Monday, May 18, 2009

Some assemblies required

In which a mystery remains unrevealed

The Felix Chronicles, #25

I've just found the final face in the crowd to check off on my attendance sheet, and head to the back of the auditorium as Mary, our principal, finishes discussing the pending installation of security cameras in response to a much-lamented spate of petty thefts on campus. Perry, an earnest, bearded, junior, has already announced details of the overhauled recycling program, and Erin, wearing her ponytails and her game-day jersey, is about to announce the latest triumph of the girl's lacrosse team. I've just about reached my destination at the back near the doors when I see my colleague Ben say "shhh!" to a clutch of sophomore girls giggling uncontrollably over some piece of gossip.

There's probably a doctoral dissertation in the surely universal experience of high school assemblies, I think to myself as I turn around to face the stage. No -- there's probably about
eight doctoral dissertations on the topic gathering dust somewhere. The civic dimension. Their shifting ideological character. The sheer boredom. In no other way are high school students a captive audience in quite the way they are in assemblies, and though they typically have a participatory dimension -- as often as not it's students onstage -- the literally amateurish quality of such presentations can make them all the more tedious. It's at times like these that I'm aware of my sense of privilege as an adult than in the way I will join a smattering of colleagues in surreptitiously slipping out of the auditorium, often teasing each other as we do about our lack of school spirit. Actually, it is a modicum of school spirit that sometimes holds me back, at least temporarily. I like to be able to praise a student I've seen perform or make a presentation as a means of building good will, even if my exposure, or their ability, is limited. And every once in a while I'm pleasantly surprised.

I'm about to make my move when I realize that this is the day of school's annual talent show, and the curtain pulls back to reveal an percussion ensemble. I decide to linger for a minute. These can sometimes be good. Randy, the director of the school's music program, has a puckish sense of humor, which will surface in an acapella version of a Led Zeppelin song (or, on one memorable April Fool's Day assembly, a kazoo quartet performing a movement from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata). The whole percussion ensemble recently did a rousing suite of songs from
The Lion King, and while this configuration is smaller, and presumably independent of the school in a student-run talent show, I suspect Randy's invisible hand will nevertheless be guiding it.

The group launches into a spirited version of Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." I'm in the process of scanning the stage -- there's Sam from my survey course -- when I see a girl put down the mallets for the marimba she's playing, walk over a few feet to a xylophone, and play a single note before walking back and resuming her work on the marimba. Then, 8 or 12 or 16 or whatever number of measures later, she does it again, unsmilingly.

Her name is Bree. She's a freshman. I only know this because I taught her older sister a few years back, and her Dad introduced me to her silent younger daughter, then in elementary school, at a football game. Bree's older sister Tess was a wonderful student, diffident but really quite spirited when you got to know her, which I did through her lively essays. But Bree seemed somehow unformed them and still less sharply etched than her sister now. Yet these days it seems I see Bree all the time. She's one of those people who you don't really know, but who crosses your path regularly, and who sometimes poses a dilemma in terms of whether, or how, to acknowledge them. Some of these kids will give me a smile, which I'll return. Or they'll say "Hi, Mr. Cullen," a courtesy I can't always reciprocate because as often as I not I won't know or remember their names. ("You know who I am!" one such child, Cleopatra, said to me recently, which of course is no great feat for a person named Cleopatra.) Perhaps it's a similar reason that Bree's name has stuck, but that doesn't really matter, because she never seems to make eye contact. She does, in fact, seem to be an unusually self-contained (and intelligent) child, but as of yet I've had no real opportunity to test that perception.

When Bree walks over the the xylophone to play that single note for the third time, I become aware, via a murmuring from the audience, that I'm not the only one attentive to this pattern. The fourth time, that murmuring becomes an unformed noise. The fifth, that unformed noise coalesces into "Yeah!" The sixth and it feels like we've somehow found ourselves at the seventh inning stretch of a Mets game. Yet through it all Bree maintains a poker face, utterly focused on the task at hand -- and that surely is part of what the audience is reacting to. By the seventh time it's become a contest: can they break her will? And it's then, for the first time, that a smile that Bree clearly struggles to contain becomes discernible. For the eighth and final time, though, she's gotten control of herself again. Through it all, her timing has been impeccable.

When, by design, the song stops abruptly, there's a moment of silence. And then there's a huge roar, clearly for Bree. (It's possible some of the kids are laughing at her rather than with her, but my reading of the room is more one of good-natured amusement and admiration than anything else.) There's something like a smile on her face, but it's inscrutable, perhaps because her pleasure is more about her performance than any reaction to it. Who
is this child?

I'm tempted to make some queries, and in fact probably will, in the faculty lounge when I get a cup of coffee before my next class. But in the end it's the mysterious Brees of this place -- there's always one or two on my roster at the start of the school year in September or when an elective starts in January -- that keep this job interesting. It's possible (at times alarmingly so) to imagine terminal boredom in talking about the Bill of Rights or the Great Society. But it's when you run out of kids who intrigue and surprise you that you'll know it's time to go. Let's just hope that happens long after Bree graduates.