Note: Each year in our closing assembly, a few teachers are asked to share favorite holiday memories. It was my turn this year and I shared the following. I post it here because I think it gives an insight into middle school kids not frequently seen.
To teach is to open your heart and your soul. You teach because you hope to give a gift to your students. That means being open to great joy and fulfillment. It can also mean being vulnerable to disappointment and even hurt. Some years are good and some years bring struggles. In a school the focus is on the students. It isn’t, and shouldn’t be, about the teachers. But it might surprise you to know just how human teachers are (of course, it’s the same for parents). If I could, I’d like to speak for a moment as a human and not a teacher.
I had a difficult year once. It left me feeling sad, and more than a little down. I started the next year feeling a bit bruised, but life goes on.
Some people might question whether it is a wise career choice to enter a field where professional success is determined by your ability to coax adolescents into singing. With their changing voices, self-consciousness, and all the various social dilemmas they face, singing can be a challenge.
Every year, I try to pick songs that will be fun, educational, and also reasonably d0-able, considering the vocal and social complexities endured by my middle school possums. And every year after concerts, I hear people say, ‘That was fun.” Or, “I can tell you worked really hard.”
I understand what they’re saying, and I appreciate the kindness. We strive for a high level but often fall short. I do believe there’s value in the effort, the striving, and the work. So, in the end, we do the best we can.
Each year, twice a year, we sing, and at the end, I put on a smile, turn around and face the audience, acknowledging their applause but wishing the performance could have been higher-quality. That's life as a middle school choir director.
Deep down, though, I really want to sound good. Each year I sneak a wish that at least one song that will be beautiful on it’s own merits, not on a sliding scale, not with all things considered and so on. I want a song that sounds good so that when I turn around to acknowledge the audience’s applause, I can smile back and think, “Yeah, this one was really good.”
Now, going back to my story: coming after a rough previous year, I really wanted a good song more than ever. As a human, perhaps I needed it.
I chose one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time. The song I think is the perfect holiday song: “White Christmas.” Written by a Jewish immigrant from Russia, the song became popular during WWII as soliders longed for their families. The song is beautiful on so many levels and for years I’ve wanted one of my classes to sing it and do a really good job. I found a lovely arrangement and have tried it over the years several times. Each time it was pretty good—but never quite all I had hoped.
But the year I'm speaking of, my students worked so hard. They practiced and practiced, spending entire class periods trying to master a single phrase or chord.
A few weeks before the concert, I explained how much it meant to me and told them that the thing I most wanted for Christmas was to have my one song—that really good song that would allow me to turn around and face their parents with a real smile on my face.
The concert came and I was nervous. We sang our first song. And it went pretty well. And our second song was even better. And then it was time for our last song: “White Christmas.”
As we started I could tell they were trying. They were really trying. It occurred to me that many of them were sincerely trying to give me this gift. I don't think they understood all it meant, but they understood it was important to me. That really touched me and the notes on my music got a bit blurry.
The song started beautifully. They did a lovely job. It got better and better as it went on. They followed the cues for the dynamics. The balance seemed good. We hit the high point, “May your days be merry and bright,” pausing at a fermata after a lovely crescendo, and I heard a distinct chord! Three parts being sung in balance and tune! I heard the descending notes from the boys, the resolving chords from the altos, and the beautiful, pure simplicity of the sopranos on the melody.
It ended. I turned around to face the audience with the smile. “Yeah,” I thought. “You should clap. That was really good.”
That was the year I got my song. I got my Christmas present, and a favorite Christmas memory. And I want to thank the Class of 2013 for making it happen last night at our concert.
Update: That is what I read in assembly this morning, and that was followed by my students singing again. Having heard this account, they seemed to have an idea of what it meant to me and if anything, their performance was even better. I hesitate to say “perfect,” but that’s not too far off.
I will relive this memory many times in my mind. Probably when I'm old and decrepit, I will still be remembering the sounds and how it felt.
And then after they made me choke up, with their performance, as well as their kindness, several of them ran up and surprised me with hugs. I don’t normally do hugs with students, but in this context, it really touched me.
I won’t be trying “White Christmas” with future groups. I’m retiring the number, so to speak, because I’ve now heard the definitive version in my mind.
I wanted to teach because I hoped to give my students gifts. But last night, I was the one who received.
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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