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Fiction #191
(published September 9, 2004)
To Hell in a Hand Basket
by Elaine Drennon Little

A day in the life of a high school chorus teacher is pretty much like being a mother—To a hundred forty kids, 30 to 40 at a time, for an hour (and often more) a day. A new recruit that semester was a tenth-grade boy who'd approached me in the hall.

"I'm Jason Lemming, Mrs. Little," he'd said softly. "Remember me? I was King Leo, the Cowardly Lion, in our first grade play."

Music teachers run up against this: Especially ones like me who've taught from Pre-K through high school at one school or another, in the same county, for twenty years.

I vaguely remembered the play, where each first grade class was a troop of leopards, or monkeys, or some other creature. King Leo either sang well, was a great speaker or had a mom who could sew, but I didn't remember which.

"Do you still sing, Jason?" I'd asked. (Okay, I live my current professional life as a predator, always looking out for "fresh meat".)

"I haven't in a long time, but I'd like to try," the tall, thin teenager admitted shyly.

Within minutes he was signed up for my "advanced" class.

As I soon found out, Jason could carry a tune, even a part, if seated by a strong baritone. His voice was soft but pure, and consistently on-task and eager to please..

He was also very shy, hardly speaking at all until a month later at his first "Open Mic" day.

The "Open Mic" concept is probably my only, claim to fame at the high school level. Inheriting a dying program of twenty-six girls and one boy (who was put there by a scheduling error), I used any calling card I could to recruit more bodies. Adding rock posters to my bare concrete-block classroom , setting up a makeshift "stage" with my keyboards and a PA system, and inviting kids from anywhere possible to perform, "Open Mic Day" soon became the place to be at noon on Fridays. I encouraged performances of all genres, slightly inferring that we did enough choral music during the rest of the week. They all seemed to enjoy it, but my class became a safe haven for one particular group -: The misfit would-be rock stars. They came in droves, the heavy metal dreamers, the Jesus freaks with boys dressed as preachers and girls with baggy skirts and uncut hair,, the pierced and tattooed, MTV pop crowd and the third generation of Dead Heads. They brought their friends, their instruments, and, most importantly, their music, filling the room with the most eclectic group of young music-lovers I'd ever seen.

Being a small school in the southern Bible belt, not everyone agreed with my tactics, but, after three years, I did gain enough students to become a full-time music teacher...

Jason's first "Open Mic" seemed to be a typical one: Two contemporary Christian pieces, a Faith Hill song, a guitar ballad with three boys in unison. After a couple of "real" songs, the music was beginning to turn into a long cadenza of that great guitar standard "A & E" with dueling rides.

They stopped briefly to discuss adding a bridge, when newcomer Jason asked, "Could I play a song with you guys?"

The room went silent: The kid who had barely spoken all year was volunteering to PERFORM.

"Sure," answered a punked-out Rickey, "Whattaya play?"

"Oh, I'm startin' to play a little mandolin. Mine's out in my truck, could I go get it?" He looked to me.

"Sure, go ahead," I replied, staring at pics of Mozart and Clapton, wondering what direction this event would take.

Within a few minutes, Jason returned with a small case that looked to hold a ukulele or a small guitar. He opened it and took out a shiny red Gibson mandolin.

The guys, from the biggest rednecks to the most-pierced Goths, were all over him.

"Can I hold it?" asked Rickey, reaching across the others in a "me first" response before the question was finished.

"Sure," smiled Jason, perhaps embarrassed to be the center of attention.

"How is it tuned?" That was David, the son I didn't have: John Lennon glasses, hair past his shoulders, and a virtual sponge for more musical knowledge.

"Okay, back-off, let's let JASON play for us first," I intervened.

"It's okay, they're welcome to look, even play if they want. "I don't play that well, I just started learning, Besides, I don't have a pick..." he said, looking sheepishly at the floor.

"You can have one of mine," Rickey offered. Rickey owned my heart: He could be without pencils, books, homework or lunch money, but he was never without a pick.

"Thanks," said Jason.

I felt like the gloating kindergarten teacher who had just taught "sharing."

Jason picked a few notes, stopped, looked puzzled, began again. With a strum added, he repeated the pattern a few more times, stopped and pretended to make a tuning adjustment. In a few minutes the tuning adjustment became part of the pattern as well.

3 note phrase
2 note phrase
3 note phrase
2 note phrase
Puzzled look
Tuning adjustment
Begin again

It was becoming quite obvious that Jason really DIDN'T know how to play much yet. He was baring his soul for these accomplished musician peers: Was he gutsy, or stupid?

"Can you play a real song?" someone asked.

There's a heckler in every crowd, I thought, but why heckle this sweet if ignorant young boy?

As if on Mighty Mouse cue, David grabbed a mic stand and began to be the DJ of a lifetime.

"Ok, pull up a chair and get ready for some sho-nuff pickin' and grinnin'," he advised.

Jason turned a little red as smiling as the students circled their chairs around him. David brought him the padded barstool, off limits to all but the teacher, and the only comfortable seat in the room.

I was so proud of him—though I wished I'd thought of it myself.

"Ladies and gentlemen," David cried in an under-the-big-top voice, "Put your hands together...'

I felt my stomach clench as my heart filled my throat: David was definitely gonna embarrass the poor guy, intentional or not.

" ... For the boy who puts MAN into MAN-DOH-LIN, Mr. Jason Lemming!"

The class cheered. Jason smiled, then looked down at the instrument he was holding as though it were a foreign... disease?

Oh shit, now I've gotta play, his face implied.

"And what will you be playing for us today, Jason?" David led.

Oh no, I thought, this is NOT a good thing. He's setting him up for a fall.

I felt I had to do something, I couldn't just sit there and...

"Uh, I-I-I-I-I really only KNOW, uh, one song, and it's not that good yet, and y'all probably don't know it, and..."

"And would that song be one we all grew up on, a happy song about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?" M.C. David continued.

"Well, it's happy, but..." poor Jason was dumbfounded.

David prevailed.

"Put your hands together for JASON, playing that classic favorite..."

David looked at Jason, cueing him, as David sang and Jason played the beginning notes for

"You are my sun-shine, my on-ly sun-shine,
You make me hap-py, when skies are gray...".

Those were the notes he played! You-are-my / 3 note phrase Sun-shine /2 note phrase My on-ly /3 note phrase sun-shine /2 note phrase ——David heard it and recognized it! And in that funky voice that never got chosen for solos, he stood naked before his friends, calling the heat off Jason.

God bless David, I beamed internally.

And the puzzled look over the chord that didn't sound quite right—Everyone knew how hard it was to conquer the dreaded F chord.

Rickey and Ryan began strumming along on their guitars. The whole class was singing. David nodded at me - Go to the piano, he inferred.

I did: I needed something to DO to keep from crying.

All the instrumentalists took rides. They sang again.

I called on Josh to do a "verse" solo.

Josh didn't know the words to a verse, so he proceeded to make one up. It was much more entertaining!

"The o-ther night dear, as I lay sleep-ing
I dreamed (pause) about our O-pen Mic class
We have great sing-ers with ma-gic fin-gers
Those-who-don't-like-it, can kiss my *********(much guffawing)"

It was a "Whose Line Is It Anyway" hoedown from there on out. They traded verses, added handclaps, and started a line dance around the room. IT was the strangest eclectic mix that ever existed, and it was wonderful. Well, at least, to us.

"I thought that was a singing class, Y'all been playin' heavy metal in there?" asked a pious-faced teacher.

"Nah," Jason smiled. "We were 'unplugged' today."

"Yeah," agreed the guy in the trench coat. "Unplugged—Only Nirvana and Pearl Jam."

"And Limp Biscuit," said girl with her Bible.

"And Marilyn Manson, " said the one with body piercings.

They walked away smiling, whistling in harmony the chorus of "You Are My Sunshine."

As the parade disappeared into the halls of academia, a janitor nodded.

"....To hell in a handbasket," he muttered. "To hell in a handbasket......"

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