No longer a proud pillar in communities inhabited by struggling immigrants and fierce working-class families, urban public high schools now house the children of parents who are either too inert to move or are willing to sacrifice their offspring in the temple of multi-culturalism. The heartbreaking decline is measurable in both notable and subtle ways: minuscule graduation rates, metal detectors, vandalism, violence and test scores make the news, but also missing from Mark Twain High School are future professional athletes; parent teacher nights with more than teachers attending; newspapers, yearbooks, or other publications of merit; clubs, extra-curricular activities, and music. Our band has fewer members than the typing club used to, and no one would ever permit them to march. And the theater. Years ago, Twain presented two plays annually: one musical, one drama. Leafing through The Steamboat, the voluptuous 300 page yearbooks chronicling each of those years, I saw Oklahoma!, The Caine Mutiny, Showboat. And A Raisin in the Sun, which, on three consecutive nights in 1967, drew over 3000 people
Ironically, what now passes for the drama department revived this play last month. And presented a performance laden with drama, though the tension was unintended by author or director. Could Harold forget his very first line? Would Sheronda display the same irrationally as usual? Did Tuwann actually answer a first act question with a third act reply? I had the misfortune of attending this approximation of a great play, where these and other questions I never wanted to ask received answers. Harold, a charming but inattentive student of mine, smirked and gesticulated and shouted all lines, regardless of content, but required prompting every few moments in this 55 minute version, abbreviated to fit a regular class period. Lorraine Hansbury's poetry was garbled under a condensation so severe and confusing that anyone knowing would have barely recognized it, and those unfamiliar could have had no idea what was happening. There could have been no thought of a public performance; like every disaster here, the unspoken commitment was keep it to ourselves, hide our dirty laundry, cover the pretense, and hope no one in the community got word of it. No announcements, no publicity, no invitations to parents.
This afternoon we had another chance to witness the performing talents of Twain students, and after the previous display, I was not enthusiastic. The much advertised, much announced, often threatened with cancellation, Student Council's Seventh Hour Twain Talent Show was presented. Every day completed is a blessing when you're a student teacher, one step closer to escape, but today was more challenging than most. Maintaining focus in normal circumstances is tough, it was impossible today. It forced an examination of my moral code: do I acquiesce to wrongdoing, or fight the tide? Deviations from the normal schedule cause the cessation of all academic activity. The day is seen as fodder, a prequel to the main event. I alone was unaware of this understanding, and foolishly tried my prepared lessons, but they critiqued a future event, and did so in slanderous terms, anticipating the biggest fool and the most scoffed-at performer. Clothes, repertoire, styles, and last year's performances were all targets. The schedule change was fairly minor, 8 minutes taken from every class except lunch, and tacked on to the last hour. But we might as well have arrived at 1:10, for nothing before much mattered. I hoped, but doubted, the 95 minutes would be well spent.
"No tickets will be sold at the door or after lunch on the day of the event! No one will be admitted without a ticket! See your Student Council representative for your ticket." boomed Mr. Collins at every announcement of the event . Of course the salesmen came into my room every hour, including after lunch. Though I've been here seven weeks, this is my first exposure to the Student Council. I hope they go somewhere with the money, as the idea of this administration interested in students' opinion is laughable.
We sat in seventh hour waiting for instructions. Finally, as speculation began that the show wasn't going on after all, the ponderous voice of Mr. Collins reassured us.
"I know you are up to the challenge of demonstrating respect. We have today a wonderful opportunity for the young persons of Twain to demonstrate how talented they are, and everyone will certainly respect the hard work and time they have put into their performances, for we all respect those who work hard and are brave enough to perform in front of an audience. Anyone not able to show the proper respect will be escorted to the library, where they will be permitted to practice being quiet. And remember, no one will be admitted without a ticket! Those without tickets must remain in your seventh hour classroom. Anyone wandering the halls, or attempting to gain admittance without a ticket, will be subject to suspension. Now, students on the third floor, third floor only, are to be dismissed to make their way to the auditorium in an orderly manner, using appropriate, and I mean that, appropriate haste, to get into their designated area. "
A momentary spasm of concern: where was our designated area? Before my question could be voiced, though, the hallway outside our second floor room was full. After a long silence, the intercom jumped, as did my students, but this time only those in the basement and gymnasium were urged to respect and appropriate haste. A collective moan. I offered consolation, as it shouldn't matter in which order we were dismissed, everyone would have to be there before they could begin. Another long wait, and the first floor was similarly motivated, while we continued our vigil, students hovering around the door while I was wedged into the frame, a small finger in a very weakened dike. As the area closest to the auditorium we knew we'd be the last to get our pep talk. We were. So far last that it never came. The intercom had been silent for many minutes. Should I release them? The halls were teeming with kids who were clearly not using appropriate haste, and I was exhorted continuously to let them join the pack. What should I do? I decided we were forgotten. There were only forty minutes until the dismissal bell, nearly an hour already gone. I stepped aside, they sprinted, I walked, and I got there first.
I entered while a lovely young lady finished singing a radio song, the goal apparently to mimic the original perfectly. A boy and two more girls followed. They had little to distinguish them: they mourned plaintively in a gospel style that suggested great feeling until it was repeated precisely by the next performer. The notes were held forever, the voices trembled, the eyes squeezed tight, the singers positioned as if the microphone were a sword about to be swallowed, the mouth open in a wide, full-lipped "O". Encouraged by cheers, they maintained the notes interminably, and, disconnected from their accompaniment, plowed on to a tumultuously received conclusion.
Interspersed with these soloists were several groups of rappers, all chanting rhythmic but incomprehensible mono-syllables. They stomped and stabbed and pointed and rocked, all the while repeating something like "Het spek nig guh foot duh awt muh fucka thump thum thump." Fearful that my old age was the source of my confusion, I turned to an especially buoyant fellow bouncing like a sewing machine needle. "What's he saying?" "I dunno." "Then how do you know you like it?" "Good beats." Enough said, I suppose. I am an insufficient connoisseur of rap to distinguish one from another. I've always thought rappers announced who they were in their songs so we could tell one from the other. Of course, my mother thought all my music sounded alike when I could recognize Sam Cooke or James Brown in two notes. But I was perplexed. The audience cheered. It was familiar, the rapper was mugging enough to show he was willing to do anything for approval, it was loud and rhythmic.
The final performer was a young lady I did not know. She strode in wearing a flamboyant purple prom dress and confidence in her ability to control this audience. Four boys in matching lavender suits stood immobile behind her.
"My name is Aiesha Winston. These boys back me up. This is Carter, Chris, Joseph, and Antonio." I recognized Joseph, a pleasant, silent boy in my third hour. There were catcalls and whistles. She disregarded the noises as a dinosaur would ignore a mosquito, standing firmly in the center of the stage, looking at the audience. Like a collection of bad puppies, they melted into subservience. The shrieking gradually dissolved, and the occasional whoops faded under an immediate "Sshhh!" The feeling of anticipation expanded until I felt--no, I knew-- something important was about to occur. All were equally aware. Three sentences, no movement, and 800 people were ready to do her will. Aiesha gazed. She did not glare, but remained tall, straight and powerful. Eventually, there was no sound in the room. The four boys were motionless, hovering on the perimeter of the circle of light Aiesha filled. When it seemed as if someone would shout "Please begin, Aiesha. Please sing for us." she spoke. Not shouting, but without hesitation or reluctance in her voice.
"This is a song I wrote about growing up. Y'all think growing up in the hood is different, that somehow we're special 'cause we got it so hard. It ain't and we ain't. Black folks, and plenty other folks too, been struggling forever. We still struggling, so what. It ain't nothing new. What's new is this time it's us making our very own problems. We so busy looking down feeling sorry for ourselves or looking around to see who's got new shoes, that we ain't watching where we going. If we never look where we wanna go, we gonna keep tripping and never get nowhere. If we want to, we can decide to look up. Any time we want. So why don't we?" Some loud guffaws pierced the quiet. "Go ahead laugh, Montez, you know that you be the worst for blaming everybody for why you ain't gonna graduate with your class." This provoked a raucous cacophony she quickly silenced. "Stop it! There you all go--laughing at Montez. If we ever gonna make it, we gotta pull together and stop all this knocking each other down. You all be playing 'King of the Hill' but you be fighting over a garbage dump and thinking you got some kinda prize! Ain't nobody with brains wants that prize."
I had never experienced silence at Twain. It was an unknown sensation, so abrupt and cold, almost terrifying, the sound that doesn't exist in the execution chamber when the capsule is about to fall or the plunger to be depressed. It was astonishing. From somewhere, music started and the boys launched into a whoo-whoo doo-wop that sounded fluid and ethereal after all the staccato snarls I had heard. Aiesha's singing voice, like her speaking voice, was smooth and tranquil, yet charged with an emotion that obliterated all the squealing and crying that preceded her. She sang the verses solo; each chorus was echoed by her backup. They then did a short whoo-whoo shoosh-shoosh and she began the next verse. Her vocals were clear, she enunciated effectively. We were transfixed by her electricity.
|I'll Be Right There Ev'ry Night|
You're my tiny little daughter,
So I will stay here with you,
I'm sending you to school now,
I'm sorry I can't help you,
I tried, I tried, to warn you,
Your boyfriend said he had to,
Now you got your own lil girl.
They always say they'll love you,
The world's been busy preaching,
Cause He's waiting for you to ask him,
Aiesha performed for an audience of one. No trembling, no quivering, no plaintive cries or screeches, no arm-flapping or neck stretching, nothing to distract or diminish. The crowd stared worshipfully, though it was clearly unimportant to her. The boys repeated the last verse, their final shoosh shoosh faded, Aiesha bowed and walked confidently off stage; the boys remained behind. Everyone was stationary, stunned into apoplexy. Then an uproar swept the room. Kids stood and clapped and stomped and whistled and cheered and climbed on chairs and roared. Mr. Collins came out applauding, wearing the jubilant grin of the game show host whose contestant has just won a car. Aiesha accompanied him, stood in the middle of the stage and screamed "Don't be fooled, this ain't nothing. It only matters what you do. Go do it." The audience bellowed its agreement. Mr. Collins then waved his hands up and down in a futile request for quiet. He walked over to the microphone, but just as his mouth opened to offer the fatuous platitudes those with no talent spout when faced with merit so significant even they see it, the bell rang. But no one left. They cheered for Aiesha, for themselves, their hopes, their expectations, their desperate acknowledgment of excellence, their school, their fear of their future and their relationship with someone whom they recognized as one sure to accomplish goals and leave them far, far behind. She evaporated, how and when I did not notice. The noise subsided long after the lights were on. Administrators were frantically gesturing towards the doors, and Mr. Collins came over the intercom and announced the buses were leaving in two minutes. Mr. Wilcox, the librarian, had been taping the program, and I, along with a sizable number of teachers and students, silently followed him to relive the experience. I wanted to transcribe the lyrics for this journal, but it took three viewings, as I could not turn off the transcendence.