The Music Teacher’s Tale
Only the most jaded of critics would deny that the Winter Holiday Concert had been an artistic triumph, and as far as Sophia could tell as the audience filed from the auditorium to meet the young performers in the cafeteria for juice and cookies, no one fitting that description had attended. Granted, the fourth-grade recorders might have been a little shrill on “Frosty the Snowman,” and perhaps half of the second grade had mumbled all but the chorus of “I Have a Little Dreidel,” and Sophia should have known better than to assign a treble solo to a boy who had started the semester as a sweet-voiced cherub but now looked as if Santa might need to bring him a shaving kit for Christmas. But despite those few glitches, the children had performed beautifully. Certainly the rapturous smiles and the crash of applause that met their curtain calls proved that the audience had been well pleased.
With the assistance of the school custodian and a few helpful fifth-grade girls, Sophia soon had the costumes packed away, the cardboard sets dismantled, and the stage put in order, or at least as orderly as it could be, given the loose floorboards, the threadbare curtain, and the empty sockets they had insufficient lightbulbs to fill. Sophia knew they were lucky to have a theater at all, considering that decades of overcrowding had forced other local schools to convert performance spaces into classrooms. Sophia shared her music room with the art teacher, Yolanda, who served three different schools in the district and came to Peleg Wadsworth Elementary only twice a week. Yolanda had to haul most of her supplies from school to school, packing them into her fourteen-year-old compact car like pieces of a puzzle designed by Escher. Although she was by nature cheerfully optimistic, Yolanda looked perpetually harried and distracted as she pushed her overloaded plastic cart from parking lot to classroom and back, and she had developed a habit of constantly checking her watch and glancing at calendars to make sure she was at the right school on the right day. “Artists must suffer,” she joked whenever Sophia asked how she was doing. “I’ve never felt more artistic.”
Sophia and her stage crew finished tidying up in time to join the reception in its final minutes. Empty bottles of apple juice filled the cafeteria’s recycling bin, and only a few broken cookies remained of the plates of treats donated by the performers’ families. Sophia savored each delicious bite of the last gingerbread reindeer, modestly accepting praise and congratulations from parents, grandparents, and staff. As the crowd dwindled, Sophia returned to her classroom to pack up her things, gifts from her students, and projects to grade over the winter break. Her stomach growled; she could have used a second cookie and a strong cup of coffee. If she hurried, she might have time to grab something on the way from school to choir practice at St. Margaret’s Catholic Church, where she volunteered as the children’s music director.
She had just wrapped herself in a scarf and was slipping into her black wool coat when Linda, the principal’s thin, gray-haired secretary, appeared in the classroom doorway. “Oh, good, Sophia. I caught you.” She peered over the rim of her bifocals at the overstuffed satchel on Sophia’s desk, so full of little handmade gifts, cards, and carefully wrapped sweets that it could not close. “Impressive. You brought in quite a haul this year.”
Sophia smiled as she buttoned her coat. “Yes, I should be fully stocked with fudge and peppermint through Epiphany.”
Linda laughed, but her amusement swiftly faded. “Janine would like to see you in her office before you leave.”
Sophia felt a flutter of nerves. “Did she say why?”
“You should talk to her.” Linda edged out of the doorway looking pained. “Have a nice winter break. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” Sophia replied as Linda hurried away.
Sophia’s certainty that something was amiss rose as she entered the administration offices and the dean of students wished her happy holidays in a voice usually reserved for offering condolences.
She found Janine standing behind her desk in her private office, frowning thoughtfully as she examined papers in a file. “Sophia,” she said, glancing up, warmly professional as she gestured to a chair on the opposite side. “Thank you for coming. Please, have a seat.”
“It never gets easier,” Sophia said lightly as she set her bag on the floor, loosened her scarf, and took her seat. “Being called to the principal’s office, I mean, whether you’re a student or a teacher.”
Janine Washington had been the principal of Peleg Wadsworth Elementary for eight years, and under her direction attendance had soared, test scores had risen, and suspensions had plummeted so low that the faculty dared hope they had become a thing of the past. Sophia had arrived on the scene three years into Janine’s tenure, a student teacher full of idealism and grand plans to find a well-paying job with a prestigious music program in an affluent district as soon as she graduated. Instead, she had fallen in love with the children of Watertown and with Janine’s vision of how to give them the excellent education they deserved, the kind their more fortunate peers in Beacon Hill and the Back Bay took for granted.
“The concert was excellent,” Janine said. “I think it was the children’s best yet—and yours. Congratulations.”
“Thank you.” Spiritedly, Sophia added, “I’m very proud of the students. Each and every one of them did their very best.”
“I agree. That makes what I have to tell you all the more difficult.” Janine regarded her sympathetically. “You’re aware, I’m sure, that the measure to raise the tax levy to increase the education budget failed to pass in last month’s election.”
“Of course.” For weeks, every conversation in the teachers’ lounge had circled back to the ballot measure. In the days leading up to the election, Sophia had passed out leaflets encouraging citizens to vote yes, and, lacking a car, she had placed a bumper sticker in the window of her apartment. It was still there, a memorial to the failed measure, a reprimand to those who had supported the cause but had neglected to go to the polls, and a promise to herself to fight harder next time. “But the district will draw on emergency funds to make up the difference, right? I read that there’s enough for the rest of this academic year and the next. By that time the measure will be on the ballot again.”
“I’m afraid those estimates were overly optimistic,” said Janine. “They didn’t take into account the mold problem at the high school, or the dip in interest rates. The district’s reserves have been dealt quite a blow. I’ve been informed that at their next meeting, the school board plans to introduce new austerity measures.”
“Austerity measures?” Sophia echoed. “You mean budget cuts.”
“Emergency budget cuts.”
“I see.” Sophia sat back in her chair, dismayed. It was no secret which programs were the first to be sacrificed in an emergency. “Janine, children need music in their lives. Most of our students aren’t likely to get any arts education if they don’t get it here.”
“I understand that.”
“It’s been proven scientifically that music lessons help children’s brain development and result in higher test scores, especially in math, and significantly fewer discipline problems. Students without education in the arts are five times more likely to drop out of school. Five times!”
“I know.” Janine raised a hand to calm her. “I’ve read the reports. I’ve helped write many of them. However, when deciding whether to fund fifth-grade chorus or keep the furnaces going, most people, including those in charge of our budget, see only one logical choice.”
“What does this mean for me?” Sophia asked, fighting to keep her voice from quavering. “Will I have to travel from school to school like Yolanda, spending a few days here and a few days there?”
“Someone will,” said Janine gently. “But I’m afraid that won’t be you. The two other music teachers in the district have seniority. They’ll drop to half time and share the single position that will remain. Sophia, I’m afraid you’re going to be laid off.”
Sophia stared at her, scarcely able to breathe. “Going to be?”
“Yes. At the end of the school year.”
“Oh, thank God. I thought you meant I was done, finished, today, without having the chance to say goodbye to anyone—”
“Of course not. That would be a shameful way to repay you for the five years of exemplary service you’ve offered our school.”
Sophia forced a wan smile. “Would you be willing to put that in a letter of recommendation?”
“Certainly. That’s why I’m telling you now, even at the risk of losing you halfway through next semester, to give you time to find another position.” Janine leaned forward and folded her arms on her desk, her expression full of regret and compassion. “I know you were considering a move to Chicago, and that you had several promising leads there. Perhaps it’s time to follow up on them.”
“Oh, that’s . . . not really an option. I’m not moving to Chicago.”
“I thought your fiancé had accepted a job there. I hear things in passing through the teachers’ lounge, but perhaps I misunderstood.”
“Brandon did take that job in Chicago, but he’s not my fiancé anymore.” Not since October, when Sophia realized that she couldn’t bear to leave her family—and her job and her students and her choir at St. Margaret’s—to follow him. She could have, but she didn’t want to—which forced her to admit that marrying Brandon would be a mistake even if he weren’t moving away.
“I see,” said Janine. “My apologies. I wasn’t aware.”
“It’s not your fault. I announced the engagement, but not the end of it.”
“I still regret bringing up an unhappy subject and making a difficult conversation even worse.” Janine rose and came around her desk to rest her hand on Sophia’s shoulder, a motherly gesture that brought tears to Sophia’s eyes. “We can talk more after winter break. I’ll see you in January.”
Sophia stammered out a perfunctory reply and hurried from the office, keeping her head down as she left the school rather than be drawn into a conversation with any concerned coworkers she might encounter along the way. Outside, a capricious wind drove a burst of snow crystals into her face, startling her so that she gasped, but when the shock faded, she settled into an unexpected sense of calm. She had lost her job, but Janine had given her six months’ notice. She would finish out the year as if nothing had changed, and surely she could find a new teaching position sometime before Labor Day.
She wrapped her scarf more securely about her neck—her eldest sister had knit it for her out of the softest cashmere, and it was as warm as it was elegant—adjusted the strap of her overstuffed bag to shift the weight to a more comfortable position, and set off on foot for St. Margaret’s Catholic Church.
She dreaded breaking the news to her parents, who were, as ever, fraught with concern for her over the broken engagement and other disappointments. When Sophia was much younger, her parents had encouraged her dreams to become a renowned opera singer, their faith scarcely wavering even when she was not accepted at Juilliard or Oberlin. By the end of her first year as a voice major at Boston College, after many inspiring and humbling months learning and performing with other eager young students—all of whom, like her, had been the best singer in their high school choirs and had won every lead in drama club—she began to realize that she was talented, but perhaps not talented enough. Suffering a crisis of confidence, she had poured out her heart to her kind but pragmatic academic advisor. He had encouraged her to continue to study music, since it was her passion, but also to expand her repertoire to teaching, the better to share that passion with others.
It proved to be excellent advice. Sophia had not long been a teacher when she realized that she was privileged and blessed to be able to pursue that calling, and now she could not imagine a more enriching or meaningful career. That made it easier to forgive her parents’ unspoken disappointment that she had settled for less than her potential had promised, easier to endure the disdain of strangers who dismissed her as “only a teacher.”
She would figure it out, she told herself firmly as she strode along, chin buried in her scarf, hands tucked into her pockets, shoulders braced against the flurry in the wind.