DSCN0441.JPGI feel the need to comment and reflect upon my entry describing our voice group in Santa Maria. I ended up feeling that my description sounded too sentimental, and on further thought I want to stress that making music and art available to students is not a mere whim or frivolity. This makes mine a mundane argument, but one that in this context strikes me as particularly important and has very little to do with the students’ natural abilities or talents and everything to do with creating opportunities for young people to try new things, challenge themselves, make themselves vulnerable before others, and ultimately come out the other side having survived or, with more luck, feeling happy, successful, and proud.


Following our surprise performance (we learned about it from one day to the next, in order to fill in a gap in the Dia de Andalucia festivities), in which the kids gave a brave showing after only two rehearsals, someone told me in passing, “Those kids sing so badly!” She tried to get me to agree with her, but I refused, urging her instead to have pity on them because they were learning. She looked nonplussed by my response, but that’s become typical of our interactions. Her judgment is part of a more generalize discourse of frustration, anger, impatience and dissatisfaction espoused by some faculty at the school. Their reactions are understandable, insofar as their intellectual training, academic experience, and love for their fields find little if any outlets at this school. As one teacher told me, and I’ll paraphrase here, ‘I love what I teach, and I love teaching, but I don’t get to teach here. I’m just trying to maintain some sort of order, get them to sit down and to listen, even just a little bit.’


Well-intentioned efforts by teachers consistently meet two obstacles. The first is a general lack of pedagogical training. They are experts in their academic fields and many would be skilled undergraduate professors, but they receive no formal orientation in high school pedagogy; this can show up in exams that are poorly designed or classroom lessons that fizzle out. I stress that this is not the case for all teachers all of the time, but for some teachers some of the time. There is an evident range in approaches and teaching strategies, and some are more successful than others. The second obstacle is their students’ lack of preparation and/or basic literacy skills. In an English class I visited one day, the students were to practice telling time, and I was to help them drill the key phrases. A few minutes into the lesson, a Moroccan girl called me over to her desk for help. The item she was struggling with was “1:50,” for which she needed to write “It’s ten to two.” As I tried to get her to reason out the answer, I asked her what the next hour on the clock would be, and how many minutes would pass before we reached it. She could not answer. I asked her how many minutes there were in an hour. She didn’t know. Such students lack neither interest nor the desire to do well, but they lack the basic knowledge that would make it possible for them to be academically successful.


In some similar cases, I’ve seen teachers rail against students for not having studied, and while they’re probably right – the students probably haven’t studied – I’m convinced there are layers to this problem that go beyond negligence. Several of the students in one such class I remember well from the first trimester have now been placed in remedial classes, ostensibly to gain the knowledge and basic literacy they did not have before.


From the standpoint of the teacher, frustration and disappointment take their toll, and in the absence of further information, the student is assumed “guilty” of academic negligence, i.e., not studying, not paying attention, not caring. This is the logic of the scholastic relationship, and I keep thinking that at this point neither teachers nor students are well served by it.


But all of this is to say that this reality is complex. And to get back to the singing, the fact that there are so few youth activities in town means, as I've noted elsewhere, that kids who can go elsewhere for sports and arts activities, or just to hang out, while the others -- mainly but not exclusively immigrant kids -- remain in town. The fact that the music teacher has created a space for students to try out something new, within reach of their homes, is huge.


The performance took place on an ideal day, in many ways. It was the Friday when schools across the region celebrated the Día de Andalucía (officially slated for Feb. 28th, during a long weekend) and therefore many regular class periods were replaced with special activities, which meant that a good portion of the student body did not come at all. A small audience makes for a nice test run performance. There were about 150 students in the audience, sitting on the floor in the middle of the gymnasium, with the teachers standing off to one side, near the wall. A couple of mothers – those who’d helped serve up the bocadillos and soft drinks earlier in the day – were also there.


N. and I started off the program with “Every Breath You Take,” after twisting N.’s arm to go first. She was convinced she wanted to wait longer and that someone else should go first; I was remembering the time in 4th grade that I waited till the very end of the talent show to sing the song I’d prepared, and I got so nervous that I chickened out and broke into tears. I hammed it up while singing and got the audience to clap along with us. I belted out the part I was supposed to belt out, resigned to that tuneless, stalking lament of Sting’s, and after we finished, N. returned to her seat amidst shouts of “Guapa!” with enthusiastic applause.

The other students followed, appearing encouraged by the response of their peers, and I got to hang back and watch the audience while they sang. Two of my key informants sat in the front row, doubled over in laughter. A few of the teachers danced and waved their arms in the back of the room. It’s true that some of the performances needed work. The kids haven’t yet learned to hear when they’re off key, but if we keep at it, they will. The boy who sang “Yesterday” looked pained and nervous before he sang, but he made it through the song, by golly, and looked relieved and happy afterwards.


Our program was followed by the cantinera leading the audience in the Hymn of Andalusia. She had been recruited to sing at the last minute because she was the only one who knew the words and the tune. Turns out she has a great voice, and when the performance ended, she stuck around to sing flamenco and assorted songs while the music teacher accompanied her on the piano.


That was when I knew the performance had been a success, because a group of students gathered around them, a fourth-year boy took one of the mics and started singing with her, the principal came to send everyone to class, but the students hardly budged. Later, you could still hear people singing, and the piano going, going, going. One of my key informants told me she’d be at the music rehearsal next week; she’s one of the ones who has no access to activities elsewhere. There may be others like her who show up next week. In other words, that first tentative, under-rehearsed performance served as a recruiting mechanism. Hopefully, the enthusiasm will grow. And I stress: It has nothing to do with being a good singer and everything to do with big words like ‘community’ and ‘creativity’ and ‘inspiration’, and everything to do with giving people a chance to feel their worth.