That is most definitely the word of the day, and it’s not just because today is my steel (i.e. 11th) wedding anniversary. Once again I am sitting in my school’s conference room, which I have recently come to dread. Once again I am sitting next to Mr. Ogawa, with Mr. Karatsu sitting on his opposite side. This time, however, we are not facing members of the Music Club Parents’ Association (motto: “What, hasn’t anyone decided on a motto yet?”). The other four sides of the rectangular collection of tables are occupied by the 11th grade committee of the music club. We have a lot to talk about, and almost all of them are sitting with their gaze averted. They look nervous as hell.
As for me, I’m just feeling all steely inside on my steel anniversary.
Sunday, steely Sunday.
Actually, the day didn’t get off to such a bad start. My wife and I had hoped to get up early and go play in Yokohama all day. Unfortunately, her tennis club managed to wreck that, as it has managed to wreck just about all our plans for the past three years. We’re in the middle of our district’s Combined Junior High Sports Meet (plastic, off-the-shelf fanfare), a twice-annual, three-day event which excites the kids and adds yet another scheduling nightmare to the curriculum. Well, thanks to yet another wandering typhoon out over the Pacific, last Friday’s matches got rained out, and the weather was even worse on Saturday. Public school sports knows no Sabbath and considers days of rest a Western abomination. Presto! No trip to Yokohama. The wife was off bright and early again this morning and definitely not happy about it. She was happy, however, when the rain returned and everything got postponed yet again. She was back home by noon, and we were at our favorite shopping/entertainment complex in Narita half an hour later. I managed to get my anniversary presents purchased in time, she got some long overdue shopping done, and the kids found a suitable distraction that didn’t involve injury or destruction. Things worked out just fine.
The only problem was that I had to be back in time for this meeting. The Mrs. wasn’t very happy about it, but I didn’t think missing it would be a good idea. I gave her the keys to my car so she and the kids could go play in Kashima till I was done, gave her a kiss, and tromped into the mostly-darkened school to make the student leaders of the music club face some serious music. STEELY music, and I don’t mean Dan.
So now here we are.
The student chairperson starts the meeting properly with a big, stoic smile on her face. She has already endured the blast, so she knows what’s coming, but she is trying very hard not to show it.
Mr. Ogawa starts his talk, and he doesn’t let anyone else get a word in edgewise for a long time. He has a lot to say. He always does, even when he doesn’t. He addresses a lot of issues, mainly centering on the ones that came up as a result of that ill-fated Australia tour, directly or not. There’s a lot to be concerned about, and he’s spelling it out as clearly as possible.
Recent events have made it clear that we have a bad case of factionalism within the music club. Those of us in charge have no idea how long this has been going on; it had clearly been festering underground for some time, kind of like a mushroom, before the Australia tour disaster caused it to throw up a stem all at once. The string and wind/percussion sections have always been rather cliquish with regard to one another, but now it has become a lot more complicated. There’s a veritable cold war being fought between those in the “dance team” and those not, those that want to do more and those that want to do less, those that want a more rigid outfit and those that want more freedom, and those that want to work closely with the directors and those that want it all to be strictly in their own hands. It’s mainly the 11th graders that are guilty, but the roots of the problem have spread throughout the club and may even have been the cause for the sudden, mysterious dropping out of a few junior high members.
Mr. Ogawa is being firm, but I notice he’s also being very careful. His tone remains measured, and there’s no trace of bile. I realize that we’re facing a number of delicate situations, but I still wonder whether he’s treading lightly or leaving the grease to me. I guess I finally get my answer almost an hour later, when he suddenly turns to me with a wry grin and says, “Is there anything you’d like to say?”
Ha! Is there anything I’d like to say? No, I wouldn’t really like to say it, but I’m going to say it anyway. That’s exactly what I tell them before I start snorting flames.
Actually, though, the fire doesn’t respond as readily as I expected. As with my meeting with (flaming of?) the chairperson a few days ago, I feel more tired than angry. I’m just burned out. I probably sound more depressed than furious as I nevertheless let fly with a frank and sometimes caustic tirade. My beef is not so much the bizarre torpedoing of the Australia tour itself as the way the students went about it. The sneakiness, the two-faced deception, the politics, the twisted priorities, the factional peer pressure bordering on coercion, the dodging of responsibility, the clear lack of trust of their directors, and the indecisiveness all get slammed onto the table and pounded with the Moody Minstrel’s spiritual (steel) hammer. When I finally bring it to an end, every face is aimed downward. Many if not most of them are reddened. Several are tear-stained.
For a few minutes the room remains in dead silence. Then the lead bassoonist, who is also the ringleader of the “dance team”, (not to mention the inspiration for my song “In Your Ranks”,) speaks up. “I want you to understand,” she says frankly, “that none of us asked our mothers to say or decide anything on our behalf. Anything my mother said or did, it was all on her own.” My response to that is rather curt (“Yes, I see.”), but at least it gets the ball rolling. Gradually, timidly, comments start to come forth from the other students.
Finally, the concertmistress of the orchestra says a bit emotionally, “I’m the one who wrote the letter saying I was afraid to tell you what I was thinking. So, what am I supposed to do, anyway? Make myself a target?”
That manages to bring my pilot light up a bit higher, and I finally ignite. “What in the world do you think we’re here for, anyway?” I rail, rising in my seat and gesturing angrily at Mr. Ogawa and Mr. Karatsu. “Is it so difficult for you to trust us? We’re the ones that have to keep this club running without any problems! We also have to solve any problems that do pop up! That’s our responsibility! On the other hand, your responsibility is to let us know where those problems are! That’s why we have meetings like this! Is it so difficult to see that? We do our best to make this organization work well for everybody, but we can’t do a thing for you if you keep it all hushed up! If something’s wrong, tell us, and we will uphold our responsibility! Don’t you dare run away from yours!”
There is another round of dead silence, but I see a lot of thoughtful nods. Then a serious but very outspoken clarinetist asks Mr. Ogawa what he thinks of what I’ve just said. “I can’t say it quite so directly,” he replies, “but he is absolutely right.”
Thank you, Maestro!
Next, our lead trumpeter asks Mr. Karatsu for his opinions. Mr. Karatsu (who STILL reminds me of Dewkid…but without the meaty sense of humor) replies, “I’m not as emotional as [the Moody Minstrel], (obviously,) but what I think is almost exactly the same.” He then launches into a blunt tirade of his own, the main gist of which is that the kids should think carefully before making a decision in the first place and then both stick with that decision and take responsibility for it.
Responsibility. That really is what this whole thing is boiling down to, whether I end my sentence with a preposition or not. This year’s 11th graders seemed very responsible at the beginning of the school year, but recently they’ve been getting flakier, (cue Robin Leach voice) and I don’t know why!
More silence, and then the bassoonist pipes in again, suggesting that they all find out what the younger members are thinking and then have a good, serious talk to determine the club’s direction. That girl is definitely an enigma (and sometimes even a mild dilemma), but she’s good at getting things moving (or preventing them from moving…like her mother). The mood in the conference room gradually changes from steely silence to thoughtful discussion as more and more members offer their contributions. There are no earth-shattering revelations, no sermons, no profound, gospel truths, no testaments at all, but a new covenant appears to be in the works. (Sorry, Pa’ve.) The members of the different factions are talking, and I see a glimmer of hope somewhere among the lotus leaves. Out of the chaos, a…ah, forget it. Anyway, the kids are thinking, and they’re talking.
Still, I can’t help noticing that the chairperson herself has been quietly taking notes the whole time, speaking only to moderate the discussion. She hasn’t offered a single opinion. Ironically, I see that as proof she’s doing her job. Instead of taking matters into her own hands and ruling by decree, as many chairpersons before her have tried (and usually failed miserably), she is letting the committee do its work. She may seem like an adorable, little airhead on the surface, but her sense of duty is rock solid.
Or should I say steel solid?
Uh, oh…speaking of steel, it’s now past seven o’ clock, and my loving wiffee is probably sitting in my BLUE car somewhere ready to chew nails as the kids in the backseat drive her nuts. The committee is already dwindling, as individual kids step out to meet their rides or catch their trains. I go ahead and take my leave, too. My part has already been played, after all.
When I inform the kids of my reason for leaving, I’m given a starry-eyed “Ooohhhh!” followed by a hearty round of applause. I guess some things are harder than steel…or maybe I should say softer. My heart has already started to melt, that’s for sure.