Mr. Don and the Delinquents

During the 1970s I had an opportunity to teach a class of motivated fourth grade students interested in learning through music and the other arts. At least that’s what I was told by the interviewer. This was at IS 233, District 6, Manhattan. The class actually consisted of about 15 students with behavior problems who had been removed from their previous schools. The students cursed at me, had little interest in learning, and no respect for a young Jewish guy from Brooklyn trying to teach a group of mostly Hispanic kids in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan. Their one consideration had to do with my name: I wanted them to call me by my first name, but because they were used to addressing teachers as Mr. or Miss they ended up referring to me as Mr. Don. (I always thought it made me sound like a hairdresser or the lead singer of a pop music group.)

After several weeks of being cursed at, I decided to do something about it. I made a list of every phrase or four-letter word they had spoken in class, copied the list onto the blackboard (chalkboards were still black in those days), chose a few of the curses, and quickly composed a four measure piece in four parts built on four beats to a measure. Some of the curses were stretched across all four measures, some were spoken every other measure or only once, some spoken very quickly, etc. As a result everyone’s favorite curse was incorporated into a kind of chant. I divided the class into groups, one group to a part, and we merrily repeated the chant over and over again varying the speed, timbre (from deep and broad to high and light), volume, and pitch to emphasize the sound quality of each word. I had their complete attention until the district manager, who had been touring the school, happened to walk in. I thought I would be fired on the spot and was ready to flee but fortunately he liked the whole idea after I explained what was happening.

None of the students ever cursed at me again. The shock value was gone: Their words had become meaningless sounds used in a musical way. The students discovered I was able to curse just like them, even if I wasn’t from their part of town. In fact, the rest of the year was totally enjoyable and productive. Instead of ignoring me they all wanted my constant attention, expressed wonderful creativity and did, after all, end up learning through the arts.

Then there was the time I taught music as a visiting artist at ASCEND (an Arts-Integrated Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound) elementary school in Oakland, CA. One of the fourth grade classes I was assigned to also had a student with behavior problems. He didn’t curse but was disruptive, called constant attention to himself, couldn’t sit still, and more often than not was sent out of class for short periods of time to work on his assignments in the hallway or an empty room. If it was my class I probably would have done something like that, too, if one student was interfering with my teaching day after day.

But as a visitor who spent very little time with the students I was able to see a different side of him. When I was carrying musical instruments back and forth, he offered to help. When I asked for a volunteer to lead an activity, his hand went up immediately. In contrast to Gertrude Stein’s “there is no there there,” there was something there in Oakland: a boy with energy, enthusiasm, and needs that didn’t quite fit into a traditional classroom setting. Disruptive, yes. But if I needed someone to conduct a curse-free chant composed by his classmates he was right there, ready to go.

When the residency was over I visited the school one last time to say good bye. I especially wanted to say something to that disruptive student. He had been in trouble again and wasn’t in class but I found him in the hallway, scowling as usual. I told him even though he had to learn to control himself and work with others he had terrific energy, was very helpful and careful when carrying the instruments, and always ready to try something new. I was sure he was going to do great things in the future.

For a moment he seemed embarrassed. Then his face lit up and he smiled from ear to ear. A big, broad, beautiful smile. He was told he had value. And I’m not sure anyone had ever said that to him before.

 

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.