September used to give me nightmares. Others welcomed the milder weather and the emerging fall colours, but my Septembers were angst-filled.
Adjusting to a new slate of teachers was always Worry No. 1. I obsessed for weeks one summer about whether I would get the steely-eyed science teacher who was famous for exploding if you dared to yawn.
Wondering who would be my locker partner, which lunch break I would be assigned or what I should wear on the first day were all big-ticket worries for a timid student like me.
The night before school started was always fitful, and usually culminated in a horrific dream in which I cowered, naked, at the back of the class, having been unable to decide what to wear.
Those angst-filled Septembers didn’t vanish when I graduated, alas, because I became a teacher.
My worries were no longer about lockers or lunch rooms, but there was still a long list of what-ifs: What if the new textbooks didn’t arrive on time? What if the principal didn’t like my proposal for the school musical? Would I get stuck with early-morning yard duty again? Worse still, what if the students hated me?
The dream was still present, but now I was standing naked at the front of the room.
I had no reason to believe things would be any different the September in the mid-1990s when I moved to a new school in a new community.
The classroom I shared with my Grade 3 pupils was in a creaky old building.
The high ceilings, with their elegant turn-of-the-century details, could not compensate for the sloping floors, pockmarked woodwork and drafty windows. Pushed into one corner among the mismatched furniture was a huge blue piano we would eventually dub Baby Beluga.
At first viewing, there seemed little to cheer about.
That is, until I discovered a dusty old radio in a walk-in closet at the back of the room. It had a full, rich tone and could receive FM stations clearly.
This relic became my secret guilty pleasure. It would serenade me from its perch in the closet as I prepared my lessons.
When my timetable had been finalized, it turned out that some of my planning periods coincided with CBC’s music request show, As You Like It. On the days when my students were in gym class, host Bill Richardson offered me 30 minutes of bliss.
Once a week, the focus was on opera. Bill had just promised to fulfill a listener’s request for Dvorak’s glorious aria Song to the Moon when I heard thundering footsteps on the stairs, signalling the return of my class. It seemed a pity to turn off the radio, so I just lowered the volume and closed the closet door as the children filed in.
When they had settled into solving some math problems, I headed back to the closet. The door, partly obscured by Baby Beluga, swung over the sloping floor and shut silently behind me. Song to the Moon was just beginning.
The acoustics in the high-ceilinged closet were so sublime, and soprano Lucia Popp’s voice was so transporting, I turned up the volume slightly and let myself be enveloped by heavenly music and perfect peace. At the end of the aria, I sighed and opened the door.
Emerging from behind the piano, I was greeted by 31 awestruck faces and 62 admiring eyes.
Finally, one child voiced what the others had apparently been thinking.
“Mrs. Butler, we didn’t know you could sing like that!”
What could I do but take a bow?
Eventually, they realized that it could not have been me singing, and we had a good laugh about it. But once my closeted treasure had been revealed, there was no turning back.
Music became a regular and expected part of our classroom buzz. The children begged for music for entering class, music for exiting, music for body breaks, music for silent reading. Bach joined us for math drill, Tchaikovsky made our paint brushes swirl, and Debussy set the mood for writing poems.
Baby Beluga and I pumped out ditties to celebrate test scores and Pizza Day and the first snowflakes of the year. As my students worked to the music, I could almost feel their young brains churning.
An operatic aria escaping from a storage closet illustrated what brain gurus such as Vancouver’s eminent Terry Small have been preaching to educators and parents around the world – listening to classical music can improve concentration, memory and creativity.
My students may not have known that the increased blood flow to their brains was maximizing the way they learned, but I knew that it was dramatically altering the way I taught.
And, perhaps best of all, I was learning that September isn’t such a bad month after all.
Judith Butler lives in Toronto.