Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, November 02, 2009

Life Is Like an Afterschool Special, part whatever

The Junior High Choral Contest (well-intentioned but horribly off-key fanfare) at Ye Olde Academy has a bad habit of sneaking up on me every year. The 7th and 8th grade classes pick their songs in mid September, figure out who is going to do what during the first part of October, and then spend the next few weeks rehearsing like crazy. With a bit of luck, hard work, and a few miracles here and there, maybe they get their act together by the time the event takes place during the second week of November.

It's a time when my musical experience is actually acknowledged outside the music club, for better or worse. In the past, when I was first based in the senior high school and then assigned to the grade 9 staff every year, I was always asked to be a judge (since grade 9 doesn't participate). However, when I started getting stuck to grade 7 every year from a few years ago, I could no longer be considered impartial, so my role changed completely. It also became a lot more complicated. Since I'm an assistant homeroom teacher every year, it would be only logical to assume that I help my own class each time. That assumption would be correct, but it's not quite that simple. You see, preparation for the choral competition is traditionally the responsibility of the music teachers and each class's homeroom teacher, and they tend to be possessive with regard to their turf. The assistant homeroom teacher rarely even enters the picture. The degree and content of my participation, therefore, tends to be something of a dilemma.

The first time I was attached to a 7th grade class, the homeroom teacher invited my participation almost from the beginning. Not a very assertive person, he mainly wanted me to help keep the kids in line. There were a few screw-offs (Boys are rarely very enthusiastic about it), but for the most part the kids did what I asked and got a reasonably good result. That was very different from two years ago, when the homeroom teacher apparently kept me out on purpose because she knew I would take the event seriously. (She only wanted the kids to enjoy themselves.) I was only brought in as a last resort, but by then there was a simmering feud between the boys and the girls, the boys had more or less gone on strike, and the homeroom teacher had pretty much given up. The whole thing was dropped in my lap. It seemed like trying to beat a dead horse, but I somehow managed to brush them up enough to keep them from getting last place. Last year was almost the exact opposite; we had a very cooperative class, and the (P.E. department) homeroom teacher drove them like a sports trainer. I was brought in two weeks before the contest to tune up some nagging rough spots as well as train the student directors. The kids did an outstanding job, the class got second place overall, the director I trained the hardest got an award, and I got absolutely no credit or thanks whatsoever. (The homeroom teacher got a touching thank-you speech at the contest and a gift. What did I get? An apology from the homeroom teacher. Oh, well. At least we were successful.) And as for this year...

Once again I'm assisting a homeroom teacher from the P.E. department, though he's a rather different sort of person. The class itself consists of kids who are generally pretty good but extremely childish. The sudden, tragic death of one of their classmates at the beginning of the school year, and all the complications it brought, probably had some effect on them, as well. I knew they had started rehearsing for the contest, but I wasn't told anything until I asked. (The homeroom teacher explained that he'd thought I'd been too busy to help.) I was finally asked to observe a rehearsal and give some pointers a little more than a week before the contest. It was kind of rough, but I wasn't really concerned (yet). The students then asked me to work with them after school. A lot more girls showed up than boys, and getting the boys to do anything was a bit of a chore, but we spent a good hour and a half training. I thought we accomplished a lot.

Jump to two days later (October 31st...Halloween). It was now exactly one week before the contest. The homeroom teacher was away, and so was one of the regular lesson teachers for that day, so I was asked to work with the kids. It was a disaster. The boys in particular wasted an extraordinary amount of time getting into formation, and even then they were clearly more interested in poking each other than practicing. When the first student director started the compulsory song, there was still a lot of laughing and chattering going on even despite my urgings. Once the song got going, however, it turned out that most of the boys didn't even know the tune! The elective song, which I had focused on before, was only marginally better; the entrances were weak, the intonation was painfully hideous, the basses kept singing the soprano part instead of their own (albeit an octave lower), and the harmony kept falling apart because of rushing. Needless to say, it sounded awful.

I was stunned.

First I turned my attention to the student director for the elective song. I had worked with her a lot getting her to direct in such a way that the singers knew clearly when to come in. But now she was directing as she had before, just swinging her arms around in a way that made no sense. "Don't you remember what we worked on before?" I asked. "Show the singers the entrance!" The girl, normally a shy, serious sort, responded by looking askance at me and replying dismissively, "The chief music teacher told me that this way is better." "She's right!" added the accompanist. "He really did! I heard him!"

That couldn't possibly be right. I work closely with the chief music teacher, and he has given me a lot of personal instruction in conducting. (We even took conducting lessons from the same specialist!) I know he would never approve of that kind of "directing", and I said so, but those two students adamantly refused to follow my advice. I then turned my attention to trying to fix the problems in the chorus, particularly the sloppy entrances, but the overwhelming majority of the students seemed to be treating the whole thing as a joke. Not only was there a lot of giggling and screwing around instead of listening to my instruction and doing the drills, but some of the students (one of them the bass part leader) were spending the whole time mocking my American pronunciation of Japanese. Finally I said, "Okay, I guess I'm done. Fix it yourselves!" I then planted myself in a chair.

The class went silent, but the students still didn't seem to be taking any of it very seriously. The student director of the compulsory song came back and started that tune, but it was so pathetic that I couldn't stand it any longer. Halfway through the tune I stood up and yelled, "STOP!"

The kids in that class are used to me being firm but still basically a nice guy, which may be part of the problem. Now the nice guy was on strike, and they knew it. They stood dumbstruck as I railed, "Just what the hell is this? Do you know when the contest is? Are you even close to being ready? Are you even trying to do a good job, or are you content with getting up in front of several hundred people and making total asses of yourselves?" Now that I had everyone's undivided attention, I repeated the drills I had attempted earlier, this time in the manner of a drill sergeant. The kids responded, but I totally hated doing it, and there wasn't much time to do anything anyway. It just seemed like an exercise in stress-inducing futility. I didn't see any more of the class that day, and I was glad of it.

I was also thankful for the Halloween BBQ party my family shared with another family in our neighborhood that evening. Good food, s'mores, and copious amounts of red wine prevented me from being stressed out that night. Sunday night, however, was another story. I was still upset, and I didn't get much sleep that night.

On Monday morning I confronted the chief music teacher about the conducting issue and was told that that student had either misunderstood him or fed me rubbish (as I'd thought). I then went to the homeroom teacher, told him the whole story, and told him not to ask for any more help from me because I wanted nothing more to do with it. I then lost myself in my morning lessons.

During lunchbreak, two girls from my class came padding into the English Department office, where I am most of the time. I was busily rearranging my furniture in YoVille when they came up to me hesitantly, corrected their posture, intoned a very polite apology, and asked me to continue giving them instruction. I told them quite frankly that, while I appreciated the apology, I didn't think it very meaningful. I was far more interested in actions than words, and it was clear the class as a whole wasn't taking any of it seriously enough to matter.

"Besides," I said, "I don't really have any complaints against you two. You seem to be doing your best."

One of the two, who actually does have a few, small attitude issues, immediately started tearing up and said, "No, sensei, we're just as guilty! We've been playing instead of practicing, too!"

You know, I really hate it when girls cry. Guys seem to be naturally wired to crumble when female tears flow (and females know it!). Steeling myself, I said, "Then you need to think about what you should do instead of apologizing. You now have less than a week. Besides, there are many others in the class who should be here apologizing far more than you!"

As I was saying this, there was a bit of a commotion outside the office door, and next thing I knew all of the girls in the class (16 counting the first two) were crowding their way into the narrow aisle leading to my desk.

"Well this is..." I stammered. Then I kicked my resolve back under me and said, "I really appreciate this, but I don't think this really matters that much! Besides, I still think the boys owe me an even bigger apology than you do!"

As I was saying this, the boys started coming in. Not all of them did; some of them apparently stayed out in the hall if they showed up at all. The biggest troublemakers were ushered to the front of the group, where they gave me a very sincere-sounding apology and similar request for me to continue working with them.

By this time I was starting to be at a loss as to what I should do, so for better or worse I gave A (probably rather cliche) Speech (not sure which fanfare I should use), the gist of which was basically:
  1. It's not about me, it's about you; only you can make it happen.
  2. Think about what you really want.
  3. Success takes effort.
  4. Time is precious; waste it, and it doesn't come back.
  5. Like a sports team, we're only as strong as our weakest member.
  6. We either do this together or not at all.
There were some tears, especially among the girls, but everyone was listening earnestly. It was a very heart-melting moment (Damn those feminine tears!), so I closed by pointing out that none of them had come to my Halloween trick-or-treat event on Saturday. I then handed out some of the leftover candy. That brought immediate smiles.

I didn't plan to go to their rehearsal that afternoon. However, as it turned out, as I was making my way back to my office after the 5th period class, one of the boys in my homeroom suddenly intercepted me in the hallway and asked me where his classmates were. He said he had gone to the restroom and returned to find the classroom empty. I didn't know where they were either, but I agreed to help him search. We went around to all the usual practice spots, but our class was nowhere to be seen. Just when I was about ready to give up, I had an idea. The homeroom teacher is a P.E. teacher. What's a large, empty area that only a P.E. teacher would consider using for choral practice?

Once we arrived at Gym no. 1, the boy went and joined his classmates. I turned around intending to head back to my office. But then I felt The Pang. Returning as far as the doorway, I stood there behind the formation content to listen to them practice as the homeroom teacher gave them strict instruction (though you know I was tempted as hell to step in and throw in my two cents' worth!). After a bit, the girl directing the compulsory song suddenly came running up to me with some questions about conducting style. While I was working with her, the leader of the bass section came and told me they needed help. I wound up working with them.

I worked with them a little bit today, too. There are still some problems, but they have improved a lot. And best of all, they actually seem to be trying now.

I can't really call this a happy ending, though. The contest is scheduled for this Saturday, but as of an hour ago three of the five 7th grade classes are under one-week quarantine for the H1N1 flu. The junior high staff want to postpone the contest, but the administration is threatening to terminate it altogether. I just hope it wasn't all for nothing.


  • It sounds like the little dudes were looking for a dose of reality and you gave it to them. The rest will be a learning experience for them in any case. You are always good for that sensei.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 2:20 PM  

  • I'm going to buy you a campaign hat.

    Sadly, the undisciplined youth is an epidemic. I don't know why we didn't see this sort of thing when we were younger. You don't win contests with an undisciplined group and we won contests. Seems Rex P faired pretty well too.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 2:37 PM  

  • When I read your status on FB, I couldn't wait for this post! :D

    You arranged your furniture? Ok.. gotta take a look then, hehehe..

    Whoaaaa... reading the story of what happened, it's like a movie (those teacher and naughty students scenes) although it's not the end of the story yet but I really do hope it's gonna be a happy ending one *crossing fingers*

    By Blogger Selba, at 6:29 PM  

  • So much drama, MM. I'm amazed at your seemingly endless optimism for the kids. And how often they pull through when you work with them. Hopefully, things will work out H1N1 or no.

    By OpenID nikkipolani, at 2:13 PM  

  • Great story, no matter what happens from now.

    K's Jr. High canceled their choir event the other day due to flu. Good luck.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:27 PM  

  • The 5th and 6th graders at my wife's elementary school were supposed to perform a musical number at a joint elementary school music event. It just got canceled for the same reason. The kids have spent months preparing for that thing, and I put quite a bit of effort into helping them. (Heck, I arranged the tune!)

    At least they're performing it at their school for their parents today, so it wasn't all in vain.

    As for our choral contest, it's going to happen in two weeks, but it'll be on a Monday afternoon. I doubt there'll be much of an audience.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:59 AM  

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