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.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What would you do?

Something that fascinates me about the interweb is how many opinions I encounter. Although I am fairly diverse in my acquaintences, blogging and participation on a discussion board brings me into (online) contact with people from all over the world.

This hit home to me as I was participating in a rather spirited online debate over a Dear Abby letter. The debate was over certain aspects of parenting, to nutshell it for you, the question was whether or not one parent should have "veto" power over the other if the other parent was doing something the first parent felt was dangerous or inappropriate.

Several respondents, about half, said, "No." Several actually said it wasn't "the other parent's business" what was done with the child by the other parent.

This terrified me. One of the things I count on as a parent is veto power, both mine and Sven's. Because neither of us ever is completely right, but what doesn't make my alarms go off usually gets Sven, and vice versa. So, while I might think, "Sure, let the kids watch that," Sven is the one saying, "Wait, should they watch that?" And when Sven wants to take them somewhere, I'm the one that says, "Hold on, do you think they can handle that?" We always defer to each other, giving the one with the objection the veto, because it shouldn't always be about compromise. It should be about what's best for the family, the kids, and the marriage.

So, what would you do? Here's the situation (not exactly, but parallel):

A mother is in the habit of waking up her son by tickling him. Every morning, she goes into his room and tickles him awake. Dad is concerned about this, since the son is 12 and entering puberty, so he tells Mom that she might want to find another way to wake the kid up, something that respects his privacy more.

Mom thinks Dad is being silly, insists that the boy loves it, why should she change it? Dad insists it's inappropriate and makes him uncomfortable, and he wants Mom to stop. Advice?

What would you do?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Acceptable Risk

I was watching something the other night, I don't even remember what, and I heard this old line:

"I don't want to take the chance that this will ruin our friendship."

Whatever I was watching was one of those will-they-or-won't they, best-friends-until-they-realize-it's-something-more things. I began thinking about how often I've heard that line on various sitcoms, and it occurred to me that this hackneyed old phrase says a lot about our society:

In our society, emotional risk is to be feared. Nothing else.

Things have changed since the olden days of media, in which married couples could not be thought to share a bed, or the man had to keep his foot on the floor if they happened to be (gasp!) on the same bed at the same time. I don't know when it happened, I was too young to remember, but once the taboo was stripped away from sexuality on TV, portraying willful, rampant promiscuity has become "normal." Even in "prime time," beloved characters whimsically navigate a life of empty, meaningless sex:

Sam on Cheers.

Blanche on The Golden Girls.

Joey on Friends. Well, to be fair, everyone on friends, but Joey the most.

The cast of Seinfeld.

Sex and the City.

What all of these shows have in common is the shift to portraying emotional involvement as the big taboo. People jump into bed on the first date with no qualms, but spend hours at coffee houses and bars endlessly analyzing whether or not they should go to dinner with their current flame's parents, worried that will send "the wrong message."

Another thing these shows have in common is the essential emptiness and unhappiness in these people's lives. They are not happy, regardless of what superficial hilarity they display. The sinister part is, you have to look pretty closely to see that unhappiness, it is not something the writers want to portray, but it comes through if you're looking for it.

I don't think the only way to be happy is to get married and have babies and live in the suburbs. Not at all. But I do think that a quick route to unhappiness is to cheapen yourself and your sexuality until sex becomes your version of "How do you do."

I wonder how a sitcom about an adult, responsible, employed, intelligent, beautiful woman who is not promiscuous would go over? Or an adult, responsible, employed, intelligent, handsome, celibate man, who simply hasn't found the right woman yet?

You're right, it's too "out there." But I like taking risks.