The New Music Teacher

Submitted into Contest #198 in response to: Write a story about an unconventional teacher.... view prompt

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Contemporary American Fiction

Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything. – PLATO

The new music teacher, driving his own car (foreign, don’t you know), arrived in town in August, two weeks ahead of the start of the term. But gossip and speculation, traveling at near the speed of light, had preceded him by several days.

Our curious minds had so many questions that cried out for answers. Was he going to be a strict teacher? By sheer coincidence, Ronnie had a cousin in another town in the same state, two-hundred miles away. The cousin happened to live near the new music teacher’s family, actually delivered papers to their house, and could fill in some of the blanks. As to his possible strictness, nobody knew, because he was coming to our school straight out of teacher’s college.

But, why had he chosen to come and teach at our small-town collegiate? One had to start somewhere. Why music? He had a BMus from Curtis (wherever that was) and played the piano (very well, went the rumor). Would he be teaching any other subjects? The cousin hazarded a guess: maybe, possibly, geography. From one of the girls, who giggled: was the new music teacher handsome? Some had said so. From another, a senior: was he married? No. Young hearts began to flutter.

Young, handsome, and unmarried. A teacher, yes. But in our callow, hormone-driven and already sexually-charged minds, also a potential rival. So, by the time Mitchell Tennyson stepped into a classroom in our town to begin his first teaching job, he had acquired a new name, and one not of his own choosing. In the way of inspired teenage wags everywhere, we had re-anointed him. In ninth grade poetry the previous term, we had agonizingly struggled with deconstructing The Lady of Shalott, and its creator. So, Mitchell initially became Lord Alfred, and then, later, after we actually saw him for the first time, little Lord Alfred.

Oh, not to his face, you understand. But behind his back and sotto voce, further audibly camouflaged under the subdued clamor of students moving in a herd over the creaky oak-floored hallways between classes, where teachers’ lives, loves and libidos were discussed in hushed murmurs. His name also often came up in quick, huddled conspiratorial conflabs by the rows of student lockers. Some teachers belonged, and some didn’t. Was he our sort? We thought, not.

And certainly, he became the principal subject of guarded, late-night telephone conversations (this was in the Internet’s early days, before social media), which had begun ostensibly about homework but had quickly veered into assumption, conjecture and hearsay about him, all tinged with the salaciousness that inevitably crept into almost every such discussion we had. Did young, unmarried teachers have a sex life? They must, mustn’t they? So, what about him?

We acquired our biases by setting a fine-mesh net that seined minnows of data from a deep sea of often questionable intelligence, and none were thrown back for being factually in error. So, Mitchell Tennyson’s biography, and his reputation, fertilized and watered by word of mouth in a fecund environment slathered with the humectants of teenage social-discourse, grew rapidly and sprouted new branches, many of these ringed with pure fiction. It was the way our minds worked back then, and perhaps the way teenage minds still work, everywhere.

On the first day of term, our sentries breathlessly reported that the new music teacher had arrived at school, just after eight a.m. He had parked his car on a side street under a towering maple that was showing its first tinge of yellow (the leaves turned early that year) and made his way unobtrusively into the building, quietly settling into his homeroom, behind a closed door. For the previous two weeks he had been an ethereal quality often spoken about, but heretofore never seen; a mysterious and tantalizing form without substance. Now he was actually here in the flesh.

The reality was not promising.

The car was the first thing to be dissected, and cast aside as wanting. In our cloistered world, narrowly defined by network television and glossy image-heavy magazines published in New York, our parents (and the odd, lucky, teenager in our crowd) drove American cars. Anything else, with the exception of, say, Volkswagen Beetles (which were ubiquitous, and therefore socially acceptable), was, well, foreign. So just what the hell was a Vauxhall, anyway?

Putting the questionable car aside for the moment, what else did we know for certain about him? So far only seen from a distance (walking from his parked car to the school), Lord Alfred was reported to have a full head of hair (unlike the hulking Mr. Montford, the two-term phys-ed teacher, whose student-anointed and clandestinely-spoken (but, fondly) appellation was: Baldy Mountain), and be a snappy dresser.

On this first day of term, the new music teacher was wearing a light-gray houndstooth sports jacket, neatly-pressed dark gabardine dress-slacks, and stylish black oxfords polished to a high enough sheen that they gave off a wink as he stepped up over a curb in the early-morning sunlight. This was, according to one of the girls, who sighed; ‘a dreamy combination’. Many of us in our washed-out jeans, flayed-cuff chinos and tired tee-shirts – shod in scuffy New Balance and Nike runners with torn eyelets and soiled laces – remained unconvinced. In our certain world of pigeon-holed opinion, clothes alone did not make the person.

In the administrative churn and turmoil that always began a new term, it was three full days before any of our sophomore-cadre actually got to come into contact with the new music teacher in his musicological environment. Nine of us had been squeezed in with a frosh class of thirteen, bringing the total number in the classroom for the fifty-minute period, to twenty-four; twenty-two students, Lord Alfred and an upright piano. And it was then that we quickly amended his wag-tagged epithet, and he became known in our student-underworld parlance as little Lord Alfred.

Because, visually measuring him standing beside his piano in that classroom, and when he went to close the door and we could see that the doorknob came up above his midsection, it was obvious to everyone that the new music teacher was a small man.

With the exception of his head – which was sized for a much larger individual – from the neck down he was pleasingly proportioned, with the broad shoulders and narrow waist of an athlete. But in vertical stature, he would have had to straighten fully and stretch to reach 5-feet 8-inches in height. And, in our sophomoric eyes, this physical diminution lessened his credibility, both as a teacher and as a man. In our unsophisticated worldview, brute size equated to masculinity, and for most of us, the question of sexual preference did not even factor into our thinking. A man was a man.

Our porous minds had soaked up the ideal of maleness from the pop culture channels we had been exposed to and we knew with the smug and absolute certainty of adolescence that the new music teacher was missing several measures on that scale.

Oh, he may have been handsome (we grudgingly gave him that, after several of the girls we lusted after had commented on his screen-actor good looks) with his chiseled facial features, dark wavy hair, and dimpled chin. And we had to admit that he dressed well; he had a different sports jacket for each day of the school-week, and we never saw him without a tie.

One of our own, Gordo, even treasonously suggested one day that the dress-shirts with the deep, button-down collars that the new music teacher wore might possibly be considered ‘cool’; he had seen them featured in a mail-order clothing catalogue that came into his parents’ house. This unexpected treachery was not immediately shouted down, as the culprit was a half-year older, and larger than any of the rest of us. Gordo also had a nasty temper and did not take contradiction from his peers well. We were quick to let it slide.

We consoled ourselves with scoffing about the obvious; of course little Lord Alfred dressed himself up to the bloody nines. He could afford it. After all, he was a bloody teacher, with a teacher’s bloody salary, wasn’t he? But, his pleasing (to some) profile and expensive sartorial splendor notwithstanding, there was something about him that was just off. And, in case anyone hadn’t noticed lately, oh my God, that car!

The new music teacher seemed to have taken our collective measure early. He understood just who he was dealing with, and did not try to pander to us or to make friends with us, as some teachers did. His métier was classical music and he did his qualified best to instill an appreciation of it in our teenage brains, although, looking back, one might well have had better luck trying to drive a toothpick into a steel beam with a four-pound sledge hammer.

Notwithstanding this challenge, he remained a professional, allowing us to come into his classroom twice a week to be taught music; those students at least who actually had an interest in learning about, or playing, music, or both, and some affinity and talent for absorbing the subject, were taught. And if they asked questions, and he couldn’t answer them fully in the classroom, he would make the time to work with them after class.

But, as for the rest of us, those without any musical talent and who were essentially uninterested in the subject but needed the basic course credit, he dutifully presented the lesson material, a primer of textbook-theory as well as actual sheet music, explained it in class, and showed us how it was played on the piano, which, we conceded among ourselves, he did play quite well (as if we were any judge).

But if we did not choose to further extend ourselves, neither did he. We were left on our own to flounder and fail the course, and many did. Part way through the term, those who realized that it was happening, and they were unlikely to pass because it was too late to catch up on the work they had ignored or missed, ratcheted up the resentment that had been slowly building, against the new music teacher.

Little Lord Alfred remained aloof and standoffish with the majority of the students in his music classes. He also kept himself very much to himself in his personal life. Even his homeroom students knew very little about him, or they were fantastically loyal, because we, frustrated with regurgitating the known factual-gossip, as well as that which we had invented, did our utmost to dig up new dirt about him, away from the school. We longed for a scandal.

We took turns in tailing him when he left school for the day, to try and find out more about his personal life; where he went to kick back, who his friends were (he did not socialize with the other teachers), and did he have any vices? 

We followed him once to a park and observed him from a distance. He sat on a bench, apparently relaxing, for thirty minutes and fed peanuts to a squirrel. We followed him to the town’s only music store and loitered among the shelves. He bought two classical CDs, and, after he left, our attempt to interrogate the proprietor came to nothing – he was discreetly close-lipped, and gently shooed our teenage sleuth from the store. We followed him to the supermarket, where, in addition to the milk, orange juice and spaghetti noodles that he put in his cart, we also found out that he apparently had a taste for Fig Newtons (but, where was the scandal in that?).

We tried our damnedest, but all of our augered attempts to unearth fresh, juicy tattle about the new music teacher ended up with dry holes. Occasionally he would drive out of town at the end of a school day going somewhere mysterious for the evening, perhaps (we speculated) to meet someone special. We never found out where, or who, because on the first of these sojourns our watcher was forced to give up the chase after ten miles, pleading an almost-empty gas-tank in his parents’ station-wagon. And, he thought he may have been spotted. It seemed futile to try a second time. 

We were far from subtle. Little Lord Alfred must have sensed our curiosity and our antics to peep into the shadows of his personal life. And he wisely continued to keep this private, even from the students he was close to. This allowed him to remain an enigma, until one day just after mid-term he accidently, carelessly, or perhaps deliberately, dropped his guard, and we were able to pry up a flange of his armor that covered a vulnerable and vital spot.

One morning in early January after the holidays, the new music teacher arrived in class nattily dressed as usual in sharply-pressed chocolate-colored trousers (Gordo, who knew about these things, told us that they were serge) and a tan-colored suede blazer that we hadn’t seen before (Christmas gifts from his family, maybe?). Unlike his usual intense and severely-focused classroom-mien, he seemed infused on this occasion with an apparent spirit of good will (something that was completely new and novel, at least to those of us outside his favored-student circle – Little Lord Alfred with an actual smile on his face? What was the world coming to?).

He had brought with him a small, shiny-blue, portable CD player (the color was all wrong, but other than that it resembled a land mine one might bury to blow up a tank), and a copy of a two-disc CD-set titled: Van Cliburn – Piano favorites. He did not ask us to open our books (as he usually did), nor did he then sit down at his piano to play a short piece of classical music before beginning to quiz us on its origins and its merits (ditto). Also, he did not explain one word about who or what we were about to hear.

“Good morning, class,” he said, cheerfully. “I want you to listen to this.”

He plugged the player into a wall outlet, inserted a CD, pressed the play button and then sat down at his desk, closed his eyes and relaxed. His expectation obviously was that we would do the same. So, for the next forty-five minutes we listened to the music of Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Mozart, played as only a highly-skilled concert pianist could render their work. When the bell rang to end the period, he punched the off button on the player, without saying a word. As we filed out of the room, we noticed that he had tears in his eyes.

Exposing his humanity, was a mistake. We went for blood.

The impromptu concert-in-the-classroom became the topic of frenetic discussion over the next couple of days. We didn’t know Van Cliburn from Van Johnson, Van Morrison, Jean-Claude Van Damme or Allied Van Lines, for that matter, but we had resources and set out to quickly learn much more about the pianist who could bring the new music teacher to tears in front of his class. We wanted leverage that we could use to our advantage.

Eric’s father was a news editor, and a dive into the archives at the local newspaper office under his supervision dredged up everything that we wanted to know about the mysterious pianist we had heard on that CD, and more.

We learned that Van Cliburn was, according to yellowed old articles (he became famous well before our time), a musical wunderkind who had begun to play the piano at the age of three. He had won a statewide piano competition at the age of twelve. He went on to study at Juilliard (thanks to the new music teacher, by this time we were all well versed in the merits of the Juilliard School).

Van Cliburn had made his debut at Carnegie Hall (thanks to our music classes, we also recognized this name) and had wowed the world at age twenty-three, when he won an international competition in Moscow during the Cold War. He had been featured on the cover of Time Magazine and had played for royalty and presidents. His fame had been compared with Elvis Presley’s (so cool), and (this impressed us above all else), his records and CDs had sold more than three million copies.

We also learned three other things about Van Cliburn. He was a Texan, he was still alive then, and he was 6-feet 4-inches tall. The first two facts were of no consequence to us, but the last one we could take and shape for our own use, especially when someone pointed out that, except for the height, there was an uncanny resemblance between Van Cliburn’s photo on the CD cover, and the new music teacher.

And so, out of nothing but our febrile imaginations, we created an entirely new back-story for little Lord Alfred. He was a wannabe Van Cliburn, but only half the size, with half the talent. He had fallen back on teaching because he couldn’t make it as a concert pianist. It was small-minded. It was malicious. It was effective. Because, our shameful rumormongering very soon reached the ears of the whole school, including the other teachers.

The new music teacher’s contract was not renewed for a second term. He chugged unobtrusively out of town in his Vauxhall the week after final exams. None of our crowd took notice. He had spent less than a year with us, and we had broken him, or so we thought.

I read his obituary yesterday. He had taught one year, then went on to tour the world as a successful concert pianist. His last concert was at Carnegie Hall.

May 19, 2023 23:49

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1 comment

Mary Bendickson
06:47 May 20, 2023

Never know when you may be in the company of genius.


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