Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Having a Bad Day

Derek was having a bad day.  He was barely responding to my questions, and not following directions.  When I asked him to make a change to the crash cymbal part he was playing, he moved very slowly to the back of the room to get his music.  This, of course, irritated me because he was holding up the entire class and bringing our rehearsal to a grinding halt.

“Can you move more quickly, Derek?” I asked.  “Why don’t you have your music at your music stand?”

“I’m sharing with Trenton,” he said.

“But,” I explained for what seemed like the hundredth time, “I’ve told you before to always have your own music out so you can make notes in it when needed.  This kind of delay is costing you participation points,” I told him, feeling my frustration mounting.

“I don’t even want to be in Band!” he snapped.

“Why don’t you wait in the hallway?  We have one too many drummers, anyway,” I popped off, instantly regretting it.

This wasn’t the first time in 20 years of teaching that I have spoken carelessly.  And, sadly, it probably won’t be the last.  But I have always had the policy that if I mess up like this in front of the Band, I will apologize in front of the Band.  So…

“I’m sorry, Derek.  That was inappropriate, and I shouldn’t have said it.  Now, will you please wait for me in the hallway?”  Derek headed for the door.

Turning to my student teacher, I asked, “Mr. Z., will you please lead rehearsal for a few minutes?”  He came right to the podium and took over while I, too, headed for the door.

Once in the hallway, I asked in a quiet voice, “What’s going on today, Derek?  I know you occasionally have an off day, but you aren’t usually like this.  I don’t believe you want to quit Band after three years.  Is there something you want to talk about?”

Derek’s attitude changed completely.  Instead of being difficult or defiant, he was respectful.

“Me and my sister gotta go to CPS today to talk about our mom,” he said.  I had to think for a moment, but I realized CPS means Child Protective Services.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“My mom’s been doin’ drugs, and now CPS wants to ask us about it ‘cause she’s been doin’ drugs in front of us.”

It’s still hard for me to believe there are kids – a lot of them – who have to grow up in these kinds of situations.

“Well,” I offered, “there probably isn’t much I can do, but if there is, please let me know, even if you just want to come by and talk.”

Derek nodded.

“In the meantime,” I continued, “you can stay out here in the hallway if you want to.  I would understand.  But I’ll bet you would rather rejoin the rehearsal.  Let’s get your mind on learning this music and doing your best.  It will help you get this other stuff out of your head for a little bit.”

He nodded again.

“And, Derek, I really am sorry for my comment.”

“It’s o.k.,” he told me.  “I’m sorry for what I said, too.”

“No problem.  Let’s go back to class.”


What’s in a Name?

“SO, WHO IS JUDGE #3?” she bellowed.

We all looked toward the door of the judges’ meeting room to see a rather large, black high school student with a big smile on her face scanning the people seated at our table.  We had gathered there for last minute instructions before going off to spend this Saturday evaluating middle and high school students who were hoping to earn medals for their musical performances.  This young lady, who had volunteered to work as a judge’s assistant, had come to show Judge #3 to her performance room.

I don’t think I was the only one startled by her boldness; most young people would have been shy about interrupting a group such as ours.  She was not.  On the contrary, her outsized personality dominated and brightened the room.

“Mrs. Stanley hasn’t arrived, yet,” replied the head judge.  “We think the snowy weather may be slowing her down.”

“No problem.  I’m happy to wait,” the young lady said.

One by one, the other judge’s assistants, high school volunteers all, arrived to show us to our performance areas.  I had been assigned to judge the upper level piano solos in the auditorium.  I would be listening to more than 40 students, most of whom were hoping to qualify for the State Festival to be held a few weeks later.

My assistant’s name was Lizzy, though she would only be with me for the morning; another student would be taking her place.  Lizzy was a senior and a member of the high school choir.  Her plans included attending Purdue University where she would receive a partial tuition waiver because her father worked there.  In addition, she had already been awarded a fairly substantial scholarship because she was a very good student with a 3.8 gpa.

Lizzy’s job this day was to keep the students organized who were waiting in the lobby for their turn to play.  She would also be double checking my math on the score sheets I would be filling out, and running paperwork here and there.

After about two hours of this, I heard that voice again.


Looking over my shoulder, I saw the young lady who had greeted all of us early that morning.  She was strolling toward us down the aisle of the auditorium.

“You’re leaving so soon?” I asked Lizzy.

“She needs to go warm up for her performance,” said the Voice.

“Yeah.  I’m singing a solo in a few minutes,” explained Lizzy.

“Very good,” I said.  “I hope it goes well.  Best of luck to you.”

Turning to the Voice, Lizzy asked, “Are you here to replace me?”

“Oh yeah!” she said.  “I’ll fill in for a few minutes until Alex comes.  He’ll be taking over for the rest of the day.”

“Thanks, a bunch,” said Lizzy.  “By the way, you’re also performing today, aren’t you.  What are you singing?”

“A negro spiritual,” she answered.

“What?  You aren’t supposed to call it that,” Lizzy said with a laugh.

“Why not?” she said, with an even bigger laugh.  “I’m allowed, and that’s what it is!”

“What is your name?” I asked.

“Chaquita,” she answered, but I hadn’t quite been able to hear her.

“Did you say ‘Chaquita?’” I asked.

“Just call me Kylee.  Everyone else does,” she said.

“Why is that?”

“’Cause ‘Chaquita’ is hard to pronounce, and it’s SO black,” she answered, smiling.

“I think it’s pretty.  Do you spell it with ‘Ch’ or ‘Sh?’”

“Good heavens,” she laughed again.  “It’s spelled with a ‘Ch.’  ‘Sh’ is so ghetto!”

“Well, Chaquita, what year are you in school?” I asked.

“I’m a junior.”

“Do you have any plans yet for when you graduate?”

“I’m thinking of studying law in New Mexico.  They’ve already offered me a scholarship to sing in their choir,” she told me.

“Wow.  You must be pretty good.”

“I’ve made it to the fourth round of auditions for “The Voice,” she said.  “You know, the reality singing competition on TV?”

“I’ve heard of it.  Congratulations!  When is the next round?”

“I’m supposed to submit a video recording by tonight, but I’m not sure if I’m going to make the deadline.”

“Well, I hope you do.  You sure have a dynamic personality, and you seem very comfortable with people,” I said.  “Maybe I’ll get to see you on TV someday.”

“Just watch for Kylee Armani.  That’s going to be my stage name.”

At this point we were interrupted by a student waiting to perform his piano solo, and with the busy schedule we had to keep, I didn’t get to ask her any more questions.  Though our conversation had been brief, she had made a lasting impression.  I heard some excellent performances that day, but Chaquita’s was the most memorable, and she hadn’t even sung a note.

What Is It With Lockers?

Not long ago I told you about Ethan’s magic locker (see it here –  Now comes this story.

The other day an 8th grader named Peter stopped me in the hallway at Backpack Middle School and said he couldn’t get his locker open.

“No problem,” I told  “What’s the combination?”

“22-28-38,” he said.

So I tried it for him and, sure enough, it wouldn’t open.  I tried it a second time, but no luck.

“I’m stuck.  I don’t know what’s wrong,” I said.

“Here, Mr. Shaver,” said Mrs. Crowder, who had seen what we were trying to do.  “I have a key.”

“Oh, good.  Thank you.”  I said, opening the locker.

Seeing the inside of it, Peter started laughing.  “My bad,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“That’s not my locker,” he answered, with an embarrassed smile.


“Mr. Shaver,” said Levi, as I was beginning music class, “You seem younger than you said you are.”

My mind went several directions all at once.  During an earlier discussion of Gustav Holst’s “Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age,” I had revealed that I was 45 years old.  Was Levi making fun of me?  Possibly, especially given that my forehead has pushed my hair line clear to the back of my head.  But that would be out of character for him.  So was he serious?  I have been trying to exercise more lately; maybe he had noticed a hint of energy and youthfulness that I have yet to feel myself.  How to respond…

I was just about to award Levi a bonus point when I heard another student say, “Hey, Levi, didn’t he tell us he is 77?”

That was the end of that.


Students, of course, have no idea how old their teachers are.  Mr. Seward, 6th grade science teacher (ret.), used to tell his students that he was 103, and they believed him because to them anyone who is old enough to be called an adult is just old.

In students eyes teachers are units.  We don’t exist outside of school; we don’t visit the doctor, or buy clothes, or go to the movies; we were never kids who played games and had fun with friends; we have no past; we were never born; we just exist.  We are teaching units.  I remember the first time I saw a teacher outside of school.  My parents had stopped at a grocery store and left my brothers and me in the car while they ran in to pick up a few things.  As I watched out the window for them to return I saw my fourth grade math teacher Mrs. Flanigan come walking out of the store in her everyday clothes carrying bags of groceries.

“She eats food and wears blue jeans?!?” I thought.  “Weird.”


Of course, it can work both ways.  Students, even ones of the same ages, can have vastly different levels of maturity.  I remember Kenny from my elementary school days back in Metamora, IL, quite similar to the small Hoosier town in which I now teach.  Though we were all about 12 years old in fifth grade, Kenny seemed much older than the rest of us.  He wore button-up shirts, read encyclopedias, and played chess (which he taught me).  He never quite stood straight up, instead letting his head and shoulders slouch down a bit.  And when he placed his hands backwards on his hips he looked more like an old man than a kid.

One day in math class, Kenny had some sort of disagreement with our teacher unit.  Her name was Mrs. Ratcliffe, and many of us were a little afraid of her.  She did not tolerate any nonsense in her class.  She had achieved a reputation for sternness without ever raising her voice or losing her temper.  Some students secretly called her by a different name, one that rhymed with Ratcliffe.  But, it seemed to me that she was a good math teacher who would be fair to those who did not cause trouble.

I don’t remember what the disagreement was about, but I remember Kenny wouldn’t let it drop.  Mrs. Ratcliffe had been more than patient, but Kenny wanted to “discuss” it further even after she told him to return to his seat and resume his studies.  When he kept talking, she gently but firmly told him to go to the principal’s office and see Mr. Martinowski.

Now, I was taught to differentiate the spellings of principle and principal thusly:  “The principal is your pal,” my teacher would say.  But with Mr. Martinowski no one knew for sure.  All we did know was that he had a paddle with holes in it, and he used it to “encourage” students to behave.  Sure, he was friendly with students he saw in the halls or cafeteria, but not so much with the ones he saw in his office, to which Kenny was now being sent.

By this time none of us was working on math; our attention was completely on Kenny and the Unit.  He stood thinking for a moment, hands backward on his hips, head down, before he finally said something like, “That isn’t necessary, Mrs. Ratcliffe.  I’ll be good.”

“No, Kenneth,” she responded, “I gave you that chance.  Please report to the office.”

Kenny grew increasingly worried and upset at this unexpected turn of events, so much so that he almost cried.  He tried to convince her that he didn’t need to go, but she would not change her mind.  He almost pleaded, but she stood firm.  His doom had been pronounced:  to the office he would go.

Most reluctantly, Kenny left the classroom, closing the door behind him.  In all my short life I would never have imagined that he would be sent to Mr. Martinowski’s office.  Mrs. Ratcliffe rose from behind her desk and pulled the string on the intercom to call the office.

“Yes, Mrs. Ratcliffe?” a lady’s voice answered.

“Kenneth is on his way to see Mr. Martinowski,” said the Unit, calmly.

“Thank you,” the voice replied.

The rest of us returned to our work, trying not to imagine what was happening to Kenny.  Several minutes went by before the door opened again and he stepped carefully back into the room.

“Mrs. Ratcliffe, may I please come back in?  I promise I will be good.  I don’t need to go to the office.”  Apparently, he had been out in the hallway all that time and had not yet gone to see the principal!  Maybe now Mrs. Ratcliffe would be convinced of his penitence.  But, alas, we heard her say,

“I’m sorry.  I have already called the office.  They are expecting you.”

Kenny’s head and shoulders slumped even lower as he slowly turned and left the room again.

This time he was gone for quite some time, maybe 30 minutes or so.  Meanwhile, we continued with our lessons while we waited and wondered.

Finally, the door opened and in walked Kenny.  But instead of crying he was almost smiling.  And it wasn’t the smile of one who had gotten away with something.  No, he had the look of someone who had faced the ultimate Unit, and had come out on the other side the better for it.

“May I come in,” he asked politely.

“Have you been to the office, Kenneth?” she asked in reply.

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered, “And I am sorry for my behavior.”

“Did you see Mr. Martinowski?”  This was the question we had all been waiting for.

“Oh, yes,” said Kenny with a mix of relief and cheerfulness.  “We had a long talk.  He is actually quite nice,”

Wow!  Not only had Kenny been spared the usual “encouragement,” he seemed to have made a friend.  My esteem for him, and for Mr. Martinowski, and for Mrs. Ratcliffe rose substantially that day.

“I’m glad,” said Mrs. Ratcliffe.  I studied her face for any hint of sarcasm, like maybe she was disappointed, but there was none.  She could tell that Kenny’s change of demeanor was sincere, and she was glad to have this wizened old kid back in class.

“Please take your seat.”

Ethan’s Magic Locker

“You’ll never believe what happened, Mr. Shaver,” said Ethan.  School had just ended and I was on my way back to BandLand when he stopped me in the hallway to share his story.

“Let’s hear it,” I replied.

“Well, everything was going along fine today, but the strangest thing happened after 6th period.  I went to my locker like always, but when I opened it, everything was gone,” he said.

“Everything?  What do you mean?” I asked.

“Yes, everything.  Papers, books, folders, everything.”

“That must have been a bit unnerving,” I said.  Ethan is a highly motivated student who does his best at everything he tries.  His locker is probably one of the most organized in the school, maybe the world.  The very thought that he would misplace a paper or book – or, heaven forbid, a homework assignment – would cause him severe anxiety.  So I can only imagine how upset he must have been to lose his entire locker…

“So what did you do?” I asked.

“Well, I closed it… then I re-did the combination and opened it again to make sure it wasn’t a trick, or my imagination, or something,” he said, “But everything was still gone.”

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the thought of this, but by this time he was laughing, too.

“What did you do next?”

“Well,” he explained (being a thoughtful young man, Ethan starts a lot of his sentences with the word “Well”), “I went to the office, which is where I found all my stuff on the counter-top.  You see, some student is transferring to another school, so the office staff sent someone to clean out his locker, which is #178, but the person cleaned out locker #78, instead.”

“So it was all a big mistake?”

“Yes.  It was just a misunderstanding.” he finished, clearly relieved.

“Well,” I replied, “Now you have a great story to tell.”

“I sure do!  See you tomorrow,” he said, as he took off to catch his bus.

The Pork Festival

This is my 13th year teaching in the Backpack school system, so today I will march with the Backpack High School Band in my 26th Pork Festival parade.  We kicked off this annual festival two days ago with a small Thursday evening parade, and today at 2:00 the band will take part in the Pork Festival Grand Parade.


For a small Hoosier town this is a big deal.  The fire trucks always lead the way with sirens blaring.  Floats with beauty queens, cheerleaders, sports teams, church groups and politicians – including this year’s candidates for governor – will be interspersed with a half dozen high school marching bands.  Shriners on tricycle motorbikes will thrill the large crowds with daring maneuvers, and the local library staff pushing their decorated book carts will weave back and forth in a choreographed routine that is just as entertaining, and almost as thrilling.

In Indiana you can spend almost every weekend from late August to November at a small town festival.  For instance, there is the Elwood Glass Festival, the Atlanta New Earth Festival, and the Fairmount James Dean Festival (the town where “cool” was born, and Garfield cartoonist Jim Davis, too).  You can visit Frankton for Heritage Days, and Alexandria, whose celebration is actually called the Smalltown Festival.  Or you can go to Martinsville to watch the Fall Foliage Parade, and even New Castle for a Christmas parade in November.  But the Pork Festival boasts the most visitors and biggest parade of them all.

While I expect the crowds to be a little smaller today due to the cool, windy weather and cloudy skies, there will still be several thousand people lining the parade route.  I always enjoy walking alongside the band students and waving to familiar faces in the crowd.  Of course, I didn’t recognize anyone my first year, but today I will see a number of current and former students, parents and friends.  And when the band plays the Backpack school song, I can always tell the natives from the visitors because the outsiders don’t know the traditional clapping pattern that goes along with the song.

Last year’s parade took place in hot, muggy conditions.  As you might expect, some of the band members were pretty worn out by the end.  Thankfully, Pizza Shack, which is at the end of the route, always serves up cups of ice water and soda in their parking lot for the band kids from all the various schools.  Even so, one of our saxophone players, I’ll call her Sandy, felt overcome with the heat.  Personally, I was a bit skeptical since she had a history of feeling overcome by the heat after almost every activity, but there she was, lying on the ground complaining that she felt faint.

So, after conferring with our high school band director Mr. Fletcher, I pulled out my cell phone and called 911.

“9-1-1.  State the nature of your emergency.”  At this, I briefly explained the situation, and asked for an EMT to come assess Sandy’s condition.

“What is your location?” the operator asked.

“Well, I don’t know the exact address,” I began, wondering what I was going to tell this anonymous operator who could be in a far off city for all I knew.  “But, I’m in the Pizza Shack parking lot, which is…”

“Very good.  I will dispatch a unit immediately,” she interrupted.

“Oh – Thank you,” I answered.  “That was easy.”

A moment later, I heard a clanging alarm from nearby.  Looking across the street I saw three medics run out of the firehouse, jump in an ambulance, turn on their siren, and come directly across the street right to where Sandy and I were.

“I love small towns,” I said out loud to myself.

While the EMTs examined Sandy, Mr. Fletcher led the rest of the band back toward the high school, with a stop at the town park on the way.  While there, the band played several pep tunes to entertain the crowd at the car show. Meanwhile, the medics took Sandy to the emergency room, which is across the street from the high school.  I caught up with the band at the park just as they were finishing and walked back to the band room with them.  Arriving at almost the same time, Sandy came in to pack up her instrument and put away her uniform.  She was obviously feeling much better.  Whether her recovery was due to some medicine or to the attention she had received, I couldn’t say, but thankfully, it had been nothing serious after all.

Got to go.  The parade is going to start in just a couple hours.

Generation Gaps

My 8th grade band students played the Star Spangled Banner and the school song with the high school band at the football game Friday night.  They did a great job, too.  It was their first experience out on the field in front of the home town crowd.  More than one parent recorded the event for posterity.

One student had not been able to make it to the event due to a family emergency, but she called me on my cell phone to let me know.  I didn’t recognize her number, so when we hung up I saved it to my contacts folder so my phone would identify her in the future.  As it turned out, she called me two more times with updates, but my phone didn’t display her name either time because she was using different phones.

“How many cell phones do you have?” I asked her.

“Oh.  Well, the first time I used my mom’s phone.  Then, I used my dad’s.  This time I’m calling on my sister’s phone,” she explained.

“I give up,” I said.  “I can’t keep up.”

After the pregame performance the band sat up in the stands to watch the game and play pep tunes.  It was a beautiful evening; the setting sun was painting bright reds and pinks and oranges on the wispy clouds.  I pointed this out to one of my students, who agreed that it was a spectacular sight.

“Wow.  I wish I had my phone,” he said.

I wondered why.  Was he going to call someone and tell them to check out the sunset?  Then I realized, of course, that he wanted to take a picture with his camera phone.  I use my phone for making calls.  My students use their phones for texting, checking the weather, taking pictures, listening to music, and much more.  They only make phone calls when the person on the other end doesn’t text (like me).

Later, while sitting with the band in the stands, I caught the smell of barbecue coming from the concession stand.  Austin got a whiff of it, too.

“Mr. Shaver, do you smell like pulled pork?” he asked me.

“What?  What would make you ask such a question?  Besides, I was going more for a scrambled eggs effect…”

“No,” he laughed, “Can’t you smell, you know, like, the pulled pork in the air?”

“Oh!  Holy cow!  You have got to be more careful how you use the word ‘like’!”

Earlier this week a student asked me how old I am.

“How old do you think I am?” I responded.

“I’ll bet you are in your twenties,” he guessed.

I nearly choked.  Then I gave him some BandLand bonus points.