Fifth-Grade Perfection and Lies
Mrs. Parker was my fifth-grade music and art teacher back in 1975 at Westcliff Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas. She didn’t transform me into a great musician, but what she did for us was far more important. She not only inspired creativity and confidence, but also instilled a curiosity and creative approach to everyday life. She taught us that wonder and amazement can be found all around us - and led us in believing that failure is just another step forward.
I remember little things like percussion (or what some of you might call a bunch of rug rats banging on drums and tambourines). But I also remember learning to play the recorder. In case you don’t know, it is a wind instrument and similar to the flute or oboe and even uses similar fingering over the holes as a saxophone. I remember learning to play “Over My Head” which would be unheard of on many levels in public schools today since the chorus was “Over my head, there’s music in the air. There must be a God somewhere.” But it was easy to finger and a good first song to learn to play.
I was a fan back then of Boots Randolph and his famous saxophone song called Yakety Sax. My dad turned me on to him. I think I saw him first perform it on The Ed Sullivan Show. You might recall it as the theme song to The Benny Hill Show if you were around then, but it’s still used today as an Internet meme. Since I had just learned to play the recorder, why not take the next step and learn saxophone just like Boots! Well… I’ll tell you why not. I was terrible at it. I couldn’t get passed “Mary Had a Little Lamb” without making all of the neighborhood dogs howl. And even though it was completely obvious I would never be like Boots Randolph, I wasn’t the least bit deterred from pursuing other instruments. It wasn’t yet part of my inner vocabulary to feel like a failure. So on to the piano I went.
What might have been a routine assignment meant to inspire some creativity in us, turned into a life-long memorable moment for me that’s always played a role in my day-to-day life and even career. Mrs. Parker knew we were all graduating from fifth-grade that year, so she started a competition among our class to write a graduation song. There weren’t many requirements. It could be original or we could even make up new words to an existing song. As soon as she announced it, I wanted to win. I wanted to win bad. It was my chance to win acceptance and really be somebody. I had been going to concerts with my parents for years, since I was five, so I was eager to put on my own.
I knew I’d have to appeal to the entire class to win the popular vote. I knew writing the music from scratch could be risky since I had never done that yet. I considered using “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as the music (which was still popular back then.) But I also knew The Beatles were huge, so I rewrote the lyrics to “Let It Be”. I would give (almost) anything if I could remember my lyrics now or if anyone had home recording or video capabilities back then. But I do remember the words that replaced the song’s hook “…whisper words of wisdom. Let it be.” It was an extremely brilliant phrase - “Goodbye dear ol’ Westcliff, Goo-ood-by-ye”. Ha. So brilliant! Wait now. Don’t judge me!. I never claimed that music education in elementary schools creates great lyric writers or even great musicians.
Another catch in the competition was that we had to perform the song during class in order for the class to take a vote. It could be a cappella, just percussion, or even on a kazoo for that matter. But I wanted to perform it on piano. This had to be spectacular. I had been taking piano lessons from Mrs. Durden who lived across the street from the elementary school on South Drive. It was two blocks from my house and across the creek in Foster Park where I hunted for crawdads, but that’s another story. I hated piano lessons. I hated learning all of the lame old easy songs like “Row Row Row Your freakin’ Boat” - especially when we had to play them at recitals. If someone had turned me on to Billy Joel or Elton John back then I might have liked it better and worked harder. But now I had a mission. I only needed to learn to play “Let It Be” and my life would be complete. So I did. I only learned a simplified fifth-grade version of it, but to me, I was expecting a call from McCartney or Lennon at any moment to congratulate me.
The day of the competition finally arrived. I had no idea what anyone else was going to perform or who I was up against. It was the beginnings of a life of total self-centeredness, and I could care less about them. This was about me! And somehow I was the last one to perform. I walked to the upright piano in that little classroom with total confidence and took my seat on the bench. I was unafraid and unashamed - although still a bit nervous and about to pee in my pants. This was my day and I had worked hard for it. I deserved it. I played and sang it flawlessly. “…, Goo-ood-by-ye.” Boom! My classmates clapped with enthusiasm. The votes were tallied. And… I won!
I forgot to mention that one of the prizes of the competition was that you would also get to perform the song at the actual graduation ceremony in the school auditorium. Bring it! Next stop Carnegie Hall! We all know it’s not just about the song, but the entire performance. So my grandmother bought me a brand new suit for the occasion. Don’t forget that I was ten years-old and this was 1975. The suit was bright yellow with brown thread and brown little specks all over it. I don’t remember the tie, but I’m certain it was fat and polyester and brown. Oh my God, did I look good! When it came time to perform, I strutted down the auditorium isle from the back like I was accepting a Grammy. No fear (but still with that little nervous twitch that could have easily erupted into peeing my pants.) I have no idea what happened next. I know I performed the song and I’m pretty sure it went okay. Most likely it was pretty painful and the parents all just politely endured. But I was so neck deep in nirvana that nothing else but me existed. Mission accomplished and time to move on. Being ten meant that it only took me a few hours - or maybe a few days at most - to forget it and jump to the next challenge.
I’ve always remembered Mrs. Parker. It wasn’t that she was some type of super-teacher above all other teachers (or that she was gorgeous.) It was that she taught music and art to snot-nosed fifth-graders who she knew would likely not grow up to be artists or musicians - or rather she taught us to explore and accept challenges and be creative. It seems a tragedy for kids today who don’t get to experience that through music education. There was one slight problem though - okay maybe one major problem, but it wasn’t her fault. It was mine.
Even though things seemed great in music class, things weren’t so great with sports in fifth-grade. Something called shame started whispering to me. I tried out for football which apparently most guys do way before fifth grade. All of my peers already knew the rules and I didn’t (at least that’s what it seemed like to me). Not having the slightest idea what a down meant or which way to run caused laughter among the other players and caused their dads (the coaches) to yell at me. I quit football as quick as I could. Next was baseball. Apparently all American boys are supposed to play it, so I tried that too. When I showed up, I was asked what position I wanted to try out for - but I didn’t know the positions so they put me at third base. I could tell something wasn’t quite right by the looks on their faces. I guess it was known as one of the easiest positions to grasp. I even had a brand new Rawlings glove that was sure to help make things go well. I actually caught a pop fly ball that day for an out and was pretty excited but apparently I did it wrong and it only led to being yelled at by another players’ dad (the coach). I did not know you could catch a ball so wrong. There was no Mrs. Parker anywhere to be found - no encouragement - only humiliation and condemnation. I gave up baseball as fast as possible too. Failing at football and baseball was the first time I suspected something was very wrong with the world - or with me. Maybe I wasn’t as awesome or as perfect as I thought. Maybe I was horrible and worthless.
I had no idea that the lies were actually coming at me from both sides. It was subtle and misleading. I was under the impression that choosing between A and B meant that one of the choices had to be the right one. But choosing to believe I was great because I worked hard and won a song competition was just as bad as choosing to believe I was worthless for failing at sports. Unfortunately, the result was that for most of my life I chose B - to believe I was worthless, and I decided the solution was to try harder to become A - great at everything - even perfect at everything on my own supposed willpower and strength. I needed a third choice.
I continued to listen to those distorting voices on into my forties (and will likely always hear a faint whisper). Beginning that year in fifth grade, with no real foundation of truth, one thing after another began to crush me - leading to a life of constant battle for perfection and approval to quiet the voices (mostly mine) telling me I was good for nothing. Mrs. Parker’s inspiration and encouragement was appropriate and wonderful and prepared me to always creatively approach challenges. But I somehow understood that to mean I was on my own and had to depend on myself to be great - that I had to earn everything. My classmates’ dads who were yelling at me likely meant well and were just trying to help me improve at sports, but I somehow understood that to mean I was worthless and not able to be great. The truth was neither one.
The truth is that apart from Christ, I truly can do nothing (like Jesus says in John 5:15 - “…Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”). I’m not defined by what I can accomplish or earn (like winning a song competition) or by what others think of me (like being awful at sports). I’m defined by Christ as an adopted child of God. As Paul said to the Galatians in 3:26-28 - “…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” That’s the only identity I needed. I still forget that way too often.