I saw in the paper this morning that the last surviving member of the holy trinity passed away. Granted, an odd statement for the beginning of Holy Week, but in this case I’m referring to three teachers I knew in the beginning of my career who were collectively (and fondly) known as the holy trinity.
These ladies taught classroom music and directed elementary choirs in five different buildings and were absolute pillars of the school district. They wore suits, dresses, and heels and were never seen without lipstick and perfectly coiffed hair. Their classrooms resounded with children’s voices, real acoustic pianos expertly played, click-clacking rhythm instruments and little feet dancing and moving. As a young and woefully inexperienced teacher, I was in absolute awe of them and learned so much from their professionalism and the way they nurtured the joy of music in youngsters. Toward the end of their careers, much to their chagrin, they also had to teach instrumental music when the gentleman responsible for the elementary band program fell asleep in one too many lessons. And yet, they took it in stride, digging out long-unused instruments from their college days and making a success of the band as well.
Every spring, they would combine all of the young singers into an annual extravaganza called the Elementary Music Festival. For a week each April, instruction in the elementary schools would literally grind to a halt, because half the students were being bussed to the high school each day to practice for the festival. No one messed with the Music Festival. There were no field trips scheduled and the high school musical stopped rehearsals so the kids could have the stage for their production. And what a production it was– scenery and costumes, choreography and soloists, all culminating in a grand finale of several hundred nine- and ten-year-old’s stacked on risers singing their hearts out. I suspect if you would ask many former students what they remember most about their elementary years, the music festival would be near the top of the list.
Those days, sadly, are long gone. The idea of taking several afternoons away from our now “rigorous” classrooms and standardized test preparation to sing together with others would simply not be permitted. Administrators and teachers would be aghast. Oh, the test scores, the ranking of the school, the IEP’s and the benchmarks—how could we possibly even entertain such an idea? The fact that today’s music educators still manage to pull off excellent performances is nothing short of miraculous, when they are thwarted at every turn.
The holy trinity ladies taught in a kinder, gentler public school, one I remember from the first half of my career. Before technology, before the insidious standardized testing and before the horrors of school shootings. When we were allowed to call programs in December Christmas concerts without worrying about lawsuits. (Don’t get me wrong—I believe there are many positives about political correctness, but really, I don’t think anyone is going to be damaged for life because they sang a Christmas carol when they were in fifth grade.) The last few years I taught, winter concert programs literally had to be submitted to the superintendent for approval to make sure that selections did not reflect any kind of religious bias.
These were the days when people seemed less angry and more forgiving. When we didn’t react with such vehemence to the slightest mistake or perceived offense. When the doors to learning were always open, and we didn’t have to worry about scanning ourselves into a building and being fingerprinted in the office. When instead of logging onto a substitute teacher website, you called your principal at home when you were sick and if that didn’t make you think twice about faking it, nothing would. And as much as technology has expanded our world and provided opportunities beyond anything dreamed of in the days of the holy trinity ladies, I think somewhere we’ve lost a piece of our humanity. Of saying the hell with the rules and the protocols in the human resources manual, this is what needs to be done right now from the standpoint of love and common sense.
I will never forget the day one of the holy trinity ladies’ husbands died very suddenly and she was told the news in the school office by her adult daughter and her pastor. It happened to be music festival week, and everyone pitched in, covering rehearsals for her and taking on all of her responsibilities so that the show could go on as scheduled. That school district bore her up and came together like a family caring for one of its own. Based on what I hear from colleagues who are still teaching, I’m not so sure that would happen anymore.
So, rest in peace, dear holy trinity ladies. The world in which you taught has changed dramatically, but we will always need children singing and teachers like you to lead them. I am sure there are young angels in heaven just waiting for you to say, “Good morning boys and girls. Let’s start with “My Country Tis’ of Thee.”