Sunday, April 5, 2020

Hula Dancing, Singing and a Teacher's Impact

Recently, I had a former student reach out to me on Facebook Messenger. Back in the early 1980s, all middle school students were required to take a developmental reading course. This former student had been wracking his brain to come up with the title of a book he had read in my class 40 years ago.  He described the basic plot, mentioned that it contained some “bad language” and I recalled a book entitled. Headman, by Kin Platt that was on my choice bookshelf back in those days. That was the one, he said. 

This incident reminded me of the influence we have as teachers in ways that we may not even know or realize. I had not heard from this student in nearly 40 years and yet this book had resonated with him in a memorable way. I gave him a socially distanced fist bump and smiled a little to myself.

Over the years I have great memories of teachers who have influenced me. There was Mrs. Stout, in sixth grade, who taught me to believe in myself. There were Mr. Laidacker, Mr. Kautz, Mr. Turner and Mr. DiSangro, who fostered my love of history, which caused me to be a history major as an undergraduate.. The was Mr. Blough, the passionate music appreciation teacher, who fostered an eclectic love of music from Bach to Benny Goodman to Burl Ives. There was Mr. McHale who taught me how to be a professional on the stage and in life. Later on there were Susan Mandel Glazer, Susan Lytle, and M. Jerry Weiss who taught me what literacy education was all about.

Of course, that influence can be a two-way street. Sometimes the actions of a teacher can have a negative effect that also lasts a lifetime. When I was in third grade, I had the good fortune to have Miss. Miyamoto (in 1955 it was almost always Miss). Miss Miyamoto was kind and gentle and always smiling. She was the first Japanese American person I had ever seen and my eight year-old self was in love with her.. She was from Hawaii and she taught us how to do the Hula and how to make the traditional Hawaiian dish, poi. 

Miss Miyamoto was teaching under difficult conditions. Because of baby boomer inspired overcrowding in schools, our “classroom”, was one third of a converted cafeteria, where classrooms were separated by moveable barriers rather than walls. I became adept at shooting crayons over the walls with a makeshift catapult I fashioned from a ruler. When I was finally caught doing this, by the rather stern teacher next door, Miss Keller, I got a severe reprimand and saw Miss Miyamoto’s smile disappear for the first time ever. I think I was more upset at disappointing her than I was at losing recess for a week as punishment.

Anyway, Miss Keller and I had gotten off on the wrong foot. This came back to haunt me, because Miss Keller was the leader of the third grade chorus. Even in those days I had nascent dreams of performing on the stage (I had been featured as the Scarecrow in a second grade production of some play I can’t now recall) and I determined that I would be a part of the chorus, which would be giving a concert for the holiday season.

At this point all I knew about singing I had learned from listening to my mom sing along to The Andrews Sisters at home, but I thought I would give it a shot. You didn’t have to try out or anything, you just showed up for practice after school one day a week.

After a few weeks, as the date of the concert drew closer, I got the sense that Miss Keller was feeling the tension. Directions were barked out. Minor foolishness was not tolerated. Little lines of consternation appeared on her face. One rehearsal, as I was standing in the back (I was always tall), Miss Keller was walking around listening to each singer individually. When she got to me she listened, frowned and said, “Russell, I want you to stand here during the concert and just mouth the words silently. Don’t sing. Your very off key.” 

I accepted this verdict. I wasn’t so much upset as I was surprised.  I didn’t know I couldn’t sing, but now I did. I dutifully stood in my place at the concert and mouthed the words. I didn’t tell anyone I was just mouthing the words and my family was pleased with the performance. I never told anybody this, in fact, until I was an adult. I also never went out for chorus again. When asked to join the church choir, I told them I didn’t sing and became an altar boy instead. I never auditioned for the school musicals, although I was interested in theater. 

I was a non-singer. I got the message. It stuck. Now, imagine please, a child who gets the message that they cannot read. I heard that many times from my seventh grade readers long ago. Once that message is received, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One positive that came of this experience is that it helped me when I became a teacher. I tried to make statements of encouragement to students. When "constructive criticisms" were made, I tried to root them in a particular situation and not make them a judgement on what a person could or could not do. 

The messages we send to kids last a lifetime and they are not often about the times table or coordinating conjunctions or how many planets are in the skies. It is the personal messages and connections that are remembered. It is the belief  a teacher instills that we can do that resonates through the years. It is that one book that made a special impression that we remember. That is a lesson we all must take into every interaction we have with a child.

I still don't sing in public, but you should see my Hula.

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