Pardon the apparently self-aggrandizing title. To understand it, you need to realize that, more often than not, I leave work wondering if anything I did actually mattered. No, I'm not veering off into self-pity. Stay with me here.
I teach middle school choir and I direct middle school plays. Every year I spend hours and hours trying to coax musical notes out of throats that are addled by hormones and obstructed by insecurities. If I work my guts out, and really push the kids, we perform for their parents twice a year and do a reasonably good job. It's not usually all I hope it will be. Those adolescent insecurities are very powerful things. They make it hard to project and sing out. What if someone hears them, after all? (Note: Last year was a unique and amazing exception, in case any of my recently graduated 8th graders are reading this).
Theatrically, I spend my time trying to help the kids create a performance that honors their potential while accommodating their current limitations. The school spends a great deal of money and the parents spend prodigious amounts of time on costumes, props, scenery and on and on. Enormous resources are poured into this play. And then it's over. The students graduate and move on. They go on to other activities, or to more advanced theatre programs.
This is not a complaint--it's the natural order of things.
Still, I sometimes wonder: "Is what I do worth it?" Is it worth the time and effort and money? Does the benefit exceed or at least justify the cost? With all that's going on in the world, does coaxing adolescents to sing a song really matter? Even at best, our work is so transitory, so fleeting. Is this a good use of my time?
I imagine I'm not the only person, teacher or not, who entertains these or similar questions. I think they are the common lot of mortals.
But today, I got one of the reminders that come on occasion. I think sometimes they are little messages from God, perhaps.
Like many of these messages, this one came at an unexpected time: today, during 7th grade chorus.
7th graders are noisy and squirrely and unfocused. They have lost the charm of childhood but have not quite obtained the gifts and abilities that come with young adulthood. They are right in the middle. I love them, but they are crazy. They are generally every cliche or stereotype you have heard about middle school students.
They are the way they are because all sorts of unimaginable changes are taking place inside and outside of them. Chemical, physical, emotional. Their bodies are changing, their brains are changing. Their friends are changing, their whole world is changing. They are chaos made flesh; disorder and creative destruction incarnate.
On Fridays, you might imagine it is particularly difficult to corral them. To add to the mix, today, before we sang, a thoughtless act by one student gave great hurt to another.
Against this backdrop, I organized them on the risers (it took an enormous amount of time to do so and made herding cats look orderly and efficient). Our warm-up did not go well. Singing a single, sustained note and following dynamic cues was nearly more than they could do without interruptions of laughter, poking, jabbing, or intentionally singing in a weird way.
We moved on to the song we are currently practicing. And then, we sang. Suddenly, somehow, something happened. Amid the chaos, they sang three-part harmony. Beautifully. Three distinct parts. Each note actually a chord. A distinct, discernable chord. Unity without sameness. Beauty in diversity.
For just a few minutes, order appeared in the chaos. For just a few minutes, their manic energies were channeled into the creation of beauty. Social problems, insecurities, stresses, and everything else was put aside, swallowed up by music. The power of art transformed this most chaotic and unstable of groups into a moment of transcendence.
I'd like to think such things could change the world, that art and beauty and music could help bring order to chaos. But art has been around for a very long time and we still live in an ugly world.
I'd like to think that perhaps, if it won't change the world, it might change a student. What is the impact on a student's soul when they can have moments where they transcend themselves? I have to think it has an impact somewhere, at some level.
But these things are beyond my control, ultimately. Outcomes for which I can hope and work, but which may or may not happen.
Still, whether or not it will change the world, or even a single student, there is something that I like about spending my professional life trying to coax order and beauty out of chaos. There is so much ugliness in the world today. Working to create beauty, to bring order to chaos, seems almost naive. Or perhaps, counter-cultural.
Ugliness is everywhere. In the way we treat each other, in what we see and hear in the media. It seems to have gripped nearly every aspect of life with gray, scaly hands, choking out what is lovely and good and beautiful and true.
The recent discussions about Miley Cyrus/Robin Thicke missed a key point: we live in an ugly world. In fact, we live in a world where professional artists now use their talents to increase and augment the ugliness.
I will rebel.
I will teach my students to sing beautiful music and we will sing loud enough to drown out everything else for a few minutes, at least. We will seek order in chaos, harmony in differences, and transcendence and beauty in the mundanities of every day.
In this light, what I do matters. Not because of any virtue I posses, but because beauty matters. It matters a great deal. It matters that any of us try to bring beauty into the world, in any way. It is rare and what is rare is valuable.
I can't stop the tide of ugliness, but I can stand against it, defiantly pushing back with everything I can. The effort may or may not make a difference in the long run, but it's what I can do, and I find solace and meaning in that.
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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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