Friday, 27 December 2013

The Christmas Concert

According to Ankita Pathak, the ten things most hated by children are parental divorce, homework, vegetables, bed time, hair cuts, vaccination, exams, being picked last for a team, medicine and, in certain cases, their siblings. Missing from this list is Thomas Edison whom my ten-year old stepson regards as much worse than at least a few of the things traditionally despised by children. Ask him about Thomas Edison and he throws his head back, his nostrils flare and he speaks with greater force than is strictly necessary: 'I hate that guy!'

The children in his class have each adopted an historical character upon which to make a presentation. Junior, having picked Nikola Tesla, has discovered that Thomas Edison killed an elephant by electrocution as part of a campaign to discredit the selfsame Tesla. Junior probably likes elephants at least as much as he likes the Serbian American inventor and father of alternating current, and he seems to have taken this unpleasant historical detail personally.

It's the Thursday morning before Christmas. We arrive at the school and head for the classroom wherein Junior is about to channel Nikola Tesla before an audience of his peers. As we shuffle into a line at the back of the class - all four of us - the performance has already begun. One of the other kids wears a tassled jacket and a coonskin cap and is telling us about Davy Crockett. We later discover there to be two Davy Crocketts amongst Junior's classmates, but if it seems an obvious choice, it isn't entirely arbitrary given the significant role of the frontiersman in the history of both the Alamo and San Antonio. The current Davy Crockett is a girl, one of Junior's best friends, and daughter to the Pace family who went into business with the Pace Foods company back in the 1940s. This information is astonishing to me as I've been eating Pace salsa for at least the last decade. It was the only decent salsa I could get my hands on in England when I couldn't be bothered to make my own, and now here I am in Texas watching the fruits of a private education paid for in some small way by my love of Mexican food.

There are now six parents in attendance, all of us lined up at the back of the class, conspicuously outsized and awkward in a room full of small excitable, children. Davy Crockett finishes her address and scurries to where her parents are stood alongside us, and Junior takes the floor. He's been styled by his grandmother, herself a teacher at a school on the southside, and makes for a very convincing Tesla with his suit and toy cat, hair parted just so and a glued-on moustache which seems unusually natural and gives him an uncanny authority, like the Ron Swanson character from NBC's television comedy Parks & Recreation. He speaks well and clearly, introducing himself to his classmates as Nikola Tesla before explaining the details of his fame. I am surprised and impressed that a ten-year old boy is capable of such a performance. He shows no stage fright and delivers his testimony without hesitation. His audience is transfixed.

My wife and I share a raised eyebrow as our boy fancifully describes Tesla inventing a death ray, now supposedly held by the FBI at some secure facility. He leans into the words, emphasising death ray with portentous conviction just to let us know we're through the looking glass now, people. Clearly he's been handed the wrong end of the stick on this particular detail, but the rest of the presentation has been of such moment that it would seem churlish to split one specific hair; and besides, he's moved on, already describing that which Tesla foresaw in his dreams. One of these supposed predictions is understood by Junior to be a bird with laser eyes, which he describes with the same dramatic emphasis as the death ray.

'I want a bird with laser eyes,' one of the children calls out, excited.

'I am a bird with laser eyes!' boasts one of the others, rising wide-eyed from his seat as though about to swoop down on someone.

The presentation ends, and we file out of the room, my wife and I, plus Junior's father and Wendy whom one might regard as stepmother, roughly speaking. Our boy effectively has four parents, lucky kid. Maybe it is this arguably unorthodox arrangement which informs his occasionally peculiar character, choosing an obscure inventor over Davy Crockett, Babe Ruth, or some other more conventionally famous name for his presentation. In any case, for once we are all proud of him at the same time.

The private schooling is paid for by his father's side of the family. It wasn't necessarily our first choice, but we have no objection as we couldn't afford the fees, and it's a good school in so much as Junior is not only learning stuff, but has made friends and is happy. This is not something we take for granted as he spent the previous three years at a different school and didn't get on so well. It was similarly a private school - or public school as is the seemingly contradictory American term. It's in San Antonio and deems itself an academy, and I'll withhold further identification because it is run by and caters to people whose fortunes were not made by playing nice. For some reason, its teaching staff were not required to have any formal teaching qualification, and both my wife and myself feel strongly that this showed in their treatment of our boy. Whilst Junior may be quite fairly described as a handful, his teachers were unable to cope with him, or apparently to teach him anything despite this being their job. My wife would sometimes receive three or four emails a day informing us that Junior had just spent five minutes gazing out of the window whilst failing to do his work, or had spent an unacceptable ten minutes on a toilet break. Somehow these were crimes in which academy staff were ill-equipped to intervene. We tried to imagine what they actually did with their time besides sending out emails, and we wondered what would happen in the event of a pupil doing something that would genuinely warrant a letter to the parents. Teaching, we concluded, was most probably conducted by a sort of psychic osmosis, with pupils merely held in the presence of educational materials in the hope that the information would transfer itself to their thoughts.

Junior presented a solitary figure at the school, and with hindsight we have come to realise how he must have been fairly unhappy there, at least in comparison to how obviously happy he is now. Eventually a meeting was called regarding what was to be done about our boy. This was conducted in the presence of five members of staff and a child psychologist whose most profound insight seemed to be that each and every event of a child's upbringing must be considered a source of potential trauma. The group sat frowning as they focused their expertise and solemn authority not upon a child who had stabbed anyone, robbed a bank, or set buildings on fire, but a small boy whose grades could have been better and who was bored in class, a small boy who occasionally sat looking out of the window. The absurdity of the situation, that it could even be regarded as a situation, seemed to me typical of a certain stratum of American society - specifically the stratum with too much money - which imagines its every word to constitute an announcement issued forth whilst stood between Ionic columns, with no issue so trivial that it cannot be taken far too seriously. We have the same deal in England, but in England it's more widely acknowledged as bullshit.

I myself was not invited to this meeting, and my dealings with the school were limited to headachey Christmas concerts in which we would file into the gymnasium and find ourselves subjected to a simpering speech from a principal who no doubt imagined himself a great orator, but generally oozed all the sincerity of a television evangelist. This would be followed by songs hampered with hokey linking material that parents probably enjoyed more than the children. Four of the boys would stand at the front delivering lines that would have been rejected from Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, effortfully seguing into this sort of thing:

'You know, I've always wanted to sail the seas!'

'Well, maybe you can. Maybe we could all sail the seas... in a Yellow Submarine!,' and hopefully all you readers are blessed with imagination of sufficient magnitude to allow for an extrapolation of what came next.

This would go on for an hour or so to the delight of the most over-moneyed facelifty group of parents with whom I have ever shared a gymnasium. These were people labouring under an illusory impression of themselves as an elite, an elite inevitably defined by the size of its collective bank balance - differentiated from the upper echelons of the English class system by the way in which they seem to regard amoral, carnivorous greed as a sign of character - and by their utter vulgarity, whilst I'm sneering. These parents in turn explained much that had initially confused me about the school which was not so much a seat of education as a place one sends a child so you can tell everyone you have a boy at the academy, which apparently impresses a certain kind of person.

The new school is less expensive and there are girls - which seems an altogether healthier situation to me. The teachers are required to have teaching qualifications, and seem entirely capable of doing their jobs to a high standard.

Having watched Junior's performance, we head to the chapel for the Christmas concert - a modern church building, but one that's been done well, observing tradition without sliding into kitsch. Each class performs a couple of traditional carols, and clearly they are enjoying themselves. There is no Yellow Submarine, no corny routines and no obsequious speech from a used-car salesmen masquerading as a school principal, no empty catechizing of an unintentionally ironic school motto about being the best you can be. Of course it's not perfect, and I wonder why the music is pre-recorded, lifted from a CD complete with incongruous drum breaks, which seems strange when we're sat within ten feet of an impressive church organ with no-one at the keyboard; but this is a minor detail which falls to insignificance because the concert is genuinely a pleasure to witness, and very different to the chore of its academy equivalent this time last year. Junior is happy here, and he has friends, and the curriculum is sufficiently broad to allow for all those quirks that emerge when a kid develops a working personality, even quirks like a pathological hatred of Thomas Edison.

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