Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Highs and lows

The elementary-school music teacher's name was Mrs. Fleming-Dillon. Everyone was a little in love with her. She looked like Whitney Houston and taught rich suburban white kids how to have soul. The parents loved her, and loved that their kids loved her. The girl students hugged her and brought flowers on her birthday. At the last chorus concert of the school year, a little delegation of popular older kids always took the microphone and gave speeches, warm and sprinkled with private jokes that the audience always laughed at, about their favorite teacher and idol.
When the class was noisy, she pretended to transform into "Mrs. Fleming-Dillon's evil twin" -- she growled like a bear and pounded on the piano's low keys. This made them laugh, and then they behaved, because it was her.

Chorus try-outs were the first Thursday of the school year. The chorus was divided into "highs" and "lows" -- that was easier for kids than "soprano," "alto," and all the rest of the Latinate terms she had learned in her years of classical training. And it wasn't as if you found many baritones in elementary school. For the most part, she kept the girls in the "highs" and the boys in the "lows," to keep teasing to a minimum on either end.
Only fifth and sixth graders were allowed in chorus. In the other grades, kindergarten through fourth, the whole grade got to perform in concerts -- the entire kindergarten singing "The Farmer in the Dell," the fourth grade doing songs from "Oklahoma."
Chorus was special. Chorus was for the kids who could actually sing. It was the cool thing to do in school. It was Mrs. Fleming-Dillon's favorite part of her job.
In chorus, they sang Stevie Wonder and did dance routines to Janet Jackson and New Kids on the Block. They sang Michael Jackson and, of course, Whitney Houston. They sometimes sang risque hits from Broadway, such as "42nd Street," whose lyrics include "sexy ladies from the eighties." Mrs. Fleming-Dillon got away with anything.

Mollie was a shy kid. That was the extent of what Mrs. Fleming-Dillon knew about her. Mollie was a different breed, one that Mrs. Fleming-Dillion knew she couldn't really relate to. Mrs. Fleming-Dillon got along best with the cool kids, the extraverts. It wasn't so much being snobby or shallow, Mrs. Fleming-Dillon thought -- the cool kids were confident; they made stuff happen. They seemed more enlightened than kids like Mollie who gnawed at their nails or the ends of their hair, too self-conscious to speak, frozen with doubt.
Mollie was probably smart, in a bookish way. She might be one of those late bloomers -- mousy till college, then she'd go wild. She'd stop draping her thin frame in baggy clothes, change her big glasses to contacts. Mrs. Fleming-Dillon thought of those commercials about the kids who drank milk, who started off nerdy and grew up to be babes.

But this was now, and now Mollie was standing alone before Mrs. Fleming-Dillon in the music classroom after school, trying out for chorus.
She had probably told her mom to pick her up after school, because she was trying out for chorus, and her mom had probably been proud of her shy daughter's bravery. Her mom was maybe even in the car now, windows rolled down and reading a book, trying not to be nervous. Or maybe even praying.
But Mrs. Fleming-Dillon wasn't doing this for charity. Chorus was for the real singers. Chorus was elite, and had to stay that way. No pity votes.
Mrs. Fleming-Dillon said brightly: "OK Mollie, what are you going to sing?"
" 'The Greatest Love of All.' "
She had chosen a safe one. It was Whitney Houston, which would ordinarily have been ambitious, but the opening verses in this one were uneventful, a monotonous flatline on the sheet music.
"You may begin when you're ready," said Mrs. Fleming-Dillon in her clear, assured, popular-teacher's voice.
Mollie began. She sang it soft and sweet. She wasn't off-key. It wasn't bad. It was almost soulful.
But it wasn't bold. Mollie swayed from side to side as she sang, a nervous habit that Mrs. Fleming-Dillon had to bite her tongue to keep from interrupting and correcting.
Mollie sang her part, and then there was silence.
"Thank you, Mollie," Mrs. Fleming-Dillon said in a tone she knew sounded phony, falsely bright. "I'll post the list outside my door on Monday."

On Monday, when Mrs. Fleming-Dillon Scotch-taped the list to her door, she thought for just a second about the kids who hadn't made it. Mollie really could have made it; she wasn't a bad singer. But "not bad" wasn't the same as "good," Mrs. Fleming-Dillon assured herself, trying not to picture Mollie's crestfallen little face checking the list, trying not to think of Mollie's mom waiting to hear if her daughter had made it into chorus with the cool girls at school.
If you wanted your voice to be heard, you couldn't just be good; you had to be loud. That had gotten Mrs. Fleming-Dillon where she was today, a black teacher worshipped by the faculty and parents of a rich suburban white school. If you wanted to be loved, you had to be more than just adequate.

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