Magazine article The Canadian Music Educator

It All Comes Back to the Elephants

Magazine article The Canadian Music Educator

It All Comes Back to the Elephants

Article excerpt

It all comes back to the elephants.

Early December, 2007: With our choir's Winter Concert tucked securely into the overflowing filing cabinet of the past, it comes to that dreaded time of year when the students are forced to show me their stuff one-on-one...for marks! How well have they learned their notes? Are they supporting their upper register? Is the text memorized? Are they breathing in the right places, or wrecking the phrase by stopping in the middle of a word? Many details to occupy the attention of a teacher, let alone a grade nine student who is not yet fifteen.

For one particular boy, musically gifted yet possessed of a mouth surely spawned by some relation of the Energizer Bunny, the test is only occupying the peripherals of his mind. Rather, he is fascinated by the accumulated detritus that lines my shelves: "Whoa...where'd you get this elephant?" From my brother, I tell him, a small wooden souvenir that he thoughtfully procured for me during a three-month stay in Zambia. (Interesting to note that while my male students are fascinated by the animal figurines and African wall-hangings, females are more interested in the small photo I keep of my fiancée and me.)

Months later, and the students are let back into my office to perform rhythm tests as their peers practice. Boy number one is eager to show off my supply of treasures to his friends, particularly the elephant. By now, the excess of energy that flows from these lads has mutated from a source of fear to a tiding of comfort and joy in my mind. I see their liveliness as something that can be harnessed into an overwhelming enthusiasm for music and singing.

Mid-March, and we have finally made our way to Brandon for the Jazz Festival. Surrounded by polished performers and veteran teachers, I feel shy, uncertain. Have I taught my kids to swing? Why haven't I played them more Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong? Do I even understand jazz myself? After a performance that reveals more flaws than moments of glory, at least in the oversensitive opinion of a musician, I am briefly convinced that I am a failure; my degree best-suited for kindling, my years of choral experience a tragic mistake and colossal waste of time and energy. Surely it's not too late for a career in the food services industry...Subway, for example. Or the next step in luxury...Quiznos!

I'm almost ashamed to look my students in the eye. I have let them down. I will diminish, and go into the West...

But as I walk past a vendor's table, outside the performance hall, I am arrested by the shouts of two of those students. "Look, Mr. Knight! We got elephants, too!" Sure enough. These boys have managed to find a seller of handcrafted African goods. And for whatever reason, each one has seen fit to spend $20 to buy an elephant of his own.

I am floored-shaken at the moment but even more when I consider it in hindsight. Here my mind was focused on perceived failure...and theirs were focused on the elephants that looked so like mine. (Later their friend will tell me that he was short on cash, so he bought himself a smaller figurine...made of metal, not wood, so not quite a perfect match, but with a trunk and tusks too, by golly.)

Elephants.

This self-doubting young man with barely a decade's more life experience than they have, this teacher who has come to work at least once a week with goosebumps, irrational shivering and what feels like a complete lack of engaging ideas. …

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