The Blackboard Jungle  

Singing like fainting angels

There we were, riding on a school bus at 9:15 in the morning – Chuck Johnson, myself and 64 Grades 5-7  kids.

Chuck was one of those salt-of-the-earth principals. He had been a logger and a steel fabricator and had become a teacher later in his life. After only a few years in the classroom, he was appointed to the principalship. Chuck had a very down-to-earth view of education.

This was our first choir tour performing at local elementary schools. We were more like a music ensemble  because we didn’t just sing, we played guitars, ukulele, bass, recorder, glockenspiel, conga drums and other percussion instruments.

As we wound our way through a scenic little river valley, we sang 99 Bottles of Pop on the Wall.

It must have been a peculiar scene for anyone on the road seeing us as we rolled by. This wonderful, long song served as a kind of singing warm up, but more importantly, it was kept the kids focused so they wouldn’t scream their heads off as some like to do on a school bus.

For some reason, Chuck had taken me under his wing. It was only my second year teaching. Chuck had great wisdom and life experiences, but mostly, he understood how important it was to have music in a school.

He asked me in my telephone interview if I had ever taught choir. I said no. I was a rock-and-roll drummer and had taught myself guitar, but I was willing to give it a try. He hired me on that basis.

As soon as the bus stopped at our first destination, Chuck walked slowly to the front, turned and faced our young and eager chorus and gave a little “pep talk.” As soon as he started speaking, all heads snapped around and mouths shut tightly, including mine.

He was inspiring. He spoke of how we were representing our school, how we were about to share the culmination of hundreds of hours of work, how what a great thing it was that we all got the day off to share our talents, and best of all, that we were going to McDonald’s for lunch.

All eyes were wide open. There were smiles and nods. The kids believed in what he was saying. So did I.

It was a glorious feeling. I learned a great truth that day: be honest, tell it like it is. That was Chuck. That’s why the kids listened to him. Because there was no “you know what” with him.

I stood before my music ensemble as they faced the students in the gymnasium of Elk Creek Elementary School. What an exciting thing it was to be performing for a strange audience.

My students were so nervous that they were behaving. All eyes were on me for fear of looking at the audience. I couldn’t remember a time when I’d experienced so much engagement. I pondered the benefits of fear.

I hit a G on my guitar, then counted us in: “1, 2, 3, 4…I can see clearly now the rain has gone …”.

The kids were singing like angels. The bass guitar was bang on, as well as the other guitars, the recorders, glockenspiels and the percussion section. What a sound!

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Evelyn Sorano, a Polynesian girl in Grade 5 in the front row.

She seemed to be wobbling “…gone are the dark days that had me blind…”

Then, I looked at her eyes. They were twirling in opposite directions. She wobbled some more and then folded onto the floor in front of me.

I was in shock. I kept going. “…it’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiney day…” as Evelyn lay there unconscious.

Finally, I came to my senses and stopped. A small circle of adults descended on Evelyn, and brought her back to life. They carried her to the sidelines amidst sympathetic applause. I felt like I was at a professional soccer match.

An apology, a quick joke to set the audience at ease and we were off again into “I can see all obstacles in my way…”.

About a minute into the song, I saw a bobbing head in the third row. It swayed violently from side to side then disappeared as half my choir swelled out toward the audience. Another casualty.

By the end of our performance the score was eight songs, four faintings. We bid the audience farewell and Chuck marched our musical troupe back onto the bus.

Chuck stood at the front of the bus and stared. There was an awful silence. Eyes were wide. Mouths closed tightly. I racked my brains as to what he might say.

He took a deep breath and said firmly as he pointed his finger, “There will be no more fainting! If one more person faints, I’ll turn this bus around and we’ll head right back home. And there will be no MacDonald’s.”

After that, not one more student fainted. We visited three more schools and gorged ourselves at the golden arches.

I learned two more truths that day as well. Fainting is actually contagious and mind over matter really works.


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About the Author


Richard Knight is a retired educator living in Kelowna. During his 30 plus years as an educator, he taught pretty much everything from primary to the junior high (now called Middle School).

His experiences generated many memorable stories, which is what this column is about.

He also gained some valuable experience at the university level as a faculty adviser in the Faculty of Education at UBCO.

Until recently, Richard wrote his column The Blackboard Jungle for The Daily Courier.

This was a mixture of fond memories and some political commentary. Now, Richard would like present his column on Castanet.

He can reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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