To Tango, To Teach
My first job outside of the walls of collegedom. It wasn't much, but at least I was teaching something that I loved.
And that was essentially the problem.
The music department had the feel of a home salon rather than an institution of higher learning. Everything was so run down, makeshift and homey. They were even painting the practice room walls themselves. The music department was making a slow comeback after being axed by the previous administration.
A most difficult woman, the department head clearly had her hands and mark on everything. The largest room, the choral room (not large by any real measure), was dedicated to a student who had died in an auto accident. His portrait just happened to be painted by the chairwoman's husband and just so happened to have their daughter in the picture as well. It was nepotistic to the extreme. Their daughter's senior recital was a classic example of overproduction. Dad composed and played, friends sang duets with her and the program notes were a small novel. Ridiculous.
Though the chairwoman was "nice" to me (That kind of icy nice. Like "You WILL do this, won't you?" nice.), she nearly drove the secretary to suicide. She loathed this woman with a dreaded passion. I listened to her stories about how each weekend would bring about a tearful, suicidal state. She said one weekend she walked about in the rain in a tearful fit. A bit melodramatic for my taste, but I knowing the source, I sympathized. "Get another job" would be my silent advice, but I couldn't bring myself to say that. I couldn't see how/why anyone would tolerate that situation.
Good times, but mental health wasn't just an issue for staff.
It was almost as if they attracted students who were having difficulties with their mental life. I already spoke about the schizo, but other students were fresh from the funny farm. This one poor lost soul, traumatized by an event in his early twenties, wandered around with a huge backpack, shoulders slumped and rarely making eye contact. In class one day, I kept driving a point to him about music theory. I must have went too far because he excused himself and took a white pill out of his pocket and downed it. "I take those when I get confused or too anxious." I was taken back to say the least, but it was behavior that was commonplace.
The quirky characters who routinely came through those doors, if it weren't so sad, were almost comical. I told my old colleague from school, "It's like they accept anyone." He nailed it: "Hey? Are you breathing? OK. Come on in!"
It was suggested that I first meet with some students in order to assess their questions and needs. I never do this now. All can be handled over the phone. My philosophy is like a car salesman: get the customer in the door and the salesman in me will do the rest. Back then, I did more private conferences than a psychiatrist. Which is what I felt like anyway. The thought of me helping anyone with their mental life is richly ironic. I'm not right, kids.
Sometimes it was like the only reason a student would come to me was for me to give them some advice and assurance. I had one student and in a philosophical mood, (A mood I never engage in now.) I told him, "In a sense you are your own teacher." Well, he must have thought about that and taken it to heart because he never came back.
A pleasant young man was among these pre-lesson talks. He was mentally acute, but I found myself desperately not trying to show any reaction to his sudden and bizarre facial and body spasms. It was like a Monty Python skit. I could concentrate on what he was saying, but inside I was saying, "Here we go again. Can't I get anyone in here that's relatively normal?" Finally, the guy explained his medical condition. You can't fault the guy, but it was definitely all part of a trend at the school. I was willing to try to teach him, but he never came back.
We had some older students who were like characters in a play. There was the lounge lizard guy who had done the Gospel circuit and wanted to learn to read music. He told me tales of life on the road that sounded more like Motley Crue than a Bible-thumpin' gospel quartet. He was later dismissed from the school because of an alleged incident involving a female student in the library. Evidently stacks were commented on in the stacks. Or something like that. Old Harvey ended up down the road at another institute of dysfunctional learning.
There was the older mom who was trying to learn music theory. She was very sweet, but not so good with the theory. She loved to talk about her problems as well. My morale and enthusiasm got so burned away, that all we used to talk about was dialogue from Apocalypse Now. By semester's end, she could recite some dialogue with accuracy. It was really funny to hear a middle-aged housewife imitate Col. Kurtz. A teaching highlight to be sure.
One gentleman didn't seem to to trust my advice about guitar and always wanted to know what books he could purchase to get the information. Though I kept trying to get him to learn the fundamentals, he kept buying books. Books about guitar are great, but they can also have widely conflicting information about even the most basic of ideas. Books are a 50-50 gamble. You need a teacher, dudes. Ron never got that and he soon vanished. He probably bought a book about guitar teachers and how to leave them.
One cocksure kid came in and told us he was going to Berklee, but wanted to audition for us. I looked quizzically at the chairperson and she back at me in bewilderment. She said that our little community music school and Berkleewere not a fair comparison and we certainly knew the difference.
This kid was so full of himself that I doubt he even realized that we were in the room. He started off by saying in this hip voice like he was on the stage already, "This is a little tune by Charlie Parker called Ornithology." To add even more grooviness, he started to scat sing along with his guitar. I thought it was the summit of youthful arrogance until he said, "I never had any technical trouble with music." I said flatly, "Have you ever played Bach?" "No, man, but I could probably get it." I have no doubt that kid thought that he had a golden road ahead of him, a stellar career where his name would be revered among the jazz giants of the 20Th century. The sad truth is more that he will end up among the anonymous millions of talented jazz guitarists who will struggle to make a living and never achieve any national recognition. He probably has some combo and a steady gig at a dinner club. If he's lucky.
I remember an Asian student who taught me a valuable lesson about why a syllabus is so important and why it must be legally the most airtight document on earth. I asked him to pick some music that he might want to work on plus the usual requirements. He'd pick, a week or two would go by and he'd decided that the music was too difficult for him and so new material was selected. This cycle went on and on until, I had to lay down the hard line that, at the end of 15 weeks, there was nothing he could play for a final exam.
He tried to blame it on me! It was my fault. (All pause here to take in the unmitigated nerve of this man.)
We had a rather intense exchange, but as passive as I am, no student is going to rearrange reality for me. I told him that that it was he who kept switching material- material I had told him in advance was too difficult for him, but he did not listen. When you read the syllabus today, you see that there is a clause which clearly states that there must be evidence of the student's cooperation and willingness to follow the instructor's advice. He is the very reason for that being in there. I told you it was airtight, yes?
In the end, I had to pass him. He had led me around in a circle and I fell for it. Since that day, no student has done it since. Thanks for the lesson, buddy.
Over the years, I have sucessfully sidetracked all attempts by students by further tighening the syllabus, but recently I was reminded of the true nature of the college student.
This kid, who reminded me of Val Kilmer, was a recent and memorable addition to the hall of the shameless. We had a great first four to five weeks of lessons. Then, he missed three in a row. All totaled he missed five, which, by the syllabus, was an F. I had written him off and had gotten used to using his time slot for some practice time. I was in shock when the kid sauntered in like everything was hunky dory. When I finally got my stomach out of my throat, I thought, "Let's play this cool and see where the kid is going with this." I was intent on not letting my shock and anger show. So, I acted like everything was cool except I asked him where he had been. He told me that his classes were demanding much of him and he couldn't make it to this class. He came right out and said his other classes were more important to him. True to be sure, but not exactly a smart thing to say to your teacher. I said, "Regardless, you still have obligations to this class. Look at your syllabus. It's spelled out very clearly."
Val countered with the old Hail Mary chesnut: "I didn't get a syllabus." Methinks I smell desperation. "Yes you did or otherwise we wouldn't had had class."
He weaseled and wiggled like a fresh water eel until the lesson time was up. I wanted him out of there, but kept cool. I expected him not to show up for the jury in two weeks. Two weeks of more missing class, I might add; making the grand total 5-one third of the total attendance possible.
To surprise me yet again, he showed up for the jury. A jury is basically playing for me and two other faculty members. It's a way of showing that some learnin' occurred over the last 15 weeks.
I tried to explain to the guitar toting hombre that he must play four pieces, not the two he kept insisting was on the syllabus. You see, he even argued on the day of the jury. This kid should be a politician. The other faculty member there said, "You better let this kid do a jury or otherwise he will say that we did not afford him the opportunity." This was smart, smart thinking.
We let Mr. Ballsy hack miserably through two sad little single line guitar pieces. Oblvious to the end, he asked how he did. I said nothing and my colleague stated flatly, "That's all, Mr. Kilmer." It was the most unabashed display of grade grubbing I had ever seen. Wow. Just when you think you've seen it all.
More on beating my head against the academic wall next installment.