12/16/2013

The Nutcracker Chronicles: The Fourth Edition



You're so lucky, Gentle Reader.  Because this week, I am going to be reposting a series from the last couple of years.  Because the stories are full to the brim with Holiday Awesomeness...  That's right.  The Nutcracker Chronicles.  You're.  So.  Very.  Lucky.

If you've never heard these stories...  Oh, boy.

Today, I'll share the first two.  Because I am full to the brim with Holiday Awesomeness myself.

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It was the year 2000.  I was fresh out of college.  My first year as the music teacher at Remington Elementary was underway.  Now, I'm not usually much of self horn tooter.  But I do have to say...

I was pretty freaking good.

I know, it isn't nice to brag.  But it's just a fact.  I was a really good music teacher.  I'm not afraid to say it.  In fact, I'll say it again.  I was really good.  There you have it.

Here are a couple of rules I lived by when teaching.  They won't tell you this in your music education classes, folks.

1)  Do NOT try to be their friend.  You have friends.  They have friends.  They have friends that are much cooler than you will ever be.  Don't try.  You will just look like an idiot.  A desperate, pathetic, old, idiot.  And desperation in a school setting is like blood in the water, Gentle Reader.  Those little monsters will eat you alive.  Trust me.

2)  It's okay to let the kids think you're a little crazy.  You know...  unpredictable.  Like there isn't anything you wouldn't do.  A loose canon.  Keep 'em on their toes.  It's good for morale.  And fun.  Well, fun for you.

And...  Yah.  That about sums up Miss Spradlin's Rules for Classroom Management.  Don't be their friend, and act crazy.  Ta-da!  With those two simple rules, you too can be a fabulous teacher.

I know that if you happen to be reading this as a past student, or as a past colleague you might be thinking something else.  So for you, Remington Alumni, I will also tell another truth.  Yes, I was a good teacher.  But I was also...

Pretty freaking mean.  It's true.  I was kind of a meanie.  I had super high expectations.  With a couple of exceptions, I am totally okay with that.  There are a couple of circumstances that I wish I could take back...  for example.  True confessions time.  This is not my proudest moment...  While teaching art, there was a little girl who was consistently really, really slow about clearing her desk off for art class.  After telling her to clear off her desk two or three times, and the rest of the class ready to start...  I walked to her desk without saying a word.  Then I silently, without warning, without ceremony, swept my hand across her desk and dumped all of her belongings onto the floor.  Yah...  definitely following rule #1, and #2 that day.  I still feel bad about that particular incident... she looked up at me with these big sad eyes, and I immediately regretted my strict adherence to rule #1 and rule #2...  And helped her pick up her stuff so we could get started.  My armpits are tingling with shame as I type this, I feel really bad about it eleven years later...  But.  I never, ever had to wait on anyone to clear their desk off for art again.  There ya go.  Crazy might not always be pretty, but it usually works.  So to sum up.  My classroom management strategy was...  Mean, mean, mean...  super high expectations...  then after a couple of weeks (or months, depending) ease off the mean.  But always keep those super high expectations.  And, man.  Those high expectations really paid off.

My kids...  I still shake my head at how phenomenal they were musically.  I don't think they had any idea how hard the music was.  Really.  I never told them, so they didn't know.  I just taught them the music.  And they played it.  They didn't just play it, they played the H-E-double-hockey-sticks out of it.   Like, "Oh, well here is an incredibly difficult Samba.  Huh?  What level is this?  This piece will take me a week to learn myself...  Can the kids play it?  Let's find out."  Could they do it?  Heck yes.  And they played it.  Rocked it.  Melted my dad-gum face off.

I was an Orff music teacher.  (Okay.  You have no idea what that means.  Carl Orff was a composer and a music educator.  He spearheaded a movement of teaching music that is heavily based in speech rhythms, and that is also heavily percussion based.  And come on.  What kid doesn't want to play drums?  To be "Orff Certified", which I am thank you very much, is kind of a big deal.  It's a pretty rigorous training program.  Challenging.  Fantastic. Expensive.  And incredibly fun.  I was very fortunate to receive a grant from my school district that funded my training through two levels of certification.  The grant funded my training and also turned my music room into a wonderland.  I had enough high quality drums and mallet instruments for an entire classroom of kids to be able to play together.  That is a really big deal, folks.)

So I had a room full of great instruments, quality training, freakishly high expectations, a mean streak, and a screw loose.  And that, my friends...  is the recipe for a dynamite music program.

You're in for a treat, Gentle Reader.  All this week I will be sharing stories about a much beloved tradition that I started at Remington Elementary.  The annual Holiday production of The Nutcracker.  Oh, man.  Hold onto your hats, friends.  Get ready for a week full of crazy directors (well, okay.  just one crazy director.), naked first graders, a hundred tu-tus, sword fights, handmade costumes, a prostitute or two, a battle between a stoned belligerent dad and my hard core rock star of a principal, a cheeky news reporter...  and a partridge in a pear tree.

Tis the Season.


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The Nutcracker Chronicles:  The First Year

My five years teaching music was like Camelot.  I loved my job.  I would go to music meetings and hear the other music teachers talk about their teaching situations.  "I have no support from any of the other teachers.  My principal doesn't care about my program."  I just kept quiet.  I didn't want to rub their noses in it, but...  I have never, ever experienced anything like that.  My principal did care about my program.  A lot.  She was (and still is, I'm sure) this wonderful blend of Marry Poppins, your funnest girlfriend, rock star, and a kid's no nonsense-tell-it like-it-is Grandma.

Awesome.

It never even crossed my mind when I told our teachers at a staff meeting what they would be helping me with that they would have the slightest objection.  Of course they wanted to stay late after school to help me make eighty five toy soldier hats out of paper.  Why wouldn't they?  Oh, and yes.  They also would obviously want to be here the night of the performance.  No, not to watch.  To help back stage!  If my colleagues were ever anything except thrilled to be a part of my craziness...  they never let it slip.  That first year, we spent hours making hats out of paper, mouse ears our of felt, headbands of silk flowers, swords out of aluminum foil, halos out of tinsel...  and the tutus.  Oh, great googly moogly.  The tutus.  Every child in the school was in the play, and over half of them were girls.  Girls who wore tutus.

You might think that The Nutcracker is a ballet.  And it is.  It is also a cheesy little children's musical that puts words to the Tchaikovsky melodies. Lyrics about candy canes.  Chinese Tea.  Mice fighting toy soldiers.  You know, that kind of thing.  Through the years, The play got longer, and the story further and further away from the original plot.  Why?  Because I added songs!  Why wouldn't I?  I added xylophone ensemble pieces, created new characters, made a place for my percussion group to play a Samba.  Because I could.  Let me tell you a little secret about teachers.  We're like presidents of our own countries.  Our classroom is our island, and the students are the lucky inhabitants who have to do whatever we say.  We make our little world any way we want to.  Well, I did anyway.  (Of course, always within the acceptable boundaries of good teaching practices, state and national standards, and a constant regard for standardized testing.  Of course.)

I wrote all the choreography.  (if you can call, "turn towards the soldiers and claw your mouse paws at them when you sing, "oooh-oooh"! choreography.) I designed all of the costumes.  (again, if you can call putting felt ears on a kindergartner's head and reminding them to wear gray sweats "designing".)  A couple of years later in my Orff training, I was taught that performances are important for children, but the focus should really be on the music.  That the costumes should be kept very minimal because the focus needed to be the music.  Let the children's imagination be their costume.  In theory, I completely agree.  But...  I am charming, so I argued with her.  She argued back.  We smiled politely at each other and respected each other's opinions.  But I wasn't budging.  My girls were wearing tutus, lady.  And here's why.

Putting on that tulle tutu was the prettiest some of these little girls had ever felt.  On costume days, I had mounds and mounds of tulle.  Huge boxes of leotards.  Some of the girls brought their own from home, but most I had collected from donors through the years.  They would go behind the curtain on the little stage in my classroom and pull on their tights.  Put on their leotard.  Don their tutu.  Suddenly, they were magically transformed.  Some would come out boldly, laughing and twirl around for the other girls.  Some would look down shyly, their faces beaming as everyone cheered, ooh-ed and ahh-ed.  Pink cheeks, smiling...  knowing that they look just like a sugar plum fairy.  They were sugarplum fairies.  I had to blink back tears every time.  Those little girls felt, some of them for the very first time... beautiful.  Graceful.  It was truly a sight to behold.

So here is the thing about my little school.  Some of the kids came from a family a lot like the family my kids come from.  Parents just like me.  Just like you.  We had a group of really wonderful parents.  Moms and dads who were always there to help out, loved and cared for their children, just the way that I do.  But not all of our kiddos had that.  Some had a very rough little lives.  These kids were tough.  They had to be.  No, I am not kidding, and I am not exaggerating.  I had students shocked that no one in my family was currently in prison.  A first grade boy told me he didn't have a dad anymore because a man shot him in the face.  We had kids come to school dirty.  Hungry.  Sleep deprived.

My kids got costumes, dang it.

That first year, a news crew came out the day of our dress rehearsal.  Our gymnasium was our stage, and that day it was filled with sweet senior citizens from a nearby retirement home who had volunteered to make a lot of our tutus.

A bunch of old ladies in the gym.  Kids running everywhere.  Lady reporter with a microphone in my face.  It was pandemonium.

She kept asking me questions like, "Have these kids ever done anything like this before?  What do you think about the community pitching in to help make all this come together?  How much of your personal time have you spent making sure these kids got to have an opportunity like this?"  I could see what she was getting at.  And I wasn't playing.  She was trying to turn this into some heartwarming story for the Holidays, where the brave, young new teacher brings the community together to help the poor kids.  What?  No way.  And seriously, lady.  Those heels?  Do you know where you are?  You're going to trip on a first grader and land on your perfect arse.

My eyes narrowed as her insults sunk in.  She didn't see what I saw.  She just saw a story.  Numbers.  This percentage, that percentage in poverty...  blah, blah, blah.  That is not what I saw.

I saw a little fifth grade girl whose mom came home from a long day at work and helped her daughter run lines over, and over, and over again...  So that she could be Clara.  The lead in the school play.  Has there ever been a prouder mother?  I saw a group of third grade boys who thought Baryshnikov was an athlete who was cool enough and tough enough to play football for OU.  (And man, in this part of the country, that is really saying something.)  I saw small groups of kids who spent every recess going over choreography, determined to perfect every step.  I saw six year old girls, giggling, clutching at each other, feeling beautiful and glamorous in pink tulle.

I squared my shoulders and tried to be polite.   No.  I did not give her what she was fishing for.  I don't remember exactly what I said...  I just remember I didn't like her.  Her or her stupid heels.  No.  These kids worked their freaking tails off.  Learned choreography.  Memorized songs.  Memorized lines.  Put up with me.  There was no way that I was going to cheapen that accomplishment.  I was not going to turn their hard work and passion into a  sweet little story to squeeze in between How to Cut your Energy Bill Down This Season, and the night's lottery numbers.

But they did it anyway.  The only thing of me they ended up putting in the story was a small soundbite of my voice saying, "Ladies from a nearby retirement home made some of the costumes for us." as the camera paned over a row of walkers.  sigh...  ah, well.  They told the story they wanted to tell, but I remember it the way it really happened, and I hope the kids do too.  I was very grateful for the community pulling together, don't get me wrong.  But that was only one small part of our story.

Of course, the kids were amazing.  They killed it.  My principal arranged for a bus to pick up families who didn't have cars, so we had a very, very full house.  Parking-lot-road-rage kind of full house.  But really, what's an elementary Holiday Program without a little bit of parent drama in the parking lot?


Sugarplum Fairies, or course!  (man.  these photos are so bad...  but the kids are sure cute!)
Can you see those socks and boots?  Love.
Sleeping Clara.
I can't believe I made that Mouse King costume.  Yikes!  But just look at those kindergarten mice!  Cute!!!
One of our teacher's little boys.  He's all grown up now!
There's nothing funnier to a 4th grade boy than putting on a tutu...  Good times!






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