The Convergence

Five years ago…at this very moment as I write…I stepped from behind the curtain with my accompanist, and took the stage for the very last time as a music educator. It was 7:00 pm sharp. I NEVER began a performance late in my life. If people were good enough to show up, the least I could do would be to honor their presence by being on time. Concert etiquette was one of the most important lessons I felt I could teach my students over the years…especially for my inner city students who I felt needed to be drawn to their obligations to others….

May 8th, 2015. Or 2018. Or…..We all have those days that as we sit back and view our lives in retrospect, seem to have a prominent place in the patchwork quilt of our existence. I’m not talking about marital anniversaries – of course those are special and will always stand out – or birthdays either – for the same reason. I’m talking about the ordinary days of a calendar year that, for whatever reason, seem to converge frequently with significant events in our lives. For me, May 8th seems to be the date the cosmos has designated for embarkation in my life.

The first such leaping off point that I can remember was May 8th, 1967. I have written previously about the serious incident that nearly severed my leg as a child, the hours of surgery required to repair it, the long hospital stay with my mother reading me “The Little Engine That Could,” and its impact on my future relentless pursuit of goals (see “I am one with the Force”). The incident actually took place on April 21st, 1967…but I was sent home with a cast on May 8th, with a series of follow up appointments, physical therapy, etc. I will NEVER forget the elation I felt leaving that hospital…I truly thought as a 7 year old that I was going to die there…and over the next few weeks, I thought I would die as a result of the stench of that cast! I kept it as a reminder up until I was in my early 20’s when it finally crumbled to pieces.

Fifteen years later, I was an undergraduate music theatre performance major at Arizona State University. Exams and juries had just finished and I had prepared for a return trip home to surprise my mother for Mother’s day. On a whim, I had auditioned that week for a fledgling equity company that was producing “West Side Story” and “110 in the Shade” that summer. The day before I boarded the plane, Saturday, May 8th, I received a call informing me that I had been cast in the role of “File” in “110” and the alternate “Tony” in “West Side.” Rehearsals would begin on Monday. Shit! Great! Shit….my mom…my career…SHIT!

There was never really any doubt. I called my mom, who had seen every production I had ever appeared in until I went to ASU, including my professional debut as “Claude” in “Hair” just the summer previously. She understood, expressed how proud she was of me, and that this just made her a bit more proud because it proved to my dad that she was right in backing my career choice. So I remained in the Valley that summer…two rehearsals every day for six weeks, then a string of performances from mid-July to mid-August. What set these shows apart from others that I had appeared in was not the fact they were equity productions – again, I had been in others previously with large roles – nor that it kept me in the Valley year round for the first time. No, what set me on a new path was the principal trumpet player in the pit orchestra….a brilliant young musician whom I met, chatted with, and became friends with – albeit casually at first. This trumpet player went on to become a music educator in the Valley 10 years later…and, along with another friend, recommended me for my first music education job in the Arizona Public School system in 1992. The same musician who raised a family of three girls the same age as our oldest three girls that I wrote about in “Colors of the Wind.” The same music educator who would go on to compose several original works for my inner city ensembles, that in turn found their way onto the approved for festival required repertoire list for the Michigan School Vocal Music Association.

The collaboration and fellowship my family and I enjoyed with his family led to some fantastic professional achievements for all of us. After almost three decades in the classroom, however, I was forced into early retirement in 2015. This decision was forced upon me by an administration that had taken advantage of a change in the tenure law enacted by the Michigan legislature that called for 40% of each teacher’s annual evaluation to be based on student achievement in standardized test scores. Because there is no standardized test in music, the legislature allowed the individual districts to utilize whichever standardized test, or subsection(s) of standardized test(s) to evaluate special area teachers, such as music, PE, industrial arts, etc. In my case, the union informed me that my district specifically mined the previous year’s test data to determine which subsections of the reading and math tests my students scored poorest on to utilize for evaluation purposes. The result was a 25 point drop in my evaluation score, from 96% to 71%…despite all of my students’ successes in individual AND ensemble honors, the result was a rating of minimally effective. By contract, such a rating for two consecutive years would result in loss of tenure and termination. Never mind the 20 ensembles in 12 years that had received superior ratings at district, state, and national festivals – including every non-audition ensemble (something no other director in the history of the school district before or since has replicated). Never mind the more than 70 All State Honors choir students in those same 12 years – more All State recognition than the entire athletic department combined over the same period.

The new superintendent called me into his office in December of 2014 and pointedly informed me that I should announce my retirement before the annual round of standardized tests that spring. “You know those scores aren’t going to go up. If you don’t retire, we will have to take you before the tenure commission, revoke your license, and you’ll be leaving in disgrace.” We had been butting heads since his arrival in the district. The turning point came when I had scheduled a series of concerts at area nursing homes for the holiday season. He had implemented a new policy which barred students from non-essential field trips during the school day (in an effort to increase instructional time – an admirable goal really) and so I demurred by scheduling the concerts after school hours.

These concerts had been an integral part of my teaching career. Three years prior to this, I had commented at one spot after the residents joined my students in a carol sing, that they sang so well that we should form a community choir. Me and my big mouth. Within six weeks, my students and I helped that nursing home form a resident ensemble, which soon grew to include other nursing homes owned by the same company, and met every week for a two hour rehearsal that culminated in a performance of Vivaldi’s “Gloria” in D, alongside my own students. The residents were visibly moved that night as our audience gave them a standing ovation, and I presented each resident with an honorary choir varsity letter J.

 For Christmas of 2014, the nursing home choir had appeared on our winter concert singing an arrangement of “Do You Hear What I Hear” (which they all thought was very clever on my part) and the activity directors at each home had scheduled a dinner and concert for the residents’ families and my students the week after to thank us and culminate their holiday activities.

The superintendent, however, had a daughter in one of my select ensembles. He was very upset that she would be required to participate in these events that would necessitate him making some kind of transportation arrangements because he and his wife would be involved in meetings on two of those days, and wanted to schedule a family gathering on another one. I informed him that my boosters would provide transportation for any student that needed it, and I would obtain the necessary waiver signatures releasing the district from liability. He informed me that I obviously couldn’t read between the lines and he ordered me to cancel the events or he would suspend me immediately for insubordination. He further ordered me to not discuss the reasons behind the cancellations in order to not cause his daughter any embarrassment or difficulties. I really had no choice. I cancelled the concerts, but my high school students knew I would never do so willingly, and they had developed such an attachment to the residents that they in turn contacted the activity directors and showed up to perform anyway….contacting a local television station in the process and airing their grievances. It was two days later when I was forced into retirement.

So….May 8th, 2015. I grew up in the age of Coach Bear Bryant. I had always worn a suit jacket and tie to teach in because, again, I knew I was teaching my students more than music and theatre…my choices also taught them basic life skills I knew they were not getting at home, or were being steered away from. I had over 70 neck ties, varying from cartoon characters in musical themes, endangered species, music composers/instruments, etc. But that morning there could BE only one tie…a tie that every single student I had ever had would recognize…a tie that is waiting for a grandson to claim…a tie that had been given to me as a birthday present in 1977 by my sister. A tie that simply had Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck tilting their skimmers in the classic opening to the Looney Tunes cartoons of the 70’s as they sand “Overture…douse the lights…this is it, the night of nights…no more rehearsing or nursing a part…”

I had no idea what to expect, but was stunned when I stepped from behind those curtains to a standing ovation from former students that had travelled from everywhere I had taught to see me ring down the final curtain…My accompanist was in tears, as was I. But I was ready for embarkation.

Three years later…May 8th, 2018…my children had just finished fencing in my back yard near the river and installing a shed. This was ostensibly for my dogs. They knew I was using the dogs as an excuse to not ride (See “Death Changes Everything Carl”) after my wife passed. But that day they removed all excuses and pushed me onto my current path. I took my first real steps onto that path on May 9th, 2018…and in the now two years since have accumulated exactly 20,725 miles on the road. In doing so, I have entered the cycling vortex and begun a new stage in my development as a human being…using cycling not just to produce endorphins my body cannot produce in a traditional manner, but to meditate and contemplate on the meaning of my life and life here on this planet.

These are not the only significant events that happened to me on May 8th over the years, but they are the ones that marked a significant shift in my life’s arc. So, what are your “cosmic convergence dates” and why? Asking for a friend…..

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richardtirith4919

Forced into retirement at the age of 55 because I was foolish enough to finish a PhD program in an era of teacher bashing and budget cutting, I turned to cycling full time. Until my wife passed away in 2018 from a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Now I navigate the highways of the US on my bikes in search of a good Brew, good times with our grandsons, and in memory of her.

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