Memories of a First Year Teacher
by Geoffrey Lansing
Although the first year I taught school was not my first job, it was memorable for a number of reasons. When I signed the contract I was 22 years old and had been given an emergency teaching certificate by the Oregon State Superintendent of Education. Bill Williams, was the Superintendent, Principal and US History Teacher of Joseph Public Schools, a small rural K-12 district in Northeast Oregon. I drove down from Spokane, WA to interview for the job of music teacher. During the interview, Mr. Williams explained that any school district unable to hire a certificated teacher by the beginning of the school year could apply for and be granted an emergency one-year credential for any person able to do the job. I had completed four years of a college education without earning the right credits to satisfy the degree requirements for either a BA or a BA in Ed. However, I had been earning money as a professional musician from age fourteen, so I could probably do the job. On the plus side, my predecessor had not been well liked.
Richard Attwood had been a 2nd lieutenant in the Army but wasn’t able to make the “Army” way of doing things work for the school kids. Fortunately for me, the man I replaced had been a both a social misfit and professional failure. He ended his assignment there with a lawsuit in which he had allegedly broken a student’s arm. Believe me, even as inexperienced as I was, that was an easy act to follow. The small community had stopped just short of tarring and feathering Lt. Attwood. They were more than happy to see him go and, of course, anxious to welcome me. So asking for credit at a men’s wear store, based on a newly signed contract, I bought a camel-hued one-button suit, a new long-sleeved white shirt and tie and set out to be a teacher. I knew what I knew about music and how to make it, but was totally unaware of what I didn’t know about how to give that knowledge and skill to anyone else. I was now a school music teacher and responsible for instrumental, choral and general music, kindergarten through grade twelve.
Thus followed a series of learning experiences that could only have happened to someone who was as ignorant and uneducated as I. Anyone who knew better or had even been taught would not have benefited as I did.
On the first day of classes, I met my first group of 25 kindergarten kids for general music. The little guys and girls
just couldn’t get the idea that I expected them to read the music books I passed out. In desperation, I began to strum my ukulele and began skipping around the room. I thought that maybe the kids would feel the rhythmic excitement, jump up and follow me.. Unfortunately, the boys couldn’t even skip when I played “Skip to my Lou” and the “Bunny Hop didn’t work either. To my chagrin, after a painful thirty minutes of unfulfilled expectations on my part, the kids real teacher returned, took me out in the hall and patiently told me,
“These kids are only five years old, Glenn. They haven’t learned to read words yet, let alone music notation.”
So much for a gallant, well-intentioned try at something you haven’t done before.
The next episode in my teacher education on-the-job training involved Rodney Potter, a large, smiling seventh grader. He was one of two percussion players in the one and only band class. The Joseph school band was made up of any student from grade five to grade twelve who knew how to hold an instrument. Several of the wind players also knew which end to blow at or into. Picking instructional materials for this group was sort of like trying to find the right lure for a fishing expedition when you don’t know how deep the water is or even if there is any fish in the water.
Taking a wild guess and a shot in the dark, I chose, “Our Own Overture” by Howard Akers. It was simple piece with no particular technical demands, but it had one thunderous reverberating bass drum boom followed by a cymbal crash, that was supposed to occur on cue at the melodic and harmonic climax. A flashing, splashing crash followed a shimmering tail of sound was required. It was Rodney Potter’s job to render this crash with gusto and precision. In six months of trying, Rodney either crashed too early or too late on a daily basis.
“It was a little early, Rodney. Let’s try it again. OK band, lets start at number 25.”
“Ready? Here’s four beats for nothing. Start on the first beat at 25.”
The clarinets and flutes started the phrase that they all knew so well. Then the horn and trumpet came in on bar 27, followed at bar 29 by the trombone, snare and bass drum in quick succession. We’re almost there and Rodney is standing and visibly ready to cap the climax with his double forte cymbal crash.
“Damn”, I muttered under my breath
“Only a half beat late that time, Rodney”; followed by a chorus of groans from the band and a gulped and a swallowed;
“Sorry.” from Rodney. Not wanting to loose all that positive momentum, I announced,
“Let’s take a look at the march.”
I had found a watered down version of John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever left in what Lt. Attwood had labeled Music Library. I put it in the band’s folders, thinking that anything that famous would be recognized and appreciated by the kids and their parents, too. With my youthful enthusiasm and ignorance I thought it would be real easy to prepare it for a concert. As it turned out, I guess the United States Marine Corp Band never got as far west as Northeast Oregon when they were on tour.
As I was preparing to count off the march, I looked up and saw one of the kids lying down across two of the folding chairs. Phillip Crowe was a fifth grader and had his Eb Mellophone resting comfortably on his chest.
“What’s going on Phillip?”
“I’ve got twenty four bars rest.”
Since most of the kids in the band had shown no understanding or recognition of what a rest was, his answer renewed my interest in Phillip.
“OK. Count carefully and don’t miss your entrance. Don’t forget, your part maintains the rhythmic balance “
After a couple of run throughs, he had it nailed and never looked back. Smart, quick learner and dependable, Phillip Crowe turned out to be a very important part of the musical success of the Joseph School Band.
Except for an unpredictable turn and change of events, that could have been the end of this reflection. However, painful as it is, remembering Phillip always uncovers more than his success as a peckhorn player.
The winter weather was terrible that year. Long periods of snow blanketed the area for weeks at a time. Quite a large percentage of the kids in the district had to ride a school bus to and from school daily. The Wallowa County road maintenance people were skilled and experienced at keeping the roads in the valley clear, so the school didn’t get any snow holidays. Early in December, a blizzard hit the valley with a vengeance. School buss drivers were called and the busses started to arrive to take the kids home as soon as possible. It looked like the storm might make it impossible if they put it off.
Phillip’s bus was one of the first to leave. With Phillip’s father working a day job at the mill to support the family’s farming, he knew his mother and three year old sister were left at home alone to take care of the house and the cows. As the school bus pushed through the driving snow and the bone-chilling wind whistled around it,
I’m sure they were on Phillip and his father’s mind. At the farm, the hay to feed the livestock had been piled neatly in 100 pound bales and stacked four bales high. At the height of the storm, Phillip’s mother left his sister in the house and went out to push a couple of bales down off the stack. Losing her balance, she fell off the stack. With a broken neck sustained in the fall she didn’t survive the freezing, driving wind and snow. When her mother didn’t return, Phillip’s three year old sister left the safety of the house looking for her mother. Her tiny footprints were visible in the snow, as she wandered around and around the haystack and lay down beside her mother’s body and also died of exposure. Phillip found them there when his school bus brought him home before his father got home from work.
My position as choir director at the local Methodist Church was inherited along with the music teaching job. The morbid organ strains of “Nearer My God to Thee” and the sweet smell and sight of white Calla lilies will always accompany my memory of the mother and child in the open casket service.
With snow plows running and busses bringing the students, the school year and weather stormed on, both, oblivious
of all the trauma and tragedy left in their wake. As the school year wore on Phillip, Rodney and all the kids in the band kept working, playing for ball games and getting ready for the annual trip to the festival in Pendleton. We all learned to shrug off the frustration of oom-pa off-beats and misplaced cymbal crashes with all the aplomb of seasoned performers. But, try as we might we just never were able to give Mr. Akers piece its proper and satisfying climax. By the time we were taking the band to the festival performance some ninety miles away, In the midst of yet another winter storm. I believe all of us had resigned ourselves to the fact that the cymbal crash would either be early or late and that would just have to do.
I don’t know if it was all of those months of rehearsals or the relaxation that came with the resignation to the reality of the moment; all I remember is that at the most important part of the performance, Rodney stood up and the flashing, splashing after- shock cymbal crash was followed by the fading ring of shimmering sizzle at exactly the precise millisecond.
It still echoes, locked in the stacks in the basement of the library of my mind. Rodney’s excited smile and the release of the musical tension, on that day, now so far away, finally, at last, at least for all the kids in the Joseph School Band and me, Howard Aker’s piece of musical pastry became “Our Own Overture”, and will always be a part of this first year teacher’s memory.