What a Difference a Year Makes

As I schlepped through the grocery store parking lot today in my yoga pants, hefted Cheech’s carrier into the car seat base and zipped to Scooter’s school to make it in time for carpool pickup, I realized what a tremendous difference a year makes.

Rewind to April 12, 2012. I was a choir teacher in a public Texas high school and I was en route to take my Varsity Women’s Choir to UIL Concert and Sightreading Contest. For the uninitiated, this translates “Hell Week.”

Concert and Sightreading Contest is to choir what high-stakes standardized testing is to academics – in many districts, jobs are won and lost based on the outcome. Hopes will soar and dreams will be dashed. Directors and students alike eat, sleep and drink contest for months in advance, hoping to come home with the coveted “Sweepstakes” – i.e. top scores in both the concert portion and the sight reading portion.

But, like all things in education, an excellent rating on one year’s contest isn’t the result of one year’s work. Building the kind of program that performs well on that one snapshot day often takes years. And for a host of reasons that I won’t explain now, my students had only had 2-3 years of preparation instead of the 5-7 years expected of a group with the name “Varsity Women’s Choir.” Were they on track and even ahead for third-year choral students? Absolutely. But, in the world of U.I.L. Concert & Sightreading, they were David facing a Goliath-sized shopping list of expectations and requirements.

Add to that the sad fact that being in choir on our campus was a rather nerdy thing to do. In the high school social pecking order, we were not only lower than band nerds, we were lower than theater geeks. Really. Even the theater teacher agreed.

Also, we had been handed our hats at Contest the year before and the girls had been working ever since for a better rating. They had stretched themselves way beyond what they thought they could do – subjecting themselves to individual tests in sight reading and song literature, working on small groups together before and after school, extra rehearsals [within U.I.L. guidelines, of course], practicing at home.

I wasn’t sleeping. I was subsisting on crackers and diet soda. I recorded our rehearsals and nit-picked them at home. Scooter fell ill and I left him with the (“He’s No Florence Nightingale”) Hubs because I. Could. Not. Miss. Rehearsal!!! I consulted a bevy of seasoned vets for improvements, suggestions, good karma. And, oh, yes, I was three months pregnant and leaving at the end of the school year, and my precious students had had to be told because I was showing.

So, Contest wasn’t just about Contest. It was about making a good memory with a teacher they loved, about being rewarded for their efforts, about revenge, about being recognized and validated. And in no small part, it was about being seen as worthy of positive attention. Worthy of a larger investment of time and resources by their school and community.

The air on that bus was clouded with fear, love, determination and hope. And bus exhaust, of course.

Now, skip to the end. We won. For the first time in a really long time, they won a real award at a real contest. Not a Sweepstakes – but the highest possible rating in Concert. And, it was delicious and deserved. It was beautiful. Tears-in-your eyes, moment-of-hush-before-applause beautiful. I had traveled with a bunch of scared little girls, but I got to ride home with a band of proud, war-whooping warriors. They were full of vision. They had tasted victory. Next year is going to be awesome! Sweepstakes, here we come!

Except, it isn’t.

The program is all but dead. And next week is Contest – but, they aren’t going.

There are a lot of reasons. But, that’s not why I’m writing today. I’m not writing to finger-point or be snarky. I’ll save that for something less holy than the death of children’s dreams.

I’m writing today because those kids are and will always be worthy of my attention. Worthy of an investment of my time. And I think they are worthy of yours. I thank you for reading about them.


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