This evening, I went to see some of my former students graduate from the school where I used to teach vocal music. There were some definite surprises for me there.
When I began teaching in 2001, it was a fluke. A friend of mine called me on the phone in the middle of my retirement and said, “James, we really need a singing teacher here.”
I had sworn many years ago never to teach in a classroom setting. Of course, I never thought I could since I hadn’t completed my degree, much less acquire a teaching credential. This was, however, a charter school that specialized in the arts, so I didn’t need a credential. I did have plenty of experience, having had my first student in 1977. I had directed vocal music regularly since the early 1990’s. I was as prepared as someone could be without the credential, I thought.
The day I began, the co-founders asked me why I wanted to teach there since I was so over-qualified? Ah, how things were to change.
As the years progressed, I realized I had a lot to learn, but as I had often been told, teaching came naturally to me. As my supervisor at the time told me, I was an intuitive teacher. While that was a plus at that point, this same person eventually decided that pedagogy was much more important.
I resigned my position in 2008 when I realized that the school had changed so dramatically that these adjustments were sucking the life out of what was once a dynamic and formidible educational institution. The spirit of our organization was barely flickering any more. I had to get out. I had lost my voice with the administration and for someone like me who spent his life helping others find their voices, this was untenable to me.
As I was having my final meeting with the Executive Director, he offered me two beginning vocal classes. He wanted some “new blood” for the other vocal music classes. His words, not mine. It was of no interest to me at all. This school was breaking my heart. Teachers expressed they felt the same way, but were afraid to leave in this economy. Parents said they wanted to change schools, but knew that most other schools were more dangerous for their students. The children themselves said there was something missing that was there in the past. Everyone got the same message except the administration.
Other than a couple of brief visits to the campus, I really haven’t been back since I left. I attended several performances. I couldn’t help but think, “This is why they wanted me gone, so they could have this level of quality at their school?” Again, I was not alone in this assessment.
As I arrived at the school this evening, teachers, students, and parents greeted me with the most genuine happiness I remember in a long, long time. If I had to call it anything, it was almost relief that I felt as they hugged me.
“Nothing is the same since you left, Mr. Hernandez.”
“There’s been a spark missing since you left, James.”
These are actual quotes I heard tonight. Even the Executive Director did not seem as joyful as he had been in years past as he sat on the dais.
Everything from the singing of the National Anthem to the keynote address was vanilla pudding. It was Wonder Bread. It was white rice. It was beige.
This was no longer a performing and fine arts academy. It was a traditional, plain school.
Yet, the one thing that amazed me was that with all the changes notwithstanding, the children have grown up to be creative, motivated people. I attribute that to the tenacity of the amazing teachers on campus.
They have fought valiantly against the brutal criticism and desperate neglect offered by the Program Coordinator and Co-Founder of the school. Both of these administrators have their priorities firmly established although they have not considered the needs of the people involved. It is all about the awards and recognition and scores. The people, with spirits and minds and hearts, seem to have become functionaries to the administrators involved.
The Program Coordinator, in all her ingenuous behaviors, is not above being obviously phony in public when everyone knows how she really feels. I was embarrassed for her.
Yet, the children advance. What is it in them that allows them to grow in this way? They are like roses growing in the desert. They are like albino shrimp living in the deepest sulphuric recesses of the ocean. They are strong and resilient and protected by really great parents and phenomenal teachers.
I have held my tongue for a year, and now, at long last, I am speaking my mind in an open forum. It feels great!
God bless the children for their success. May their journey be full of joy and wisdom enough to learn from their challenges and celebrate their accomplishments.
I won’t be back for another graduation without a specific invitation. My time there is over. They do grow up. What’s surprising is so do I.