This week, the new Avengers blockbuster came out swinging. Everybody who could get to Hollywood for the premiere showed up. And, the mesmerizing voice of Ultron, in his live-streamed interview on the Big Red Rug, gave Marvel credit for “creating anticipation” like nobody else.
In my solitude, I marveled.
* * * *
The year was 1991. I’d just completed six months in the high school music classroom of a colleague who’d decided, at the last moment of the waning summer, to go live on his boat in Florida. For the year. He’d left some 185 students in full-on revolt, and the District had gone through six long-term subs in four months before deciding to rock the chessboard.
The call had come in from Personnel four days before my scheduled return from an unpaid graduate leave. The Personnel Director made it clear that this call was a favor to me, that she was giving me an extra two days to get everything which belonged to me out of the east side high school music room. Out of necessity, the District had chosen to move me out of the site where they’d placed me, at the start of my teaching career nearly three years earlier, and into the one across town because of this “emergency.”
I was livid.
Down to my last fifty bucks, I had no choice. And, the kids and I had built their competitive marching band from less than scratch! Their choir had received an Excellent rating from the Sandusky adjudicators! The high risk expellates from the four corners of the county, when they weren’t putting tacks on my chair, were writing essays in music appreciation class using complete sentences! There were only 80 in total across the entire department, but they were my students and, you are correct; I had no intention of leaving them.
But, the District played on my ignorance of the Union’s protections. I had no idea that what they were doing was a flat out violation of Section Whatever of the Teachers’ Master Contract. A 30 day grievance period had just commenced, within which I could have taken this maneuver to the courts, but I was clueless – and, they knew it. They wagered that they’d be able to make this play, and clearly won.
Hot tears flying from my face, I tore over to my classroom and dumped stacks of music, arrangements, and props into plastic bags, rage erupting from my lexicon. Seventy two hours hence: the first day of the semester.
Edward James Olmos had nothing on me. I wore a skirt. I put my hair up. And, standing at the head of 85 strange, chattering choir students, I waited. For a full ten minutes, I stood.
They chatted. They looked at me, then at each other. They laughed, braided each others’ hair, poked each other from behind, and carried it all to a full crescendo. Still, I stood. Finally, the talking diminished to an occasional mutter until there was, at last, complete and total silence. Then, I spoke.
“I’m. not. leaving.”
Five beats later, they were told who I was, where I’d come from, and why I was there. Then, we began our vocal warm ups.
The six months weren’t all that. Easily the most talented drummer tried to steal the trapset, one nut, bolt, and cymbal stand at a time, until he was caught by a classmate. Another graffiti’ed some choice erotica on the music cabinet with what looked like a wood burning tool. Yet another stole a car, making a sorely needed hit with the ladies.
However, there were several encouraging aspects. The choir classroom was at the end of the main front hallway, not marooned in a parking lot annex. The faculty couldn’t have been nicer, more warmly accepting of me, more genuinely happy to have me join them. I felt like one of the staff from day one. And, in spite of everything the students had been through, even though I didn’t give them the band trip to the Disney World parade they’d been promised by their absconded seafarer, they did produce a fully staged spring concert that brought down the house. By the end of the school year, the students and I were deeply satisfied and looking forward to remaining together in my new found home.
But, the Lord of the Public Schools had other plans. Quick to dismiss my rights as a third year teacher, they hastened to declare my position encumbered by, you guessed it, the Florida boatman, and I was told I’d be returned to the east side high school.
Now, mind you, in six months time, the woman they’d slid into my job had returned to the District after a pregnancy leave of approximately nineteen years, and everybody on the faculty over there loved her. She’d dismantled the entire marching program, and was rumored to be giving six students lessons on their instruments after school so they could sit in the stands and play as a Pep Band. The degree of Pep they likely generated boggled my imagination. Only one visit to my old classroom told the tale; there were computer-generated pixilian signs posted on the walls, like some feeble facsimile of Superhero dialogue balloons. But, instead of “Kapow!” and “Bam”, they bleated: “Enthusiasm!” and “Energy!”. Clearly, there was none of the above to be had anywhere in my former, newly adulterated classroom, and perforated computer paper wasn’t about to birth any.
The art teacher at my new site tipped me off. Apparently, there was a spot open for bid in the elementary system and, he said, nobody among the music faculty was likely to want a step “down” from any one of their coveted high school positions. He encouraged me to take it.
Surprisingly, the thought stirred me. I’d reached the middle of my third decade, and the nesting hormones tugged at my belly. Little children. The old woman who lived in the shoe. Colors, shapes. Joyful, silly songs. Wonder. Puking.
I took the bid.
The last day of school that semester was a hot one already, even on the main floor facing away from the late afternoon sun. The six boys in my music appreciation class had just an hour or so left to get their research papers in on time, and I sat at my desk, stacking the last of the materials that didn’t belong to me. Soon, here came Eric, the most committed of them all; his paper was the best one, naturally, and he’d spend every last minute making sure of it. We had a nice, momentary chat, and I wished him well; he was one of the seniors, and would be enlisting in the military.
And, then it was time. I sat, staring across the choir tiers at the large, paned windows facing the street. This would be my last hour at a desk in a high school classroom. The past four years had been exhausting – intense, sometimes crushing, endless/year round, and I would not know until some two decades hence how much those kids would mean to me, or, more surprisingly, what I would come to mean to many of them.
I thought about how it had felt the day I had been hired to become a teacher, reading the letter of acceptance on my bed in the old, upstairs apartment, feeling my identity as a family restaurant waitress fading with the news. I wondered what would happen in this classroom, when my vacated position was refilled by the likely very tanned and legitimately encumbered Mr. G.
Quietly, I smoothed the formica laminate surface of the now empty desk with the palms of my hands. Then, I opened a drawer and removed a black felt marker. A lone stack of scrap paper in the corner caught my eye. After selecting one of the larger sheets, in my favorite calligraphic style I printed out a message, and tore the borders of the paper around it to form a casual, irregular shape. Then, I placed it on the empty desk top, and left the room.
The message was simple:
(Hand to God)
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo 4/16/15 all rights reserved. [BAM.]
The First and Last.
Whether we realize it or not, we’ve all been both first and last. The first, or last in the check out line; the first, or last one chosen for the new product survey at the mall; in first, or last place in Monopoly; or, first or last to finish dessert. One ends up being last for a host of reasons, and first, either randomly or because, occasionally or persistently, one excels (at Monopoly).
Yes; way back in the ’60s, when all good music was live, I came of age. And, my embodiment seemed to be one of extremes: having never crawled like a “normal” baby, I could not seem to organize my arms and legs. So, in school recess, I learned early on how it felt to be the last one chosen – for kickball, for relays, for any team. Absolutely, dead last. In fact, not even actually chosen, I was simply the one left; any team whose captain didn’t select carefully was stuck with me, like a second, immature, flabby bladder budding from a blowfish.
But, as nature, ever equilibrious, would have it, and due to a certain cerebral bent and what my generation stubbornly called inherited “talent” I was also known, to an increasingly grating degree, to be somewhat of a first. My student profile dragged a moniker with it like a Hello! sticker at the annual sales convention. The smarty pants. The gifted girl. The weird, annoying child. I also hailed from a particular neighborhood in a small city, a verrry small pond where the gene pool was, shall we say, gracious. And, perhaps due to repeated experience with playground rejection, I found a private solace in finally being considered first choice – to play the piano, to draw the picture, to sing the song.
[*Important Aside: This is, by its nature, a sensitive topic. One calls to mind the blonde Brit who fancied herself so physically appealing so as to determine, in her own mind, the litany of reasons why her coworkers treated her badly. That story was rather sickening. Do not equate this halting attempt with anything addressed by her monstrosity.]
Over time, I grew not only familiar with being the first, but worse: to expect it. And, expecting to be first brings its own, strange burden. In fact, it becomes a real load.
For the past nearly thirty years, I have been fortunate to make my living, in part, as a professional musician. When orchestral instrumentalists convene, they create a room full of firsts. The energy, present in that isolated space, is tremendous. Nobody even gets a seat, in a professional ensemble, without proving mettle to a very high degree that is concurrently physical, mental and – often forgotten – emotional. And, those seats are a visible hierarchy: principal (first); second chair, third chair, etc. And, as we all know, human behavior can be curious. Taught by well meaning and often well cultivated parents to be polite, civil, interested in others, socially sophisticated…….the bee dance begins.
Nobody really knows how to act. Who is going to be supremely “first” in this room? To whom do we owe allegiance? And, where do we fall in the line-up? Most importantly, will we accept our position when our rank becomes clear? What if that with which we either expect or feel familiar is not our lot in the calculated draw?
And, why is this even a problem?
Well, and here’s the theory. Perhaps maintaining the status of being first actually becomes not merely an expectation but an emotional n e e d. Yes; some no longer merely want to be, or expect to be. Some n e e d to be – to feel stable, to feel whole. And, sometimes, individuals beset by this matrix of need present themselves in ways that leave an awful lot of chaff in their wake.
Now, this isn’t meant to be a treatise on self-importance (it works though, doesn’t it?). It’s simply about the learned belief that, if one does not come out “on top”, then something is inherently wrong – not with the system, but within the mind and heart of the one who has come to believe that, in every scene, there is always a first place to occupy.
There isn’t. And, dispensing with the notion can be life-altering.
Two years before attending my [first] Suzuki Summer Institute (Stevens Point, WI) as a trained string player, I accepted my [first] music teaching job in, of all locations, the public school system wherein I was raised. The position as advertised was choral, but the district had, apparently, more pressing needs. In a rush of self-possessed confidence, I heard myself declare to the high school principal on the interview committee, in satin plaid skirt and white pumps: “Yes! I would love to teach marching band! ”
After all, my outstanding father, lead bugler for the 3rd Armored Division, 9th Field Artillery, US Army, had led his unit in a parade for the dignitaries. This had earned him the rank of Corporal. Surely, “daddy’s little girl” could follow in those footsteps. Ten hut. That’s all it took. Yes?
Enthusiasm for the shiny new job, and the fantasy of leading a parade, faded within a week. I learned so fast and so hard, there are no words to describe it. Yes; well, here are some: Teenagers; “F horns”; graduated bass drums and quad toms; flag-making( thank y.o.u., Mum); float-building; floppy graph paper drill designing; parent booster club organizing; and, that cultural phenomenon with which the film community has its own field day: “band.camp.” All for fifteen minutes of live music, performed seventeen times in nine and a half weeks. This, from a fledgling who never took so much as the weekend marching band mini-course in college. My students, who came from the most underprivileged sector in the entire county, had almost no background in holding their instruments correctly, let alone presenting themselves in front of a stadium full of football fans during half time.
The slog was first hot, then cold and long and wet, and it went on for weeks. Any notions of personal grandeur were soaked to the bone under pole lights and sleet. I was so terribly proud of my students, many of whom are my friends to this day, but the competitive marching band association in our region was ruthless and provided for them not so much as a wall plaque for Most Developed in the Shortest Amount of Time. We, according to everybody else but ourselves, came in profoundly, and completely, last.
Becoming a Suzuki-trained educator changed the whole scene.
Here, I was introduced to the concept that every child can not only learn, but excel. Imagine my amazement. Gone was the “best” in the room, and, with it, the expectation. Everywhere one turned, there were bests of every description — really young children, from all over the country, performing at a standard my generation used to call masterful. And, they were genuinely happy human beings. I was floored – and, subliminally, relieved.
Competition, for me as an artist, is a paradoxic state. In fact, in my heart, I do not even see it as a legitimate arena for art. Cinematic director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, in his acceptance speech at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, echoed my sentiments almost to the letter; if art, by its definition, is an expression of the soul’s experience, the mind’s eye, the heart’s beat, then placing oneself on a block in a formidable space and performing a work of art on demand against that of others’ offerings seems counter to its intuitive intent. The requirement can be alienating, distancing, interruptive, like blood flow stopping for a clot.
Nearly two decades ago, I inherited a position of leadership in an orchestra from a very gracious woman who had occupied her seat until an encroaching physical condition prohibited her from continuing. She was a lovely musician, and an even sweeter person. There was no competition for this chair; rather, I simply slid across to assume the position at her leave taking. To this day, I honor both the chair and the responsibilities required of it to the best of my ability. But, every so often, during a reprieve in our process, I look around and remember the days when hormones drove every decision, nigh every thought. I recall how many times I wondered whether I truly made the cut, whether there was someone in the wings with an eye on my spot.
And, now, this. Over the past decade, reality television has provided for our culture a strange and riveting phenomenon: The Bachelor. Some twenty five eligibles appear in front of camera to vie for the prize – a future spouse. And, over several months of episodes, the world watches as the pack is narrowed down to one, final “rose” – the winner, the one deemed most adored by the prize waiting to be offered up.
Who will be first? Who will be last? Who decides? And, why? How important, pray tell, is isolating a “best one” in matters of the heart? in matters of anything, for God’s sake? How many more decades will our society persist in preening its feathers, ready to declare absolute preeminence?
I’m not sure I care to find out. The winter may end, after all. There is a garden waiting to be nourished and nurtured. Soon, there will be vibrant growth everywhere. Some blooms will be large, some small, but all will be beautiful. Every single flower, every ripe berry. The first one, all the way to the last.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo
3/6/15 all rights reserved. Thank you for enduring.