Friday, November 13, 2009

Real Glee

I am in love with the television show "Glee." It is an over-the-top look at high school politics, focused on the efforts of dreamy teacher Mr. Scheuster to revive his old high school show choir. Imagine High School Musical through the lens of 90210 and you have some idea, though Glee has far more humor (and way more talent) than either of those.

For me, the show has become very personal, as I empathize (so much!) with the kids, but also with the teachers. Because it's such a fine line, doing what is best for your program, but also doing what is best for the individual children who make up that program. As a choral director, I was always first and foremost a teacher.

In an online discussion about Glee, I referenced a dilemma Mr. Scheuster had: the popular kid, who everyone liked, challenged the unlikeable but extremely talented diva for a solo. This is, in my experience, a very common thing: I can't tell you how many times I have passed over a kid I love for one I really don't like because the talent is undeniable.

In response, another poster told me that her experience as a choral singer (never as a director) was that all choral directors have little "pets" that get all of the solos, regardless of talent. That "everyone" talked about how "terrible" the top chorus was, because it was full of "pets" the director had chosen just because "she liked them." (Hmmm...I wonder if she actually took a survey of "everyone" or if "everyone" consisted of her parents and friends...)

My response to that (which I did not post) was that I have been accused many times of having "pets." My accusers are generally the ones who didn't get the solo, or have been told they cannot go on the trip because they didn't meet the requirements, or what have you. It's so subjective, isn't it? What appears to a student to be inexplicable favoritism is often the result of agony on the part of the teacher, as the teacher struggles to be truly "fair."

I was reminded of a situation I had years ago, as a fairly new teacher, and thought I would share it with you. It is one of the most difficult experiences I have ever had as a teacher. It all really happened:

I was directing a 6th grade production of a play. For the sake of anonymity, let's say it was "Annie." I held auditions, and two girls signed up to try out for Miss Hannigan.

Maybelle Pantorum, candidate number 1, was eminently qualified for the role. She was a natural actress, and had taken acting lessons since she was three years old. I know this because Maybelle told me so, every day, during the week leading up to auditions. Mrs. Pantorum, Maybelle's esteemed mother, worked at the school, and stopped me numerous times in the hallway to share this information with me as well. (I should note that Maybelle chose me she decided to try out for Miss Hannigan because "no one else wanted it," so that meant she would "automatically get it.")

Shayla Violet, candidate number 2, never spoke a word in class, ever. She never sang, either. She came from an extremely poor family. She once came to school with her head shaved because her brothers had caught lice, so her mother just shaved everybody's head. She signed up after Maybelle, but with a decidedly different attitude. She knew she wouldn't get the part, but she wanted to try.

In the audition, Maybelle's performance was very stylized, with hand gestures and emphasis on carefully selected words. She was dreadful.

Shayla nailed it. She just nailed it. Based on talent alone, this was a no-brainer. Shyla got the part.

Then it started. Maybelle demanded to know why she didn't get the part. She asked me before class, after class, during class. I told her all of the things you say, "You did a great job, but I decided I wanted Shayla." "I just wanted something different, you'll get a chance next time." Finally, she cornered me and said, "I want to know why you gave that (slur) the part instead of me."

I said, "Because she was better than you." (I'm sorry, but it had been days of her harassing me, and her insult of Shayla was too much to bear.)

Enter Mrs. Pantorum.

"How DARE YOU tell my daughter she isn't any good!"

"Ma'am, I didn't tell her-"

"After all the money we have spent on lessons and coaches, who all tell us Maybelle is THE MOST TALENTED child they have EVER SEEN, one of them says she will be in the MOVIES, we have an AUDITION, how dare you-"

"Ma'am," I interrupted (yes, I interrupted!), "I never said Maybelle didn't do well. She did fine."

"I understand," Mrs. Pantorum said, now opting for the quiet-patient tone, "that you feel you have to give those people opportunities, but don't think you're doing her a favor, in the real world she'll be against real talents like my Maybelle-"

And I lost it. In my own, quiet way, I lost it.

"Ma'am," I said, "I did not give the part to Shayla to 'give' her anything. She was better. Maybelle was fine, but Shayla was better. If you want her to be an actress in the 'real world', you should teach her how to take rejection, because she's going to get a lot of it." (I know! I can't believe I said it, either!)

The story had two endings, one good, one bad. Each ending took place after Mrs. Pantorum went to the principal and demanded I be fired, and he had a sincere and hearty laugh with me over the incident. (The first time someone demanded I be fired!)

Good ending: A few months later, Maybelle went to try out for cheerleader. Mrs. Pantorum came to all of the "closed practices" (and stayed, despite being asked to leave), criticized the sponsors, openly talked about how much would change once "her Maybelle" was on the squad, etc.

Maybelle did not make cheerleader. Mrs. Pantorum was openly told it was due to Mrs. Pantorum's inability to follow the rules. The sponsor said, "I wouldn't mind working with your daughter, but I'll never work with you." The result of that statement was a firing: Mrs. Pantorum was asked to leave and not return to school except by special permission of the principal.

Bad ending: A few days after my conversation with Mrs. Pantorum, Shayla disappeared. She was always in trouble with someone; she never did anything, but her brothers were notorious troublemakers and Shayla got a lot of fallout. Maybe her parents home schooled her; maybe they moved. I called, but got no answer.

Maybelle ended up playing the role after all. She did fine.

But I have always known Shayla would have been better.


Kristina P. said...

I love hearing about when people get their comeuppance. That's really too bad about Shayla.

Barbaloot said...

Poor Shayla. So how's Maybelle doing in the acting world these days?

Deb said...

I have no idea what happened to Maybelle, either: I left that job almost 10 years ago. The girls would have graduated HS two years ago, it's hard to say.

Boy Mom said...

What a beautiful story, you never think about how hard a decision it would be for the one who has to decide which child to pick.

Way to go Shyla for having the courage to try. Way to go Deb for sharing. And way to go Maybelle, uhh, just cause we all need a way to go even when were super talented and stuff!

Mummy McTavish said...

Yay for standing up against the hovering helicopter mama! Maybelle will miss out on a few more things and then tell her mama where to go.

I hope Shayla got a chance somewhere else.