A few classes where a teacher played the harpsichord notwithstanding, my main musical education came from Mr. Grandy. He was an older gentleman who did the music for my public junior high musical every year. Early in the morning in the weeks leading up to the production he gathered eager 6th, 7th, and 8th graders into a large room with a stage and piano. Dressed in a tan suit, he would stand over the piano, plunk heavily on the keys with one hand and use the other to exhort us to project our voices.
I would hang around the piano after practice so much he eventually offered to teach me piano. Alas, my parents would not let me take lessons so I was left to watching his hands as he ran us through vocal warm ups. In a sea of teachers, he bobs to the surface. His unwavering commitment. How he urged us even as he cringed at our noise. That’s what I remember the most: his hands on the ivories and his face scrunched up at our ensuing response. I didn’t know it at the time, but my ear was being trained as I felt every wrong note that he did.
Do I know anything else about Mr. Grandy? Not a thing. Who was he? To me, he was just the music teacher.
It didn’t even occur to me that teachers had other identities until high school when I ran into my history substitute teacher out to dinner with his parents. He must have been in his twenties at the time but I, of course, thought he was ancient. It was a small, exciting shock to see him out at an Applebee’s, but it didn’t really shift my perception of teachers. They were just…well, teachers.
Flash forward to the present and I find myself dating – you guessed it, a music teacher. I knew this fact about him like you know someone’s address. It’s information but you don’t really know them until you actually visit their home. So, when he mentioned an upcoming after-school concert he was putting on I decided to drive up and visit his classroom, as it were.
Though I wasn’t sure what I’d encounter when I got there, I did know just how much time he devoted to his class preparation. He teaches in Northern California in one of those towns that have only been nominally touched by tech companies and are dominated more by the working class. As a result of his location and the budgeting priorities of the state of California, he teaches at several schools, often spending all of thirty minutes with a class at each one then working late into the night on planning and arranging songs.
The evening of the concert, I met him at his house and biked with him over to the charter school where the concert would take place. It began to hit home that he was a teacher when I heard cries of hello Mr. ___! as we approached on our bikes.
He locked up our bikes and as we walked to the multi-purpose room I heard a distinct rumble. It was a low roar that sounded like birds.
He walked me into a gymnasium turned into a concert-hall teaming with parents and kids who looked over with curiosity. I took a seat at the back of the room at the very end of a bench and watched as he sprung into action - directing kids, saying hello to people, shaking hands. He was dressed in a white button up shirt with shirtsleeves rolled up, black pants, and a purple paisley tie. By his own admission, he looked like a Mormon on a Mission.
Women, mothers of various sizes squeezed into tight short sleeve shirts with scoop necks, cotton shorts, and sandals chatted with each other while their men in ball caps with wraparound sunglasses perched on top, t-shirts, and board shorts huddled together. The families were mostly white with a sprinkling of Latino and Asian families. They embraced each other with hugs and words while kids did the floss, bumped off each other, and squealed excitedly. My bench seat was connected to other benches so whenever anyone sat down or got up the whole bench lurched and swayed. I marveled at the reproductive proclivity of the assembled crowd.
As I sat and observed the scene I wondered what relationship people would think I had to Mr. ___. Did I look like a friend? A girlfriend? Did my presence create a shift in who they all thought he was?
I was just getting to know him really. And truth be told, I was struggling to let him get to know me. Teachers are people but we forget that there’s a person behind the role. What’s worse is in my head I have been reducing romantic relationships to roles.
I didn’t have the best role models for intimate relationships growing up. The ones I saw were dysfunctional and often scary to me. I saw dominant women and passive men. The dominant woman was smart, controlling, and manipulative. The passive man was neglectful and enabling. At least that’s what I thought I saw and I didn’t want to be like either one.
So, in my dating life I’ve swung from pole to pole. From the charming, manipulative, controlling guy who I lose my identity with to the passive, neglectful guy who wants me to boss him around. I date one for a time and then jump to the other. Each time struggling under the mantel of the role I’ve assigned them and what it means for me.
Who am I supposed to be? Who do I have to be to make this relationship work? What role should I occupy? What if I don’t want to lose my identity or boss a man around?
I’ve noticed that I’ve started to make meaning of my music teacher’s behavior. I make what he does mean something about who I have to be around him. It’s like if a man says you look hot today and you take that to mean you have to wear that same thing every day. I put him in a role and forget that there’s a person behind there. I put myself in a role and forget the person I am behind it.
Put another way, I make black and white interpretations of his behavior which influences the way I behave. Which is no surprise. The research shows that when we feel under threat, human brains do this. And what’s more threatening than the vulnerability that intimate relationships require?
Sometimes I wish I could fit a role easily. Sometimes I do think it would be easier if relationships were more black and white - like those keys on Mr. Grandy’s piano. But really, it’s the mix of those keys that make the music.
I’m learning that I need to just focus on who I want to be – regardless of what he does. It might work out. It might not. Either way, I have to stop looking to play a role and just play.
I was jerked out of my reverie by a loud clapping. Whap Whap - whap whap whap. Then the crowd began to clap back. The room hushed. It was fascinating. Everyone seemed to know the code and the clapper who subtly and powerfully called a group of at least 100 people to attention with his hands? The Music Teacher. My Music Teacher.
He stood at the front and said “Welcome. First a few service announcements before your flight.” Then handed a mic to four girls who proceeded to read off the rules of the concert:
1. Give your attention
2. If you have to leave, leave in-between songs, not during them
3. It’s a short concert so stay for the whole thing
4. Turn off your phones
And oh yeah, enjoy the show!
Rules for life perhaps?
With that the curtains opened and the first group of the night, the TK group, students in pre-K and kindergarten, were lined up on risers on top of the stage. There were about forty of them. Forty twitchy, plucky five-year-olds in black bottoms and white tops. They sang Welcome to My School replete with hand movements - clapping, snapping, and patting their arms. We could hear the Music Teacher gently giving cues - “singing, smiling” he softly encouraged and the crowd laughed. It was a marvel in organized chaos.
The TK group then exited the stage and the first graders took the stage. They were more coordinated and adorable. They sang Lava.
On my third date with the Music teacher he brought a Ukulele and I told him that Ukuleles reminded me of the song Lava from a Pixar animated short and then sang him the song. He hadn’t known the song and to my surprise he then taught the song to his first graders. Their performance melted the crowd and made me blush all over.
Finally, the second graders took the stage and performed. Then it was done. Three groups, nine songs, instruments, and choreography all in one hour. Boom.
The Music Teacher asked the crowd to give the teachers a round of applause and then dismissed us with a thank you.
The room, stuffy, exploded with movement and noise. The doors flew open, the low chirping roar returned, and people flowed in every direction.
He stood at the front of the room and glad-handed with parents and colleagues. I thought to myself, maybe I will let him get to know me.