time together is finished. That half hour may be hard--there are two fifth grade classes, in particular, that try my patience--but it's just half an hour. When I was young, a teacher exploding at a class I was in made me feel like I'd lost that teacher's approval, even if I'd had nothing to do with whatever set off the tongue-lashing. So I'm careful about such things, and while I will occasionally stop the lesson to deliver a lecture on appropriate music room behavior, I keep my temper in check.

That makes me a safe adult, an adult they're happy to be around, whose emotions are in control, and whose primary mode of expression is approval. And, as I said earlier, my classroom is a place for fun activities and some of the best toys in the world.

No wonder they wave, high-five, and hug. No wonder that one little boy called me "Mr. Awesome," even if it's just because he didn't get "Anderson" right. And I'm glad he did: as hard as his class was to deal with, I still managed to finish feeling fairly awesome. This is a huge part of why I love my job so much. I'll finish by quoting a poster I've seen hanging in many schools, wrongly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: 
To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty. To find the best in others; to give one’s self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exaltation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived—this is to have succeeded.
A fourth grader asked me after school today what I wanted to be when I was his age. "A scientist," I told him, "or maybe an astronaut." He laughed, and said he wanted to be a designer (he didn't say of what), so he could make a lot of money.

Somehow money has never seemed much of a token of success to me. For years I sought the success of public approbation for the sermons I delivered and the church work I did; but in time, I realized this was a vanity, not a true sign of success. Then I rediscovered teaching, and bit by bit, student by student, I began to accumulate the one currency that made me feel truly successful: the affection of children. As a music educator, I do strive to find the best in my students, and to draw more of it from them than would be expressed without my encouragement. At the end of every day, watching my students climb into buses and cars, I feel like I have made the world a little better for each one of them. In my classroom, I have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sun with exaltation, and I know there are many young lives breathing easier because of my presence in them.

Knowing all these things, "Mr. Awesome" becomes much more than a cute thing a kindergartner said to me. It's who I really am: the most successful guy in town.

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