Tuesday, Dec. 2, 1986
“Ladies and gentlemen. Ladies and gentlemen!”
Ms. Van Fleet provided her standard five-second pause before issuing her third and final demand for silence. In turn, my class offered its usual act of obligatory defiance, ignoring the music teacher’s request. She was a creature of routine, and we knew it. When you have the same teacher for eight years straight, you get a decent idea of how far you can push things.
In all fairness, we should have been better behaved. It was Ms. Van Fleet’s first day at work since the school year began, laid up for several weeks because of back surgery that didn’t go as planned. But we remained true to middle school form, a bunch of self-centered brats who couldn’t care less about anything else.
“LADIES! AND! GENTLEMEN! WE CAN DO THIS NOW OR WE CAN DO IT AT RECESS! THE CHOICE IS ENTIRELY YOURS!”
And there it was. The pasture full of rambunctious calves finally hit the electric fence and got their noses zapped.
We stopped our jabbering and giggling, faced forward, came to attention. At least as much attention as a room full of seventh graders could muster three weeks before Christmas vacation.Ms. Van Fleet was a bit eccentric. In seventh grade terms, a total weirdo.
“Thank you,” Ms. Fleet said demurely. “Now we have a situation to deal with here. We have a little holiday concert to put on for our families in two weeks, and because of my situation, not a thing done for it. As my first class of the day, I’m asking you to help me plan the music for our big night. Doing so would earn you some free time on Friday, not to mention my eternal gratitude.”
She held her hands together in a praying position in front of her chest and bowed slightly with her eyes closed.
Ms. Van Fleet was a bit eccentric. In seventh grade terms, a total weirdo.
She was a portly, rosy-cheeked woman in her early 50s, a train-wreck of interests and tastes. The deferential bow she gave was part of her obsession with Asian culture, as was the pink, flowery kimono she wore each Tuesday. This passion culminated every spring in the middle school production of The King and I, a weekend-long affair that included an Asian dinner for the community and three off-key performances by a bunch of pubescent kids who didn’t want to be there. In cold weather, Ms. Van Fleet liked to wear a flannel jacket over her kimono, as well as a tall, black, stovepipe hat that had a turkey feather sticking out of the back. Also a tattered pair of brown cowboy boots.
On weekends, Ms. Van Fleet and two of her pals played in an autoharp trio in a backroom at the Comfort Rock Public Library as Mistresses of the Chorded Zither. They mostly played traditional sea shanties and murder ballads.
Like I said, eccentric.
“What I’d like you to do,” she said, walking gingerly up and down the rows of desks, handing out sheets of paper, “is take this list of songs and put the grade number next to the song you think they should sing. There are 10 songs here. One for each class, K through 8, plus an all-sing to close out the show. Please choose songs appropriate for the grade level.”
Seventeen sighs – my own included – rose as one, filling the room with exasperation.
“Ms. Van Fleet? This is the same stuff as every year we’ve been here,” Dave Richards said. “It’s lame.”
Shock and exasperation spread across the teacher’s face.
“Lame? Young man, there is something to be said for tradition, and even if the choice was to break tradition, this wouldn’t be the year to do it. Not on this schedule.”
“Yeah, but …”
“David, please. Now just take 10 minutes and do this for me.”
“Can we work together?” I asked.
“Together? This isn’t a project, Lauren. All I want you to do is write numbers next to song titles.”
“Yeah, but if we can agree on stuff in groups, that’s less votes to sort out. Right?”
Ms. Van Fleet tapped her finger on the desk in front of her and wrinkled her forehead, deep in thought.
“That’s not a bad idea,” she said after a few moments. “But if this turns into social hour or fighting over choices, it’s back to working alone. Three groups of four and one group of five. Go.”
To be continued …
THE COMFORT ROCK CHRONICLES IS AN ONGOING SERIES OF SHORT STORIES ABOUT A FICTITIOUS VERMON TOWN, AN AMALGAM OF ALL NORTHWEST VERMONT HAS TO OFFER. COMFORT ROCK HAS BEEN GROWING IN MY HEAD FOR WELL OVER 20 YEARS. I REALLY LIKE THE FOLKS WHO CALL COMFORT ROCK HOME, AND I HOPE YOU DO TOO.