Why is it that all elementary schools, in one way or another, smell the same? Even after all these years since I was a student in one myself, I can walk into a grade school and immediately be transported back to the days of recess and prepubescence by the smell of – what is it? Crayons, school lunch, and worksheets? Energetic little kid? That mysterious powdered stuff that the poor custodian would liberally sprinkle on throw-up? I defy you to set foot in an elementary school and put your finger on what it is that conjures up those immediate feelings of anxiety. And yet, every time I set foot in one of those schools, there I am, back in kindergarten when my mom had to pick me up early because I’d thrown up raisins all over my little green and white striped dress with a sailboat on the front. Or back in fourth grade when I had to stand on the wall at recess which was, at the time, an ultimate punishment. The list could go on with my varied and strange memories, but this is about a new elementary school memory, not an old one.
As a pianist, I have the distinct pleasure of becoming an occasional school hero. By that I mean that I get to swoop in during the week before a chorus concert, play an accompaniment part that the students have (usually) never heard, astonish them with my exceptional playing abilities (this is mostly the prevailing opinion among fourth-graders and younger), play the concert(s), and cash the check, whenever it arrives (usually at least a month later if it comes from the Board of Ed). I won’t lie: I will rearrange almost anything I can in order to take these gigs. They don’t necessarily make for the most musically fulfilling experiences, and yet I relish them even so.
This year, I played five different schools’ winter concerts from the beginning of December to the end of January. There was the little girl who burst into tears the second she walked on stage, even though she’d been perfectly fine in front of her peers in the dress rehearsal the day before. There was the requisite kindergarten boy who stood there staring straight ahead, participating in no way other than occasionally turning around and looking at his classmates as if to say, “What on earth are you guys doing? You’re still singing? Where am I?” And dear Lord, watching second-graders try to bounce up and down simultaneously in rhythm was like watching a human game of Whack-a-Mole. There were neither pukers nor passer-outers, mercifully – at least during the concerts themselves – and of course all the parents and families and friends fawned and oohed and ahhed and videoed and photographed and iPhoned and did every other thing that one can do to capture that glorious moment when your child picks their nose on stage. I mean, when they have their one-line solo. Right.
Sometimes, I am fortunate enough to be the recipient of the fawning and oohing and ahhing. This has manifested itself in bottles of wine from the teachers, more bouquets of flowers than I could ever have dreamed of getting from a beau, and very sweet, though sometimes strange compliments from the students themselves. That a fourth-grader would think to say “You played so well” to an adult (or in my case, something that passes for one) still astonishes me. But recently, I got a compliment from an adult. A really…exceptional compliment.
I was leaving an elementary school concert, walking down the long hallway from the gymnasium to the main entrance. Walking down the hallway alone – or so I thought – and musing on the sound of my heels resonating in their clicking in a hallway that’s usually filled with shrieks and giggles, I heard a voice from behind me call out, “Hey! Were you the pianist?” I stopped, turned around, and said yes to the voice, which ended up belonging to an older man also walking by himself. Lest you fear this is headed down a lecherous path, rest assured that this was a friendly grandfather type; I felt no instant urge to bolt. In stopping, though, I’d committed to walking the rest of the way down the hallway with my new friend.
As Friendly Grandfather and I walked toward the front door together, he surely realized the same awkward lockstep into which we were now entrapped. So, here’s what transpired:
FG: You did a great job.
me: Oh, thanks so much!
FG (as he finally caught up to where I was standing): Here. Here you go, here’s a present. Payment.
At this point, Friendly Grandfather fumbled in his pocket and pulled out…a cough drop. A standard-issue Halls cough drop in a white paper wrapper. What choice do you have in a situation like that? I had to take the thing. Uncomfortably. And you know we both realized what an awkward moment had just transpired. After that, never had a hallway seemed so endless. We strolled down together, the cough drop practically emanating its awkward and radiating presence from my own pocket now, as we made forced conversation about whether I worked with those kids daily (no), how clever the theme for the concert was (very), and how much patience one would have to have to work with elementary schoolers (a lot).
Finally, at long last, the doorway. Abruptly, Friendly Grandfather – I never did actually figure out, by the way, to which (if any) student this man was connected – bid farewell.
FG: Well, great job again. Have a good life…and hey, have a good cough drop.
me: (taken by surprise) Thanks! Same to…you?
And I walked in the opposite direction, laughing to myself and shaking my head in disbelief that this had really just happened. I applaud Friendly Grandfather for his self-effacing humor about the cough drop. There was no good reason for him to have given it to me, and I think it’s really kind of appropriate that this all happened in an elementary school, the land of awkward opportunity. But best of all is the sign-off. So, readers near and far, wherever you are, here’s my wish for you: Have a good life. And for crying out loud…
Have a good cough drop.