By Dana C. Lamb
Just one of the first few seconds of any song from Phil Collins’ “No Jacket Required” album, and I’m back in my bedroom in 1985. I would sit on the olive green carpet and listen to his music pour from the speakers from my $395 CD player. I welcomed these newfangled CDs into the rest of the cassettes and albums I kept in milk crates in my closet. Music has always been a constant companion and I typically consume music of all genres like I consume air. I’ve discovered that we all compile our personal list of those distinctive songs that become the soundtrack of our own living and loving. From the moment I first heard it, there was always something magnetic with about track 10 and to this day Phil Collins’ “We Said Hello Goodbye” captures my breath.
I’ve been delinquent in writing blogs this month, and for that I apologize, but it truly wasn’t for lack of trying. I attempted several blogs that discussed many large-scale ideas about the importance of music education and, truthfully, none of them held my attention. I think the reason is because I was writing from my head. While I have the ability to be a strong academic writer, I’m feeling particularly vulnerable this week and I wish to write purely from the heart. These three stories have hit my heart hard and are moments that have defined me as a teacher. And all three are related to lyrics from “We Said Hello Goodbye.”
“We said goodbye to a dear old friend, then we packed our bags and left.
Feeling sad it’s the only way.”
He is a sweet firecracker of a young boy. From the first moment he entered my classroom over a year ago, this child bore the energy of a nuclear bomb. His unusually high activity level was often a disruption for the quieter moments in an early elementary music classroom and I often found myself exasperated on the inside trying to maintain balance between the children who were focused and ready to learn and having to keep him from jumping off a desk like a superhero. What complicated my ability to communicate is that English was not the language spoken at home and everything about school was so very new. I would ready myself for when this student would come to my class because he would erupt into the most energetic movement at the first sound of music, grabbing bongos and triangles whenever he could, and often twirling young girls across my classsroom. This little boy clearly has an unabashed connection to music and he was get so euphoric in his personal immersion that I found myself at a loss at how to actually teach him anything specific. He was the kid that was too busy feeling “allegro” to even care that there is actually a word “allegro” in the first place.
But recently, on a Tuesday, it was different. This student came in and sat down quietly and as the short video from the curriculum played on, I noticed that he was still, quiet, and not facing the screen. Instead, he was turned toward the wall to his right and I could see the eraser head of a pencil dancing over his shoulder. To this day, I wish that I had caught myself before I asked, “What are you writing?” I interrupted him and he turned to me with and handed me a little assignment pad. He was attempting to copy a huge poster I have on that wall that says, “Dare to dream it, work to achieve it” which is my vision for my students. He simply turned to me and said, “I like that. In my heart. Write me?” Of course I obliged and completed writing the phrase on that little pad. When I was done, he looked at me, smiled and said, “You write good. I remember.” I just chuckled and then I suddenly wished I knew what triggered his need to bring an assignment pad to class on that day of all days to write that down. My question was answered not even twenty-four hours later as I learned that Tuesday was his last day at my school. This wasn’t just a tender moment between a teacher and a student. This was goodbye and he knew it before I did.
She has a firecracker of a personality, but in a different way. I’ve known her as a student for years and she is someone that puts her strength of her personality before her strength in academics. I knew that she didn’t dislike music, but she didn’t stand out as someone who has a passion for it either. And typically, these are not the students that shout for joy at the announcement that we are going to learn to read treble clef notation. The notation unit is so academic and straightforward compared to other units that involve singing, rhythm instruments, movement, or preparing a show. Her response to the lesson was “We have to do a worksheet?? In MUSIC???” Yes, you sure do.
As they finished, the children came up to my desk for me to check their work. The majority get the concept right away and have little difficulty. She took a little longer and didn’t bring me her paper until two minutes before the end of class. At first glance I knew immediately that she didn’t understand anything I had taught. As the rest of her classmates left with their smiley faced worksheets, I quietly asked her to stay behind. After everyone left, I asked her if she knew why she was struggling with the concept of notation and she simply answered, “Mrs. Lamb, you know why. I’m stupid.” If there was ever such a thing as a verbal sucker punch, that would have to be it. If any child in elementary school has nurtured a belief that they are truly incapable of success, then we have failed. I asked her why she believed this and she said, “Because I don’t know how to do anything. This is no different.“ I folded up her worksheet and told her that I didn’t believe that she was stupid and I was going to prove it to her.
I got a new worksheet and we sat at one of the tables in my classroom and I took out another way to teach notation from my bag of tricks. She immediately grasped it from this different approach and she was reading notes in treble clef with 100% accuracy in less than five minutes. Suddenly, this girl with strong out-front opinions had softened to the point that tears welled in her eyes, something I have never seen. She looked at me and said, “You mean, I’m not really stupid?” I said, “No. I knew you weren’t all along. Now you know too.” I asked her to complete the worksheet and return it the next day. And much to my surprise, not only did she complete it perfectly, she brought it to me without me having to go find her and ask about it. I complimented her for showing leadership skills and once again, her eyes filled with tears. “I’m a leader??” I replied, “Yes, you are. You took initiative and brought this to me without me having to check up on you. If you have these character traits and can read music, you could be a music director or leader in music someday.” Her eyes grew wide, “I can???” I said, “Of course you can. If you dare to dream it and work to achieve it, you can do anything.” This child lunged at me and hugged me so tightly around my neck and then skipped out of my classroom with her brand new smiley faced worksheet. I didn’t know at the time that this experience was three days before she too also left my school.
On the heels of this experience, another young girl who is brand new comes into my classroom and tells me that she wants to join chorus. We have a policy that you have to join at the beginning of the year and told her that I was sorry but she would have to wait until next school year. She follows up with “But I can sing, Mrs. Lamb.” Compassionately, I reply, “Honey, of course you can. Everyone has a voice and you can sign up next year.” She got quiet and said, “OK. But my family says that I have a talent. Can I at least sing for you?” I stopped fidgeting with the papers on my desk and gave her my full attention. “Absolutely. Please sing for me.”
My chin still hurts from when my jaw dropped to the floor. This quiet child who meekly announced that she could sing was now the purveyor of the grossest understatement on the planet. This child can sing better than most elementary students I’ve ever heard, and I’ve taught over 8,000 young children. Her pitch is spot on, there was absolutely no nasal resonance, her diction is natural and clear, and there was absolutely no detectable break in the song that had over an octave in range. The voice that came out of this humble, petite girl was bigger than her entire grade level and was like two hands grabbing the sides of my musical soul. I told my principals about her and we quickly found ways to make sure that she gets every opportunity in music. She will need to grow into that big voice of hers, and I am both aware and humbled at how our worlds have collided for a reason, a reason that I don’t even fully understand as I write this.
One of the greatest fallacies of our lives is that we always think we have time. For the first two stories, I just assumed that this was one of many future music classes, that I would always have opportunity to share the love of music with them, and I would be their elementary music teacher who helped them to discover the musician within themselves. Any mid-year departure feels so premature to both the teacher and student. We just all go into this assuming we have the privilege of four grading periods and often find ourselves suddenly savoring the value of the teacher-student relationship when we realize it’s ending or that it’s ended.
Every teacher knows that they say goodbye. It’s our job to say goodbye, actually. We do all that we can in our given finite time and we hope that everyone involved makes the best use of stringing those experiences together. We care so deeply and feel so much for each one, and for me that’s over 500 per year. In the private, we get giddy like teenagers and start drawing smiley faces when we are grading their work at 11 p.m. and realize that they did, indeed, get it. And, we weep when we realize that we didn’t identify their challenges or struggles sooner. When we find ourselves awake staring at the moon, our thoughts drift and worry about those we haven’t seen in a while, their well-being, wondering whatever happened to them, and then we get up before the sun for one more day hoping that what we do everyday makes a difference. None of this stuff is tested, none of this stuff is even quantifiable, but we don’t care. We realize that life is about quality and making the best of every moment we’re given. We do this because the anthem of the teacher’s heart is a lot like what Phil Collins sings about on track 10. We pour it out, and then we let go. Indeed, we said hello, goodbye.
“Turn your head, don’t look back. Just set your sails for a new horizon.
Don’t turn around, don’t look down. Oh there’s life across the tracks.
And you know it’s really not surprising, it gets better when you get there.”