I’ve had a pretty good post forming in my head for about a week now. Piece by piece, I was putting things together and they were coming along quite nicely. I’ll admit that I hadn’t thought up the point of the whole thing yet, but I’m sure that would’ve come about towards the end of my writing. It usually does.
Unfortunately, something else happened in the meantime. Something else much more interesting. And since my original topic has to do with events that occurred during the same decade as what I’d like to write about now, I’ll simply integrate one into the other.
We just finished eating breakfast. I know, it’s 4:50PM. Sometimes these late Autumn days don’t go as planned. I woke up around 10 this morning and while it was sunny outside, I felt like the light was already disappearing. These days are short, but since the same thing happens year after year, my complaining about them only agitates people. Plus, I really don’t even feel like complaining any more. I work too much to notice. Or to complain.
As we were eating, I started singing, ladies and gentlemen. The dream we all dream of… I proudly said, that was Sheena Easton. The eighties baby, the eighties.
I was quickly corrected. She said it was Prince, actually a duet with Sheena Easton and Prince. Are we really going to split hairs here? I replied.
The discussion of 80s music had begun – it doesn’t take much. I mentioned one of the old classics called Roxette and stood up sharply from the table. I started humming Dangerous and walked down the stairs to the basement computer. We have some good speakers down there and that’s where she does all her work. Since she had to finish up with some papers anyway, I felt that it might be a good place to listen to some music while we talk about the days that were.
Roxette – Dangerous
I first played U Got the Look by Prince and Sheena Easton. Then, I played Joyride and Dangerous by Roxette. After that, I played New Song by Howard Jones. This instantly and easily put the both of us into the zone to talk heatedly about what it was like to grow up in the 80s. We went on and on about all the typical stuff…how music was full of expression back then and how the videos were much more simple and pure than they are now. I’m sure I’ve covered this all before, but honestly, one can never really talk about the 80s too much. There’s always something new to discuss. Ask 50 different people and you’ll get 50 different answers…as they say.
Howard Jones – New Song
The conversation did leave me with a nagging question though – a question she didn’t have the answer for. A question neither of us could have the answer for because neither of us have ever asked the right people. The question is:
Was the decade known as the “80s” important to everyone…growing up, music, culture…or was it important to only those of us who where coming of age? Did everyone recognize what was happening during those years because the time was so special…or did those years simply seem so special because they were formative for some of us?
It’s kind of like the chicken or the egg thing.
I’d like to know. So, if anyone reading this post had already turned 18 by the time 1980 rolled around, please fill me in. What was it like to live through the 80s as an adult? Did you feel the vibe like we did or was it only us?
I’m going to try to tell a story here. It’s what I originally wanted to write about, so we’ll see how it goes. It shouldn’t be too difficult because as I wrote above, it’s all about the 80s.
Walking The Plank
There was a bathtub in the roundhouse. I have no idea why. There just was. I remember the day my older brother entered 4th grade. After his first day of school, he came running home and burst through the back door yelling, there’s a bathtub in the roundhouse…a bathtub in the roundhouse!!!”
Since I was only a miniature person at the time, I had no idea what he was talking about. What was a bathtub doing in the roundhouse? Wait – what in the world was a roundhouse?
If you grew up in my hometown and went to my elementary school, you know what the roundhouse is. If not, I’ll try to explain it to you.
The roundhouse was (and still is) a part of my elementary school that held the classrooms for the 4th and 5th graders. It was at the east end of a long hallway and was a fairly unique part of the entire building because it was shaped like a decagon. There were ten classrooms that were shaped like slices of a pie. Well, cut a circle out of the center of the pie and there you have the layout of the roundhouse.
The Roundhouse – Courtesy of Bing Maps
If you walked straight into the roundhouse from the entrance hallway, you’d end up right in the middle of a large open space. If you pointed yourself in almost any direction, you’d be able to enter whichever classroom you happen to be facing. If you chose not to walk into a classroom and wanted to hang out in the open area, you’d eventually see the bathtub. That was the bathtub my brother was referring to.
From what I can gather, the bathtub was put there by a few creative teachers (probably trying to make life a bit more interesting for us youngsters). It was a white antique tub that stood a few inches off the floor, held up by those cool clawfoot legs. Of course, there was no running water or anything like that, but there was a pillow to lean up against, which was useful if you were so inclined to sit inside and read for a while. I also remember hearing faint whispers of the bathtub being used as sort of a holding tank for the bad students to sit in and wait for punishment. You know…punishment…a mean face, a pointed finger and a visit to the principal’s office for a stern warning of cease and desist. If you chose not to heed the principal’s words, the whole event would, of course, land right in the middle of your…wait for it…wait for it…your permanent record. Ahhh…the permanent record.
I never did see anyone sitting in that tub though. Rumors and folklore made the whole thing a lot more exciting than it actually was. And one day I went to school to see the tub no longer there. I never found out what happened to it. It just vanished without a trace.
We used to use the center of the roundhouse for group gatherings of everyone in both grades. Every school morning, nice and early, we would hold our hands on our hearts and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. We would also gather for various announcements, such as the rules and regulations for Field Day or even the particulars of the Presidential Physical Fitness Award. Those times were exciting for me, but not because of the group gatherings or even because of what the teachers and administrators were preaching. Those times were exciting for me because they would give me an uninterrupted opportunity to stand there and stare at the twelve huge paintings of the four seasons that hung from the ceiling above the classrooms. I was mesmerized by these paintings. I can still remember them to this day.
The size of each painting was probably around ten feet wide by eight feet tall and they were created and replaced every few years. These were again the ideas of a few creative teachers and were consequently shared with all the daily inhabitants of the roundhouse.
Now, I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t have the greatest memory of every single event that occurred during my fifth grade year. I completely space out when it comes to some things, but I can tell you that I vividly remember some others. Here’s what I do know:
– I had a good teacher. He was a man and he was fairly young and fairly cool.
– We had a really nasty teacher in the classroom next door. When asked to come over to babysit us when our teacher left the room, she would just yell and scowl.
– We had probably the most annoying music/chorus teacher on the planet. She kind of looked like a Muppet and she ate chalk. She told us that chalk was made out of fish bones therefor it was edible. Makes perfect sense.
There were a few outside classes that students were forced to attend above and beyond their normal all-day class. Classes such as reading, math and gym. Then there was the choice of musical inclination. Each student was allowed to choose between chorus and band. If you took band, you didn’t have to go to chorus and vice versa. That was the deal. Because of this, I participated in band class and played the trombone. I played this instrument from 4th grade all the way through 8th and only became marginally good. There were a few other people who came and went through the years, but one guy played right next to me the whole time.
During the early years, we competed for first chair and changed seats frequently. We would have regular “competitions” that would decide our fate. I’m not sure how I ever made it to first chair, but for half of the time of my first two years, I sat there. After we graduated elementary school and as we entered middle school, the fella next to me got serious. One day he showed up with a fancy $600 trombone and knocked it out of the park. From that point on, I believe he was considered a musician while I was thought of as “that tall guy who played next to the guy who was good.”
Four Seasons Strong
As I mentioned above, those nice big paintings of the seasons were updated every few years. A bunch of teachers got together and hung the huge pieces of paper up on a sort of easel and faced the light of an overhead projector on them. On the projector was a picture – probably from some coloring book. The lines of the picture would appear on the large piece of paper and would get traced in pencil. Those tracings were used as guidelines for the painting.
The pictures were usually of some kids playing in the sunshine, some leaves, some snow or some rain. Each picture described what was happening during that time of year. I always liked the Autumn pictures because the colors of the leaves were so vibrant.
That’s why I was so excited when my fifth grade teacher approached me to help paint the big huge picture of September. For some reason or another, I didn’t have band class and all my other classmates were attending chorus. I had some time free.
As I sit here and look back, I can’t remember exactly why I had that time free. It’s odd for a fifth grader to sit idly during the middle of a school day, but who was I to argue. Perhaps my band teacher was out sick for a while. All I know is that I didn’t have to go to chorus and everyone else did. Well, actually there was another kid from my class sitting next to me on the floor as we painted our hearts out.
For about a week, that other kid and I painted and painted. We sat there in peace and quiet in the middle of the roundhouse and painted. We were so happy. There was no one to bother us because our regular teachers were hanging around chatting with one another while we worked, which was fine with us. Every so often though, I did hear the faint sound of small people singing.
I could hear them through the floor. It was like putting your ear up to a train track to listen for an oncoming train. The faintest sounds of little kids singing, singing, crying inside but singing nonetheless.
Badder Than a Junkyard Dog
It was so subtle, but once you realized what it was, it became very clear. I could hear the soft piano getting louder and louder. I could hear the growing voice of that annoying chalk eating music teacher becoming more and more pronounced. I could hear the distant lyrics of some Leroy Brown song…badder than a junkyard dog… These music teachers liked to be hip and no one was more hip at the time than Leroy Brown.
The foot tapping and the muffled sobs of my sorry classmates who elected to take chorus instead of band continued. The poor fools. Badder than a junkyard dog…Sing it Timmy!!! Lift up your chin Mary!!! C’mon guys, let’s hear it!!! I could feel it through the floor as I sat there and painted. Doing what I enjoyed to do and doing what I wanted to do. That kid and me, just sitting there painting, painting and nervously glancing at each other each time the music got louder. Looking at each other with fear in our eyes fully aware that at any moment someone might get wise to our situation and ask why were the only ones in our class sitting here alone painting.
We didn’t even talk to one another. His name was Eric and I knew him since the day I was born. He was a sloppy kid who ran a lot and got yelled at for it. I remember seeing him race down the hallway on more than one occasion yelling, brroomm, schreeechh as he would fly around a corner. He was making the sound effects of a race car. Everyone knew that was the way he was, it was the way he would always be. But on the days we painted, he would sit there in silence. Sit there in silence and thank his lucky stars he wasn’t standing at the front of a classroom singing about a junkyard dog.
I’m not sure, but I think we may have bonded during those days we painted, Eric and me. There is something that working in silence will do to a guy. I think it has to do with respect, respect or pride, but I’m not sure. All I do know is that the clock was ticking – we weren’t in chorus class and people were starting to whisper.
Until the dreaded day came.
The music teacher wants to see you both – now.
But we don’t have to go because we take band.
She said she wants the both of you to come to chorus class right now.
We got up and followed that little snitch of a classmate all the way down that long hall to the room where the singing was coming from. My stomach was doing cartwheels. I wanted to run.
Now a few decades later, I realize that it wasn’t the little snitch’s fault for us being called to the chorus room, but I’ll admit that I still harbor some resentment.
Facing the Music
The room was hot and sticky. It was a regular sized classroom, so there wasn’t anywhere for all that heavy breathing to go. I remember the blinds were closed, so all each and every person in that room could experience was the harsh light of fluorescent tubes and a Muppet of a teacher who really liked to play the piano.
She reacted excitedly when Eric and I arrived in wonder. Oh, good to see you guys. Now why don’t the two of you stand up here in front of the piano and get caught up with what we are working on. Just join in with the others.
The piano started again and I looked out into the audience as I stood at the front of the room…in front of the piano. I had poor Eric to the left of me. His shoes were untied because again, that’s the way he was and that’s the way he’ll always be. To my right, I had a kid who liked to eat construction paper. I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t him who we heard down the hall singing during all the times we painted. It couldn’t have been – his mouth was full.
As I looked out across the sea of my classmates, I saw battered souls. Souls with sad eyes and beaten bodies. Souls that were just sitting in purgatory waiting for their time to stand in front of the piano and live out the music teacher’s dream. The dream of having an army of miniature people singing hip songs.
She kept wailing on those piano keys yelling, C’mon guys!!! C’mon guys, pick it up – I can’t hear you!!! Badder than a junkyard dog…
I just stood there, taller than anyone in the room, my eyes getting wider and wider. I could see a fog hang across the air, created by the humidity that was wrapping around each and every one of us. The fluorescent lights were beating down on top of my curly red hair as the classroom’s oxygen was slowly being burned away. It was getting hotter and hotter. Hotter and hotter, probably because my head was so much closer to those lights than anyone else’s. I started to sweat.
It went on for a while longer. I was moving my lips, but I produced no sound. I felt like I had someone standing behind me tightly gripping a whip, waiting, just waiting for my lips to stop moving. To this day, I’m not sure if she cared that I wasn’t singing. I think she just wanted to see her army standing there as she played that piano.
The funny thing is, if every last sound in the room ceased to exist at the exact same moment, I would have unknowingly continued to stand there in silence, lip syncing that awful song for who knows how long. It was terrible. My audience didn’t even care. They were too worried about their own well being. Worried about being called up to the front of that room next.
Until the class ended.
We all marched out in single file, not saying a word to one other. There was nothing to say.
I even passed my regular teacher in the hallway on our trip back to our classroom. He just looked at me. I saw it in his eyes, I saw the apology. I saw something that was beyond him, something that he couldn’t control.
His eyes told me that he had let me down.
That was the one and only day of my life I attended chorus class. The moment I arrived at home that night, I cried to my mother for so long that she wrote a note for me to give to someone…anyone who would listen. The note said, in official handwriting, my son does not have to attend chorus class.
I don’t know why or how that worked, but it did. From that point on, I sat alone on the soft berber carpet that covered the open space of the roundhouse floor. I sat there painting. Poor Eric didn’t have the foresight of knowing how hard to cry…either that or he didn’t have a soft-hearted mother like I had. Whatever happened that night at his house didn’t produce the same result as the night had produced for me. I painted alone. I painted alone and I swear as I listened to the soft hum of my classmates singing, I could hear the plastic tips of his little shoelaces tapping against the floor. Tapping against the floor to match the beat of Bad Bad Leroy Brown.
Well, that’s my story. I told you this was a two-part post. I had fun writing and I hope you had fun reading. Until next time.