Posts Tagged ‘Teaching’

This morning I get in my car and decide it’s a twenty one pilots kind of day. How do I know that? See that guy in the middle of the photo? That’s how I know.

Yeah, I know I’m supposed to be composing fiction. I have a book due to my publisher in a few months. But sometimes a different kind of writing is in order—like the day before Mothers Day, a day when I’m reflecting on important things like influence and legacy and sheer teeth-gritting faith. Let’s see if I can pull those things together with a few snap-shot stories.

About thirty-three years ago, I was in my late twenties, angsting over wanting to have a child, having trouble trusting God with His will. I was taking a fertility pill called Clomid, and I remember one morning dropping one of those expensive tablets. It rolled under the refrigerator, I couldn’t reach it, and I sat down on the floor and burst into tears. How was I going to get pregnant if I couldn’t take my last dose of the month? Anybody ever been there?

A couple of years later (after the miracle happened and my beautiful baby boy was born in the same hospital I was born in), I was lying on my sofa, asking myself a super-serious question. If I’d known this baby was going to eat and cry (and not sleep) twenty-four-seven for six months—with no end in sight—would I have cried over that pill under the refrigerator? No kidding. Ryan was finally down for a nap, I knew I needed sleep, and I couldn’t sleep because my body wouldn’t relax, knowing he was going to wake up and howl any minute. Anybody ever been there?

Five years later, I get a phone call from Cottage Hill Christian School. Ryan’s in serious trouble. His kindergarten class was in the sanctuary practicing for graduation, and one of the custodians interrupted, hopping mad because some imp kept unplugging his vacuum cleaner. Yeah. Funny now. Pretty embarrassing at the time. Anybody ever been there?

Not long after that, I’m singing in the choir at Dauphin Way Baptist Church, trusting my kids to the care of our wonderful friend Rita Catchot during the service. I can see Ryan lying full-out on a pew, apparently asleep (but at least quiet) during the sermon. On the way home, he proceeds to relate the entire contents of the sermon (which included the plan of salvation) to his dad and ask if he can give his heart to Jesus. A year or so later he casually informs us he’s told his sister she needs to get saved too, and explained to her how she can do that. So she did. I hope you have had that experience. Very cool.

And then middle school. Ye gods and little fishes! Can we just skip that period? There’s the rotten raccoon tail nailed to a bedroom wall. There’s the arrow shot across our backyard fence, sailing into the open window of an apartment—thank God the only thing it hit was a mattress. There’s a very clever and cruel poem written to lampoon a science teacher. A cake dumped out of a second-floor church window onto a car below. A dive off a Tennessee riverside cliff into six feet of water. My prayer life took on a certain level of desperation laced with disbelief. Really, God? Is this your idea of a joke?

High school brings more hair-raising adventures. Car wrecks. Crazy girlfriends. A laser pointer (apparently a weapon) deployed in a basketball game. “Borrowed” school keys. Expulsion from Christian school. Public school locker room fights. Hacking the family computer. We try homeschooling, which becomes a blur of reading and discussing some magnificent classic literature, fighting our way through trigonometry and chemistry (both of which ultimately require tutors—thank the Lord for Sharon Whatley and Mike South), me completing and publishing five novels, and taking some truly wonderful field trips together. Then, to our relief, Cottage Hill Christian Academy allows Ryan to complete his senior year and graduate. Cottage Hill Baptist Church, what a ministry you had to our family!

And still the struggle wasn’t over. I’d love for Ryan to tell this story from his perspective, but from my side it looked like pure and unadulterated rebellion. Testing every boundary to see what would stick, what would hold fast, what would remain true. My most horrific memory from that period—and this was, I guess, about ten years ago—is listening to my cherished son state that he had had enough of our rules and he was off to join the army. If we wouldn’t take him to the recruiting office, he’d walk there. The irony escapes none of us, haha! And then when the army rejects him because of a kidney stone, this brilliant kid fails out of his first semester of college and loses a full scholarship—because he simply won’t go to class. The only things remotely interesting, it seems, are computer programming and history!

God intervened somehow with a series of events leading to Ryan living with his Aunt Dianne in Houston. They saved each other, and that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say—within a year he’d joined the Navy, reconnected with a high school friend named Nicole Salter (now his lovely wife), and begun to get his act together. Funny how the voluntary act of submitting to discipline is different from that imposed from the outside. You can’t convince me that God didn’t design us with free will, and you can’t convince me that He doesn’t have ultimate control over his creation. Those two things go together, intertwine, pull in a magnificent tension that our brains can’t comprehend.

Because, you see, in all the seeming chaos of mothering this difficult, insanely creative and intellectual young man, growth and shaping and preparation was going on in my own life as well as his. Nearly every day, as a public school teacher, I encounter difficult, abused, smart-alec, violent, fragile, funny, overeducated, spoiled, talented kids. I can respond and interact with a supernaturally calm confidence because a) God has walked with me through some pretty harrowing stuff and b) the truth of His Word never fails. Never. I mean that. Biblical principles hold true.

That day Ryan angrily strode out of my house, headed to somewhere in north Alabama to join the army, if I could have pictured what would happen on May 12, 2018, I might not have been so distraught. But that’s the thing. Brokenhearted infertile young woman, sleep-deprived young mom, frazzled older mom, worried mother of a prodigal…you’re not allowed to see beyond the moment. And that’s a good thing. Because things can get worse before they get better. Faith is hard.

But hang in there. Trust God and let Him hold you. Lean in.

Today Ryan is a romantic, tenderhearted husband and father, a great disciplinarian, holds down two jobs and has served his country with distinction and honor. And he gives me books and music at every opportunity. And teaches me how to safely handle a firearm. And takes me to lunch for Mothers Day.

So why twenty one pilots? About a year ago Ryan gave me an iTunes gift card (may have been last Mothers Day) and said, “Mom, you need to buy this album Blurryface. You’ll love it.” At first I didn’t. Had to listen a few times to get the lyrics and get used to the rap sections. Now I’m obsessed. It’s happy, hopeful music, with a core of faith that runs just below the surface, intelligent literary references and clever lyric construction. Most of my 60-year-old contemporaries wouldn’t like it. But my 31-year-old son understands me deeply. And when the sun is bright on a spring day and I get to meet him and his family for lunch, I drive with the volume wide open on a song with these lyrics: “She asked me, Son, when I grow old, will you buy me a house of gold? And when your father turns to stone, will you take care of me? I will make you queen of everything you see, I’ll put you on the map, I’ll cure you of disease.”

At lunch we chat with the children—Roz has brought a fuzzy stuffed kitty with red mittens she named Meow-head—and look up the poem about three little kittens who lost their mittens on a phone and read it outloud (who knew it has such a weird twist at the end?). We talk about movies and books, including the one I’m writing. I outline my current plot, ask him for his take, and he promises to think about it (he’s quite talented with suspense storylines). I’m so grateful I didn’t give in to despair and frustration in earlier years. I’m grateful that God really does work all things for the good of those who love Him and are called to His purpose. I’m grateful He loves Ryan more than I do, knows him better than I do, wants his good more than I do. I’ve got a metaphorical house of gold, and I feel like the queen of everything I see.

Grateful I am. Happy Mothers Day!


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The Orange Chair

ImageTHERE’S an orange chair in my office across from my desk. It’s a reject from the theater backstage, with a worn cushion, one bent leg, and slightly scuzzy upholstery. It’s for visiting parents, broken-hearted children, and kids who just want to shoot the breeze for a few minutes. A lot goes on in that chair.

When I tell stories from my adventures in teaching high school music, inevitably somebody says “You should put that in a book.” Maybe one day I will. But I keep thinking, if I don’t write it now, while it’s fresh on my mind, while my heart is pierced and broken and bleeding, the stories will lack emotion…maybe even they’ll lack truth.

So here goes with this one.

There are a couple of girls in my choir—let’s call them Sibella and Joanie—who don’t get along. Who knows where the enmity started. They’re both seniors. Joanie is extremely bright, tall and beautiful, extroverted and quick to criticize (she’s always the smartest one in the room), a confident vocal soloist, drum major in the band and vice president of the choir—in short, one of those born leaders who often require a huge dose of humility in order to be effective. I’m not sure if her parents are married, but she has an involved and protective father and doting grandparents.

Sibella, though well-dressed and neat, is short and a little pudgy, dogged by the “Special Ed” label. She has a smart mouth, reacts loudly to perceived criticism, seems to enjoy stirring gossip. And some unidentified health problems kept her hospitalized for a good portion of the previous school year. Though she enjoys music and sings well, I was a little concerned about adding her to the advanced group. Chemistry is important. But I decided to give her a chance.

Just a few weeks into this school year, I had to be off campus several days in a row. Show choir tour was followed by an out-of-town writers’ conference, then I took some students to a choral conference at a nearby university. I left my sub, an accomplished musician, with plenty of rehearsal instructions and prayed for the best.

Friday afternoon in Indianapolis, I received a text message from Sibella: “Mrs. White, I’m sorry for what happened in your classroom today. I didn’t start it.” Uh-oh. Then, a few hours later I got a longer one from Joanie, accusing Sibella of aggravated aggression.

I was inclined to sympathize with Joanie, because I’ve known her longer, watched her struggle to control her sarcastic and sometimes abrasive temperament, seen the blooming of a brilliant and dynamic leader. But because I wasn’t there to witness the confrontation, I depended on administrators to handle the situation.

By the time I got back to class on the next Wednesday, the entire class had taken sides—as I had worried might happen—to the point that another girl picked a fight with Joanie and got both of them suspended. I took a deep breath, prayed for wisdom and decided to deal with one thing at a time.

To my surprise, Sibella didn’t seem to have been administratively disciplined beyond a talking-to. I called her into my office for a conference and expressed my disappointment and displeasure in her behavior. “I may have to get your schedule changed and put you in a class where you’ll be happier and more successful,” I said. She bridled and informed me if I did, I’d have to put Joanie out too.

“I don’t let teenagers tell me how to run my class,” I said firmly. “That will be my decision, not yours.”

Enraged, Sibella shouted, “I’m gon’ tell Mr. Davis,” and ran out of the classroom slamming the door.

The next day, Sibella’s mother and aunt showed up. I instantly understood the source of the defensive posturing, the “I’m a victim” aggression. Not all single mothers fit the mold, but this one was classic. You’re playing favorites. We don’t take disrespect from nobody. Be fair, or else.

Well, I’ve learned not to be bullied. I’ve worked successfully in this urban Title I school for six years. Both women left unsatisfied and angry (though the aunt seemed a little more open-minded and embarrassed by her sister’s belligerence), and I’m sure they bent the principal’s ear with how unreasonable Mrs. White was.

The next day, Sibella bopped into the choir room, plugged her cell phone charger into the wall (this generally doesn’t bother me, as long as the kids aren’t texting during rehearsal), and took her place in the soprano section. There was no sign of repentance. Joanie was still missing. I took a deep breath and began the rehearsal.

Sometime later we were rehearsing one of our Christmas pieces when Sibella jumped up and ran to answer her ringing cell phone. When I reprimanded her, she spat back, “You can’t talk to me like that.” Oh really? She grabbed her phone and ran out of the room shouting she was going to call her mother and tell Mr. Davis.

By now the rest of the choir was looking at me in dumbfounded disbelief. “That, my children,” I said, “is how not to be successful in life.” They all laughed and we went back to rehearsal.

Sibella stayed out of class for a couple of days, and I was too relieved to inquire as to her whereabouts. We were now going on three weeks of this nonsense, and my normally plant-level blood pressure was up in the stratosphere. The principal was out for some conference, the assistant administrators wouldn’t touch the Sibella-Joanie situation with a ten-foot pole, and I was operating on the fumes of grace.

Where in this, I wondered, is God working? How would he have me behave? Where do the vectors of discipline, forgiveness, truth and mercy converge? All I know to do is to walk in love as best I know how, in any given moment. Earlier in the semester, my friend Kim and I prayed over my office, anointing my desk and the orange chair with oil. So I know the Holy Spirit has been walking with me, providing what I would need.

Last week, Joanie finally comes back to school (presumably from an extended suspension for fighting) and asks to talk to me. She sits in that orange chair across from my desk and asks me to forgive her and help her. She confesses to losing her temper, and knows she’s blown my trust and her influence with younger kids.

There. That’s what I’m looking for: humility. I can work with that.

So we talk about recovering from mistakes and rectifying bad decisions. We talk about how prayer and filling with God’s Word are the armor required to navigate the minefields of high school and beyond. I do my best to encourage her not to give up, to hold fast against the adversary’s attempts to suck us into toxic bitterness and anger. I’m crying with emotion, and she’s smiling at my tenderness.

These words: You have impacted my life, and I’m grateful. They are a balm to my heart.

God is at work. He hears me. He sees me. He loves these children under my hand. There’s more to come, but for today this is enough.

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Mobile County Honor Choir 2010

I have taught in the Mobile County Public School System off and on for nearly twenty-five years. Like most people, I kind of have a love-hate relationship with it. You know, everybody thinks education is a good thing. We ought to encourage boys and girls to learn to read, write, and do enough math to become a good citizen. There’s a lot of disagreement about the outside details, though. (Do we teach them sex education? How much recreation and play time do they need? What percentage of time should be allotted for sports and the fine arts?) And how many stinkin’ tax dollars are enough to fund it?

My first experience was at Blount High School, which is traditionally an all-black school, not too far from LeFlore, where I teach now. At the time, the Birdie Mae Davis Civil Rights suit had just been settled with the agreement to relocate the entire faculty of Blount (who all  happened to be black) to other schools, and re-hire a half-and-half color mix. I was one of the white half.

The Boys After the Concert

It was an interesting year. I was assigned to teach four sections of ninth grade English (try teaching Romeo and Juliet to a bunch of urban kids who spoke a fine version of Ebonics), and one section of chorus. The chorus room was in such bad shape (no heat or air-conditioning, broken windows, mildew everywhere) that I simply moved the piano to my English classroom and entertained the whole English wing during 3rd period chorus. Though my English classes were an exercise in frustration, I discovered that my chorus students loved music and would try anything I handed them. I might still be at Blount today if I hadn’t had two babies in diapers back then, and it absolutely broke my heart to drop them off at daycare every day. My husband and I decided I needed to be home with them, so I taught piano lessons out of my home and did a part-time gig with the Dauphin Way Baptist Church children’s choir program. Good decision, looking back.

The Girls After the Concert

Anyway, by the time I went back to teach full-time after sending Ryan and Hannah off to the Navy and college respectively, my interests had drifted away from music toward creative writing. I needed a full-time job, so I took the Praxis exam and recertified to teach Language Arts. Found a job pretty quickly at Causey Middle School, where my relationship with Mobile County Public Schools took a swing to the dark side. I found myself doing daily battle with adolescent hormones, a portable classroom infested by chronic dust and roaches, a disorganized principal, and an insane amount of paperwork.

Um, no thanks. I finished out the year, then quit my job, enrolled in grad school at the University of South Alabama and taught Freshman Composition as a teaching assistant. Absolutely loved that year hanging out with college students. But with Masters in Creative Writing in hand, I started looking for a high school English job.

Which is how I wound up at LeFlore. They needed a chorus director worse than they needed a reading specialist (school had been in session for 4 weeks already), so the principal asked me if I’d be willing to take the music Praxis and get recertified [yikes, cramming music theory and history for two months!]. But I passed by the grace of God, and here I am doing what I’m born to do.

Rehearsal Day - The Girls

There are frustrating days, of course, but there are days like Monday and Tuesday of this week when I got to watch and listen to nine of my top students experience the joy of participating in County Honor Choir. The public school system has its problems for sure, but there are moments of shining glory when I wouldn’t want to be anyplace else. Imagine 140 gifted teenagers singing Randall Thompson’s Last Words of David…”Cantate Domino” by Hassler…Moses Hogan’s arrangement of “I’m Gonna Sing ‘Til the Spirit Moves in My Heart”…”Salmo 150”, which is a glorious, sort of Spanish-influenced piece in Latin.

Rehearsal Day - The Boys

I wish I could share the music, but these photos will give you a little flavor of the event. Maybe one day I’ll write a book, sort of my Lower Alabama version of Pat Conroy’s magnificent The Water is Wide.

But right now I’m too busy teaching music.

Performance Warm-Up

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…is a favorite “saying” of Grant Gonzales, the hero of my book Fair Game. He’s got a list of these adages he lives by, most of which get repeated during the course of the story. Some time I’m going to have to list those here, because they’re pretty entertaining.

Anyway, I was thinking about this particular one on Friday as I was returning to school on a yellow bus with my Advanced Choir. We’d just been awarded superior ratings at District Choral Festival, and we were all just giddy with relief and joy. It had been a hard week for us all.

I was plagued with migraines due to a lot of stress. Armardi was out two days with a stomach virus, and William got suspended for a day and a half as a result of a physical altercation. State basketball championships took Kyra to Birmingham for three days (a good thing, except she had to miss the choral festival). The band was involved in Black History stuff, taking several choir students out of class. And on and on it went. Rehearsal was interrupted constantly. And the music was consequently very bumpy all the way through Thursday.

No wonder I had migraines. I almost canceled the trip.

But….we persevered. By Friday choirtime, our two songs were sounding pretty fine. “Give Me Jesus” and “I’m Gonna Sing ‘Til the Spirit Moves In My Heart”—both very difficult pieces, but oh so worth the effort. Of course, sight-reading ate our lunch. We’ve got to spend more time practicing that.

Anyway, I treated my loud, excited bunch of teenagers to Baskin Robbins on the way back to school. Celebration is so sweet.

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Sometimes you just need a treat—whether you’re good or bad, tone-deaf or a future Beyonce.

So I let my rowdy fourth-block beginner choir go next door to the gym concession stand, right in the middle of class, and plunk down their dollars for a plastic cup full of red-and-green sugary juicy ground-up ice. Turns your lips and tongue and teeth the color of a lizard. Terrible for the vocal cords. Bad for the waistline. Absolutely no nutritional value.

But hey, the kids were working hard for a change. Besides, I wanted one too.

So we all came back to the choir room and sipped our drinks and chanted the words of “Under the Sea” in syncopated rhythm. And you know what? I got more out of them in the last thirty minutes of class than I normally get in the whole block.

Lizard lips and all.

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LeFlore Choir Performance at the Dedication of Unity Point Park in Mobile

LeFlore Choir Performance at the Dedication of Unity Point Park in Mobile--Photo by Tad Denson of MyShotz.Com

When I was a high school student (lo these many years ago), if anybody had told me I’d one day lie awake at night pondering strategies for teaching a music lesson to reluctant teenagers, I’d have sent them straight to Whitfield (which, for the uninitiated, is the Mississippi sanitorium). But that’s exactly what I find myself doing on weeknights during this hectic fall semester.

The reason this is so weird is because when I was a teenager myself, I was painfully shy. I was in awe of people who could crack jokes and make conversation in a crowd. When attention would divert to me unexpectedly, I’d find myself freezing into a wordless panic. I was almost out of college before God finally delivered me from that self-absorbed fear of making a mistake and embarrassing myself.

And I think that’s the key. Looking back on my journey into the profession of teaching music, I think I might have been given the spiritual gift of teaching—which is very different from a natural talent for public speaking (which I don’t have). The secret to being an effective teacher is genuine concern for the student, rather than concern for “how I might come across.” The most creative teachers I’ve ever studied under always look for ways to surprise and inform and challenge me, rather than simply feeding me information.

I cannot describe my passion to see the young men and women I teach at LeFlore grow as musicians and as human beings.

And that leads me to the title of this article. You know all those inspiring movies and TV shows about musicians struggling to “make it” under the mentoring of one or more fearless conductors? Mr. Holland’s Opus comes to mind. Fame. Lift Your Voice. More recently, Band Slam (which actually was a lot of fun). I hope somebody will post me a list of your other favorites. Anyway, music does have a unique power to teach discipline, teamwork, self-denial, creativity, persistence, self-respect and a host of other desirable character traits.

Of course I’d like my group of singers to excel in performance, interpretation, musicianship, sight-reading, and entertainment value. I’d like to see them earn major scholarships to prestigious universities and go on to successful careers. But more than that, I’d like for them to learn to care for each other. To experience joy even on the worst days, when the world otherwise seems to be caving in. To know the thrill of inspiring breathless appreciation of beauty in an audience. To love discipline and hard work for its own sake.

Those are lofty goals, maybe. But it’s what I think about in the middle of the night.

May God grant us that kind of Glee.

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