What About The Children

It’s amazing that I have to ask, but please bear with me because I have a point today. I didn’t just sit down and decide to get all cranky.

I basically failed out of high school and then snuck into and failed my way out of four different colleges. School was never for me. I probably had a better chance of being a Catholic Priest than I did of doing well in school. *BUT*, the asshole shit-spewing teachers I had didn’t make it any easier.

I was the worst student imaginable. I was really quite smart, I generally knew what was being taught as fast as the fastest kids, but I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t concentrate, and I was wildly inappropriate and loud almost all the time. I have a hundred stories in my head, and not one of them would prove my point as well as all of them together. Each year, a different teacher, each year, they hated me.

(This is four paragraphs of stories editted out, including going a week without lunch, getting suspended for being beat up, being mocked in front of my third grade class, standing in front of the glass during a discussion of fat kids, having a special seat for me in the hall in fifth grade, having only my homework checked in front of the class, having a zero on a test added to my grade average because of attendance, etc… Trust me, it’s boring.)

My biology teacher refused to pass me my senior year despite the fact that I was getting an A in his class and despite the fact that I was tutoring kids in his class. He opted not to pass me because once I had missed twenty days, he could fail me regardless of my grade, and he did. To this day, I still don’t have my diploma.

Why did these teachers hate me?

I was a smart ass. I talked shit all the time. I wasn’t scared of anyone, the more authority someone tried to exercise over me, the more likely I was to challenge it. On top of that, I was born to perform, to create drama on stage, and I had no outlet for it. Our home was a POW lockdown, no noise, no missteps, under constant threats of hostility and violence, I didn’t dare misstep when I was in the house, and that’s why I wasn’t scared of anybody. There were mountains of people at my house willing to make my life hell, what do I care about some teacher.

So, I’m willing to take my part of the blame. But…

I had, year after year, some sorry ass broke down mother fucker, relegated to teaching public school because the fucking SS quit hiring people in the 40s. Sure, I was a hate-able kid, but who the fuck just lets a kid like me go without making a single attempt to find out why I was such a miserable pile of shit? What is a teacher there for? There were twenty kids in my class in grade school, I was in Iowa and Tidewater, Virginia. These weren’t inner-city schools. These were wealthy white-kid schools who wanted a thug nigga like me *OUT*. I was always treated like a spanner in the works for these fuckers.

Oh yeah, and how come the teachers in London and Nairobi took me under their wings for the very very short time I got to be with them? Why did I excel?

Everyone thanks one of their teachers at some point, there’s a teary couldn’ta-doneit-withoutcha bullshit moment where some public school teacher gets a call from the CEO’s office at AwesomeCorp, or a shout-out from the award stand. My teachers can rot in hell, all except for one.

By the time I moved to California at 16, I had already failed one and a half years of high school, I was already better at mixing drinks than studying, and this school, like every other one, gave up on me immediately. I was put in the learning disabled classes, writing one book report a semester, taking business math classes to get enough credits to graduate, and the only musical option for me, get this, was Show Choir.

The show choir teacher was a heavy drinking, chain smoking bum who was given the music department after being hired as a basic math teacher. He was given the department because he had done some jazz recordings in the fifties, and, although he could barely play piano, he was better than hiring another teacher. Roland Maxson took one look at me and decided I was a piece of shit just like him, and he taught me everything he knew about music. He was totaly Buttermaker from Bad News Bears and I was… I don’t know, take your pick, any of the kids.

When the school put me on probation and wouldn’t let me perform, Maxson went to the principal (the bishop at our church and good friends with my whole family who, it won’t shock you to learn, *ALL* hated me) and, with me in the room, explained that I was special. He said, “this is a kid who’s been overlooked his whole life, he’s been given up on every single time he could have been, but he’s special, he’s different. You have to let him perform, it’s what he’s gonna do for the rest of his life…”

I remember the part about being given up on every chance there was. I walked through the door and people thought “GOD, not this little FUCK. The *SECOND* I can, I’m kicking his ass out of here”, and I gave the reason within five minutes. Maxson saw this and wanted to change it, wanted to help me.

Of course, they still didn’t let me perform. But it’s the one and only time in my life I had someone bigger than me stand up for me. I was so used to being the principal’s office, it didn’t occur to me that I could walk out of there having gotten ahead, but Maxson walked me back to his office, pissed as all hell. Then we went to his apartment and had pina coladas and watched porn.

Maybe I should go back and edit this, because none of this is the point.

The point is that my friend Barry is losing his job as a chorus teacher. He teaches a rag-tag group of junior high students down by JFK, and the budget cuts imposed from on high mean there is only room for one music teacher at his junior high school. Barry is losing his job, and the woman who has been there *longer* than Barry is losing her job as well.

The choir and the parents of the kids in the choir went nuts. The school was covered in “Save the Music, Save Mr. Wyner” posters, to the point where the principal threatened to suspend anyone hanging posters. These kids are spastic, wide eyed, MTV freaks, barely able to concentrate for more than about ten seconds at a stretch. I’ve worked with them, and it’s like trying to herd thirty squirrels into a shoe box. But they rallied around Barry, going all the way to school board to fight his removal.

Of course, they’re removing him.

And in a way, he’s happy. The community is going to shit, there’s no re-investment, people are moving to better neighborhoods the second they can. This is a really nice neighborhood as well, every one of these kids is wealthy, but they are all running to a school district that isn’t throwing away their music department. Barry sent out some resumes and got a job from the very first one, plus job offers from the rest.

But these kids are screwed. They’re done. Junior high for them is gonna be the same hell it was for me, falling through the cracks, learning chorus from the same guy who teaches band and orchestra, one teacher with eight hundred students, what’s he care if someone drops out? These are good kids. I’ve worked with kids all over the country, at this point in my life I’ve recorded somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 songs, and I’ve probably worked with 250 different kids, and these kids are really special.

That MTV distraction? That spastic disrespect? Hit the downbeat, and these kids are front and center. They learned from Barry that art means discipline, that without attention there is no music. God, I love these kids, they are really great, and I adore Barry, from his knotted brow to his tightly tied shoes. And there is no movie ending for these kids. Most of them are just gonna quit doing music, or they’re never gonna know they could have.

In junior high I played violin because there was no chorus. I’m a terrible violin player.
I wasn’t saved until I found my voice, I never knew music until I learned how to sing, and now music has saved me from a life that I can’t begin to imagine. Music has given to me every step of my life, always given to me, and has never let me down, has never proven false. Every dollar I’ve made is because of music, the hope for my future lies in my possibilities with music. And I wouldn’t know about my voice if Mr. Maxson hadn’t fought for me.

Would my life have been different if my teachers were all passionate about reaching kids like me? What if they all made half again as much money as they do, would a better quality person have been taking care of me at age 8 instead of some small minded woman who was dumber and knew less than me and was trapped into a life of teaching through desperation? I don’t know.

But I know that a lot of my friends didn’t make it as far as I have. A lot of my public school friends fell apart after Ju-Co, got restaurant jobs and mild drug habits just to make it. Barry, and people like Barry, could give possibility, and he will at a different school next year. But those poor spastic kids in his old school are gonna end up worse than me, and it’s an absolute tragedy.