To appreciate fully the sense of wonder, the anticipatory excitement, the poignant feelings of regret, and the constant sense of striving that permeates this unique memoir by musician Leah Wells, all we need to do is recall our own schooling.
Do you remember how galvanized your elementary school classrooms were by the occasional visit from a guest teacher who actually did cool things? A teacher whose arrival heralded a wondrous sense of the creative, the unknown, and perhaps most of all a reprieve from the boredom induced by rote exercises and test preparations?
Such periodic incursions by part-time, visiting faculty were likely a part of the later school years too (either the middle-school epoch or your high school era). Yet, for students of a certain age—that is, for really young kids—the magic is unforgettable.
If only it were all as seemingly effortless and inevitable as a magic act!
But there was nothing effortless or inevitable about the unexpected plunge that folk-music artist and movement specialist Leah Wells took when accepting a last-minute offer to teach in the Head Start program in the Bronx.
She did so for the same reason that the late, great James Cagney showed up one day and made inquiries at Warner Brothers: “I need a job!” Cagney told the studio personnel. As the mother of two sons whose father had recently lost his job (he was dismissed without a severance package, despite years of loyalty as a digital printing house’s night manager), Leah Wells had daily economics tormenting her.
On Another Note is a memoir with a two pertinent subtitles: “Making Music at Head Start” and “A Memoir with Classroom Exercises.” In a way, it’s even more than that.
This memoir reads like a novel, due to the author’s musical command of the English language. Her sentences flow. Her paragraphs are structured like melodies. Her sense of timing is rhythmic without being cornball. Best of all is that she describes everything—her new milieu; the big buildings and the small children; her craggy administrators and the wide-eyed joy of her animated students—with precision.
Nonetheless, while the pages have a novelist’s sense of narrative drive and a royal anecdotal energy, there’s no doubt that this book is grounded in the nitty-gritty of true-life experience. It has the flair of a terrific novel, but the guts of a street kid.
How could it be otherwise? From the get-go, the author had little choice but to immerse herself in a strange new world, a realm she’d never expected to enter.
Although born and raised in New York, there had never been any reason for Leah Wells to travel way up to the realm of the Bronx. It is, indeed, another country.
Here’s how Wells recounts crossing the threshold:
I board the Number 6 Train and am instantly sorry that I didn’t bring something to read. I have nothing to calm my nerves as the subway winds us further north on this line than I’ve ever been. Although I was born in New York, nothing has ever summoned me to these heights, or should I say depths, because it is both. The train thunders through station after sooty station in the dark tunnel, and then climbs to daylight where we float over city blocks of low, pale-brick apartment buildings. When I disembark at the Castle Hill station my journey is far from complete.
At the foot of the elevated station, Castle Hill Avenue appears to be a long, bland strip of fast food restaurants and discount centers. None of the buildings are over two or three stories and their palette is unusually pastel for this city. As I make my way further from the station I pass residential buildings of clapboard and shingles, painted pink and turquoise, and the polluted breeze that hits my face is salted. Could we be close to a river or the ocean? Nobody I ask can confirm that I’m walking in the right direction for Metropolitan Avenue. Not one of the three people I’ve stopped speaks English.
Every aspect of the public school system is as alien to her as the local geography.
Like any artist who has ever gone into teaching for economic survival, Leah Wells quickly learned that principals, department heads, and every other type of administrator exist for one reason: to mandate rules and regulations. They disdain her lack of lesson plans and proven methodologies. One administrator dubs her as “deficient” for lack of an immediate post-holiday detailed syllabus. Every idea must be calibrated to dovetail with a specific goal for a scheduled, intended purpose.
There are holidays that require prepared musical presentations. There are the so-called “Extravaganzas” for which Leah Wells had to create a concert-like variety of material as a way of proving the value of Head Start’s budget. And, each day of course, there were the spirited-yet-exhausting go-rounds with innumerable kids.
Wells had five classes in a row on her hands, and that was before lunchtime. It is guaranteed that many a class will conclude like this one:
“Again, again, Miss Leah!” They cry when I finally sit down, putting the guitar to my knee to play a “good-bye song” at the end of our time together. I usually borrow the song from Barney the Purple Dinosaur, which goes, “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family . . .” to the tune of “This Old Man.” At the first cloying strains, some children are willing to sit and obediently mouth the words to this ubiquitous anthem that they recognize from watching television. Others stand to demand an encore. “Oh, stay, Miss Leah! Play more, Miss Leah. Play more songs!”
Though utterly spent, I still blush at their show of ardor. “But we’ve already had lots of fun and I have to visit your friends in the other class!” I remind them gently.
One Friday I make a case for packing it in: “We’ve sung. We’ve danced. We caught scarves in the butterfly net. What more can I give you? Isn’t that enough?” I ask, edging to the door when a child named Ethan stands up to put in his two cents.
“No, Miss Leah,” he answers, as earnestly as Oliver Twist asking for a second portion of gruel. “It’s never enough.”
Truer words could not be spoken. The craving for arts education that the children exude is palpable. Their appreciation for Wells’ efforts to tap into their imaginations and to create a classroom community via singing together, adding some movement, plus the joy of spontaneous creativity, permeates the text.
Fortunately, this “Memoir with Classroom Exercises” lives up to its subtitle. The exercises that are spelled out in the book’s chapters are never intrusive or merely didactic. They illustrate for all readers how Leah Wells improvised her classes, adapted to structured classroom schedules, and overcame myriad administrative obstacles in order to create fulfilling hours of music and movement for her students.
But the exercises are also utilitarian. Teachers needing prompts or ideas for engaging the wildfire energy of overpopulated classrooms will find a trove here.
All other readers will find a deeply moving, humane, compassionate narrator whose wit, insights, details, ear for language, and love for the arts enrich the book’s pages.
Much like Leah Wells who has enriched the lives of so many students.
(M. J. Moore is a regular contributor to Neworld Review.)
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