Brevity Fourteen

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The Music Teachers of St. Augustine's Elementary

By Suzanne Rivecca

None of them last long. The first one is large and imposing, wearing blue shirt-dresses that swing just above her nylon calves. Her hair is iron-gray and swept into a stiff marcelled helmet, and her glasses have silver chains. On the first day she marches in, faces us, and sings out stridently:

“Hel-lo, boys and girls!”

We stare at her. She continues to sing.

“Re-peat after me!” Her singing is completely joyless, militaristic, her voice full-bodied but corroded with rust, like the iron hull of a great ship. “Repeat!” she sings. “Hel-lo, boys and girls!”

Lamely, we half-murmur, half-sing, “Hello boys and girls.’

“No!” she roars. She is still singing. “I’m not a boy! I’m not a girl! I am Mrs. Stykos!”

We stare.

“I say, ‘hel-lo, boys and girls;’ you say, ‘hel-lo Mrs. Stykos!’ One more time we’ll try a-gain!”

She will not stop singing. Throughout her brief tenure, she sings every word. We are supposed to do the same. When we forget and speak normally — “Can I go to the bathroom?”— she makes us sing it to her, with that ramrod, stiff-spined, Hitler-Youth enunciation, until she is satisfied. She yells and screams, veins bulging like exposed wires in her shiny forehead, but always in song. She makes some of us cry. It is disconcerting to be reprimanded in the key of F; it is like a musical, like Annie Get Your Gun gone horribly wrong and turned on you in wrath.

One day she does not come. There is no explanation. In her place is a young woman with Candies sneakers, stringy Suzanne Vega hair, and plastic-framed glasses. She has not only composed her own song, but has choreographed a bizarre dance to complement it. We learn that she expects us to shamble aimlessly around the classroom, twiddling our wrists cucaracha-style, while singing

The Virgin Mary had a baby boy
The Virgin Mary had a baby boy
The Virgin Mary had a baby boy
And she said that His name was—
HUH!!!—
Je-SUS!


At the climax of the stanza—that grunting, vaguely lustful, crudely declarative HUH!!!—we are instructed to freeze in place and stamp one foot down hard. Then let the name of Jesus burst from our lips, a big post-boom like the aftershock of an earthquake, give it a second to sink in, and start all over from the beginning.

We perform this song at the Christmas recital, throwing ourselves into it with half-mocking abandon, making the HUH as basely suggestive and lascivious as possible, rolling our little wrists like flamenco dancers and bringing our feet down hard on the stage, a big collective thump for Jesus that leaves the teacher beaming with pride, the principal puzzled, and the parents aghast. The Candies lady does not return after Christmas break.

Instead there is a man. He is the only male we have ever seen sing anything besides hymns, in front of us, on purpose. He has a black mustache and he conducts us as we go through the scales, his eyes closed, his narrow face twisted as if in pain or ecstasy. He plays classical music on a record player and closes his eyes.

There are rumors among us:

He is gay.

He is a child molester.

He is the long-lost son of Mrs. Stykos, or the long-lost lover of the Candies lady.

Mr. Swinzick doesn’t last either, because we drive him out. He doesn’t do anything wrong. He just fails to convince us of his authority. Mrs. Stykos and the Candies lady were hated, but accepted as the natural doyennes—tyrannical and cartoonish, flaky but eminently self-assured—of scales and dances and dippy songs. That was their province. Mr. Swinzick, on the other hand, does not belong among us. He was not made to corral and bully us into musical literacy via John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt. And so he is rejected, instinctively expelled from our sullen presence like a pathogen swarmed and flushed out by antibodies. Before we know it, we have mocked and taunted and ignored him into sheer insensibility, and he quits.
Some of us feel bad. Some of us don’t. Then comes the next one, a blonde lady in a striped turtleneck sweater. She smells like unwashed hair, and her favorite thing is to make us sing Kumbaya while waving our hands above our heads—

“Reach for the sky, kids—oh, Lor-ord, Kumbaya—“

and, like twenty warring conductors’ batons, day after day, our small arms all go up.


Suzanne Rivecca is originally from Michigan and is currently in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota. Her work has appeared in So to Speak: a feminist journal of literature and art and is upcoming in The Peralta Press Literary Journal.

 

 

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