THIS ( HOPEFUL) LIFE
MY son attends a no- uniform high school. There are 1300 students. When I pick him up after school and all that life force pours out of the buildings, these students look, to my middle- aged eyes, like the daggiest bunch of young people I have seen: all hair, cleavage and clothes that don ’t fit.
They carry backpacks that will surely cause them back problems, and black instrument cases. These kids are in bands of all kinds: symphonic, jazz, stage, concert.
My son is in the training band. Every Wednesday at 7.15am he is one of 100 Year 7 students who turn up at the school for practice.
How do you get 100 or so 12- year- olds to play in an old- fashioned orchestra? Surely this is not cool? Surely this is cause for ridicule and teasing? Surely young people today don ’t do musical instruments? But no, not at this school. They do it all. It ’ s not cool, it ’s not uncool, it just is. Well, this parent thinks it ’ s a miracle.
A miracle, but not that much of a miracle that the musical director could announce the training band ’ s first public performance two months after they had started music lessons. Those of us who had listened to our children struggle with their new instruments were startled by the announcement. What was this man thinking? Had he not heard them play?
The answer didn ’t matter because the night was set, the children were dressed to rival the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and a couple of hundred parents and friends turned up to witness this centurion effort. The children
Frere Jacques , Baa, Baa, Black Sheep and played Old MacDonald Had a Farm , but the parents heard Stravinsky ’ s The Rite of Spring performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. They sounded good, very good.
The response was explosive. Audience members didn ’ t just clap, they created a ruckus that would make the Rolling Stones proud. While the band was a picture of decorum, the parents were an unruly mass who wouldn ’ t stay in their seats. Some just sobbed with joy. Could this hall contain all of this parental elation? What was this about? Well, pride and joy — our children in an orchestra — but much more than that. Every day a child represents their years of effort, joy, frustration, hope, fear and love. That night the parents were rewarded for the effort in ways we hadn ’t been expecting: a faint but insistent message from the future that our children were going to be OK in this world. Look at these children. Look at what they could achieve.
The message from the present was loud and clear: it ’ s the teachers, stupid. These teachers and the musical director give up their mornings, afternoons, evenings and some weekends for this music program. And along with teaching the children to play musical instruments, they throw in perseverance, presentation, performance, pride, co- operation and camaraderie. The musical director had pushed them forward, ready or not, and that expectation of readiness had made them ready. Expect the best and get it. While some of the parents had been underestimating their children, the teachers had not.
This school is 80 years old. The hall in which this band performance took place is old and dank. The school grounds are small, and if schools were judged on their buildings this one would win an ugliest school competition. Ah, but what goes on inside, what goes on inside.
Public education may be on the way out, but at Eltham High it ’s going out screaming. Take a bow, Mr Waterworth, take a bow.