As we start a new school year, I recall that there might be few people more miserable than a seventh-grade boy whose voice is changing in a choral music class — the kind of class where youngsters are expected to sing every day. That’s the situation I found myself in many years ago at Robinson Junior High School in Wichita, Kan.
Fortunately, James Hardy was the teacher. He adored music and wanted everyone to love it. And he would not give up on me, although the “notes” coming out of my mouth were always unpredictable and often awful.
Hardy produced incredible music with seventh- and eighth-graders. I remember listening on the risers during our concerts. Mr. Hardy and I agreed that I would stand and mouth the words on most songs. I rarely “sang.”
There were exceptions. One was the “Little Drummer Boy,” generally sung around Christmas. “Come, they told me — pa rupa-pa-pum — our new born king to see — pa rupa-pa-pum. Our finest gifts we bring — pa rupa-pa-pum — to lay before the king — pa-rupa-pa-pum.”
We sang it in four parts. For some reason, my vocal chords did all right with the notes in this song that represented the drum. Singing that song is one of my favorite memories. It produced huge applause during our “Christmas concerts.” We had four of them, two for other students, two for families. (Here’s a version from the Harry Simeone Chorale that shows how beautiful the song is, and the drum part I sang: http://bit.ly/dFMDnH.)
This was many years ago, when students in Wichita and some other public schools began each day with “The Lord’s Prayer,” drew pictures of “the baby Jesus” and sang Christian songs. But that’s a subject for another day.
One of the things that I honor about Mr. Hardy is that he did not focus on what I couldn’t do. He helped me, and other guys whose voices also were changing, see what we could do. Smiling, he praised us for working hard and contributing to the concerts. He convinced me that he really meant it when he thanked me for working hard and being part of the choir.
Yes, he praised the youngsters whose voices were great. He helped some of them win statewide awards. His concerts were well-known for their beauty and creativity. Our concerts drew many people, not just the families.
What I remember most, however, is not just the beautiful music he helped immature seventh- and eighth-graders produce. What I remember most was his kindness and enthusiasm.
After 12 years at Robinson Junior High, Mr. Hardy was hired by Wichita State University. He became chair of the WSU Music Education Department. He died five years ago at age 84.
Some might say Mr. Hardy wasted his time at Robinson, that he should have been at Wichita State much earlier. I disagree. I had a chance to see and thank him many years later.
“Some of my best work was at Robinson,” he recalled.
I agree. He did what many great teachers do: He encouraged. He didn’t solve all my problems or anyone’s problems. He did help young people accomplish far more than they thought possible.
Here’s a drum salute to great teachers.
Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at email@example.com.