Finally the moment arrives. They have glanced at the black guitar case in the corner throughout the morning but only one student braved the question, “Teacher, will we sing?”
“Later,” I say. “Maybe.” I haven’t decided yet if I will chicken out. I flew 7,000 miles towards that guitar, but I am hesitant; I generally limit my musical audience to third graders and below. Even fourth graders start to see through me. From there on up there’s always a chance (at least in my mind) that a student will leap to his or her feet and denounce me as a musical fraud. The charges would include, “You can only sing three notes!” and “You can only play three chords!” As well as, “Every song you sing is basically the same song!” Afterwards, as per standard mob attack, I am ripped limb from limb.
All day we have written about our names and answered the question, “Who are you?” every way imaginable (and written about those answers). I have tried to show them how to get past thinking. I tell them to be loose like an athlete. If you’re stiff, you’ll whiff on the fastball, shoot the brick, shank the penalty kick, and sky the backhand. I don’t use any of these words. I show them my rubber chicken dance and say you’ve got to be loose like this, ready to listen to your own ideas. I tell them if you are loose you can write about anything and find a good story in it.
“I can write about that bookshelf,” I tell them, “and find a story.” I write something like…
The bookshelf is made of wood. It holds books. I love to read books. My mom read to me great books when I was little. She was studying children’s literature. She read to me many nights before bed and those books filled my head with stories and good writing.
My mom was a teacher of children. She worked very hard and she came home tired every day. She sat in her car outside the house and stared through the window. She was exhausted and a little grouchy.
One day I went to see her teach in her classroom. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Could this be my mom? She was smiling so brightly. She sang to the children and read to them and helped them with everything they needed. She seemed to have a light shining from inside…”
I stop and tell them, “Look at that. I found my story! My Two Moms. Do you remember what I started with? A bookshelf.” I don’t tell them that I cheated and wrote about the bookshelf the night before. I wrote the same story, but this was not a reproduction of the improvisation. Hey, it’s called preparation, people. In both cases, I was loose.
When I opened up the door early before class began, it was the first time I saw the classroom. I quickly began dragging tables and chairs around to create groups as well as an open area for creating a circle with our chairs. Then I spied the black guitar case. I went over to it, set it on a table, unzipped it and peeked inside. It was a nylon guitar. I had hoped for steel string, but no matter. I ran my fingers across it. It was in tune! I zipped it close and put it in a corner.
Now it was time. Their energy was dropping. While they finished up a writing assignment, I slipped over and got the black guitar case. I set it on the table (I hear murmurings) and unzipped it. As I began to lift it out, I saw a huge cockroach underneath it in the case. I pulled out the guitar and quickly zipped the case closed. I looked around. No one had noticed.
A cockroach unleashed on my classroom in Oakland, at least with third graders, would mean 15 minutes of screaming, running around: chaos. Even though these students were likely much more familiar with said bug, what with this climate, my reflex was still to get rid of the thing without them seeing it, and then get on with the playing. I slipped out to the hallway with the black guitar case. I opened it and shook the cockroach onto the floor. It scurried down the hallway. I leapt through air and made it one with the pancakes of old. I grabbed it with a kleenex I had in my pocket and brought it back with me, slipping it slyly into the trashcan.
I was back in business. I had the students come to the circle with their chairs and I sat with the guitar. I said, “I am not a singer.” I said, “I am not a guitar player.” I told them, “But I am a writer and I like to write songs. And I am a teacher and I know music is good for helping us learn.” They smiled and nodded.
I told them, “I wrote this song when I was living in Costa Rica, learning Spanish. I went to a restaurant with the other students and there was a pet monkey there tied by a leash to a post. A woman named Miriam said, “Look! A monkey! How cute!” She tried to pet it and it bit her finger. She shrieked (I shrieked) and fainted (I fainted).”
“The next day, she came to Spanish class eating a banana. Suddenly I got the idea that Miriam was turning into a monkey. That’s when I wrote this song.”
I begin to strum the song and in a kind of a rap, I sing, “Well I went down to a beach town / and I saw my friend fall down / I asked are you feeling all right / She said I got a monkey bite.” I teach them to clap, snap, cluck and stomp on the chorus. We sing it a couple times. When I finish, they cheer and clap and stomp on their own.
Later, after class, a student asks me, “Teacher, do you have this Monkey Bite on the web? I want to down it. It amazing!”
My work here is done.
As hoped: very big in China.