December 24, 2007

So This Is Xmas...and What Have We Done?

In the history of music, there have been bigger train wrecks; there have been performances that have gone so poorly that they sparked riots. The day is not yet over.

At the beginning of the semester, I distributed a questionnaire to the 8th grade students at the billingual jr high where I teach in the daytime. The questions were a way for me to gauge the abilities of my students to express themselves, first, and get an idea of what they expected from their English class. In one section, they were to check off activites they would like to participate in throughout the semester.

The start was a little rocky as we got used to each other. The paradigm shifted for good once I heard classroom horror stories from my coworker Hussein, a native of Nigeria. His Taiwanese students have put him through the wringer and he's leaving at Chinese New Year. I don't blame him one bit, but I have thanked him several times--perhaps to excess--for letting me see that a couple students answering out of turn or speaking Chinese on occasion was nothing to have an aneurysm over.

A couple weeks ago, Walter, an exceedingly bright kid in the highest level English class at the school, and an expert at being a royal pain in the ass, reminded me in the middle of a workbook assignment that I hadn't done something. "Umm, um, you remember at the beginning of the semester how you gave us that survey and you asked us what we wanted to do in this class an done of the things was 'Sing an English Song' and I checked that on mine and when are you going to teach us an English song?" I sat back on my stool and thoughtfully stroked my beard.

"You wanna learn a Christmas song?" I asked him, and got shouts of encouragement from the majority. "Ok, I'll see what I can do." I loaded my iPod with an Xmas playlist and brought it the next day when we listened to snippets of several dozen songs. We managed to pare the list down to "Jingle Bell Rock" by Randy Travis, "Sleigh Ride" by Debbie Gibson, and "Cat Hair Balls" by Ren & Stimpy. I couldn't find the lyrics to Cat Hair Balls online.

Walter didn't want to Jingle Bell Rock because he'd learned it in kindergarten in California. The Debbie Gibson thing was a little too much for me to hear over and over again. There was a very vocal lobby for Cat Hair Balls, and the chorus could be heard for several days echoing up and down the hall at break time.

In a flash of brilliance, I thought of another song that would be easier for them to remember and one which would be easy enough for my other two classes to particpate in as well. Then, the flash of brilliance grew brighter...and singed off my eyebrows. I spoke to my supervisor, "Hey, my students are learning an English Xmas song. Wouldn't it be fun if they sang it in front of their Jr High assembly?" There are about 150 students or so in the junior high, and they regularly stand in front of them solo to recite Chinese poems or obscure English adages. My supervior volleyed back, "How about if they sing in front of the whole Academy on Monday morning?" SUPER! My Lee Press-On Beard was beginning to melt to my face.

I whipped up and off-the-cuff arrangement of the song for 45 singers. Two sections, boys and girls. Mostly unison, but in verses 2 & 3, the kids split girls singing the chorus on 2, boys on 3, with the opposite singing verses. Clear enough? Good, let's move on.

I told them if they needed to bring the lyric sheet, they could, but they should memorize the song anyway. I gave them tips about standing straight, and keeping their faces "bright" so they wouldn't go flat. We worked on breathing. We were improving. I watched a couple Seiji Ozawa concerts to refresh my conducting skills. The students sang in the hallways between class. The song was downloaded by several of them. I heard that students from different classes wanted to join in the fun and that there were raucous rehearsals on the bus to and from school.

Friday we had a dress rehearsal. The only one before the big event. 12:30. Naptime for the students. They grudgingly accepted because they wanted to do a good job. The supervisor wanted a copy of the song on CD, so I had made her one several days earlier. When she finished her lunch and showed up at 12:35, the students were arranged on the steps and ready to start practicing. She told me she had to go back to her office for the CD. Then, there was the small problem of the CD player. One was found and an extension cord was sent for and extended. By 12:50 we were just about ready. We finally had a microphone and PA set up for the CD player to be heard.

The dress rehearsal could commence. The students, by this point, realized that they were not going to get a nap in that day and that a R*****k was underway. We got through the song. They did ok. As long as they could hear the music they could keep together. The only thing that was different so far from practicing in class was the appearance of an additional two conductors on either side of their teacher, neither of whom was all that good at keeping time, and a choreographer who thought the boys on the left should raise their left hands, and the boys on the right should raise their right hands. The girls locked elbows. I was faced with the equivalent of a carful of rank and knew better than to protest or suggest anything in front of the students.

The railroad ties were beginning to wobble.

Sunday night, as my nose was running like a faucet I was jerked back to the reality that I had to show up for work 20 minutes early this morning. R*****k!

We were on after the flag raising. The supervisor told the students where to stand. Her supervisor manned the PA. I looked back to him to make eye contact so that would have an idea when he was going to hit play for the backing track. Then, I heard the volume come up on the end of the first line. The flash of brilliance shifted in color. I was now holding a turd. The boys on the right couldn't hear the boys on the left. The girls in the middle couldn't hear the music. I hope the students sitting at my feet in the audience couldn't hear me cursing under my breath. There was no way to get the attention of anyone who could turn up the volume. Each break between verse and chorus the students could hear a snippet of the backing track and could hear that they were 3/4 of a line off. Half the group decided to skip ahead and sing with the CD, the other half thought it better to stay right where they were. The other half were just moving their lips.

We got through it with only two conductors.

That's all I have time for right now. I'm not interested in relating the details of the dressing down I received afterwards for presenting such a poor Christmas program.

But, I will add a postscript.

In my second class this morning, I asked the students how they think they did, and they answered honestly that it was their new worst experience (we had a writing project last month entitled "My Worst Experience") and that they would write about it next time. So, some good will come out of this. The students themselves felt terrible about how things went. Their Chinese teacher did nothing to make them feel better. I was ready to laugh it off. Their Chinese teacher chewed them up one side and down the other, telling them that they had brought shame upon themselves and the school. She told them that their presence on stage was foul. That the only reason that they were up there was because they wanted to be, and all they had done was waste everyone's time.

I have no words to describe how I felt upon hearing this sad, sad news. But, as the saying goes, "That's Taiwan!"

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