When I was in the third grade I “failed” music. It probably wasn’t a “fail” per se, but it was a capital U on my report card. Not an E for excellence, a VG for Very Good or a G for merely good but a U which stood for “Unsatisfactory”.
This requires some explanation on my part.
It was 1964. I had just turned nine years old in February. I sang in a church choir. Not yet the more serious Cathedral choir which came the next year, but I could always sing, and sing I would. Whenever I was happy. I was a happy child for the most part. I still am happy and I still sing. I don’t have to be happy to sing now, but it will still make me happy.
Music in school consisted of designating a small period of time each week to sing easy hymns like “This Is My Father’s World” and “Jesus Loves Me This I Know” or folk songs like “Un Canadien Errant” or “Land of the Silver Birch”. We also learned patriotic songs: “God Save The Queen”, “The Maple Leaf Forever” and “O Canada”. The School I attended was part of the Protestant School Board and the kids were mostly white. This was before the province switched to linguistic boards. Protestant meant “not Catholic” or “Les Autres”. My Jewish classmates sang “Jesus Loves Me” without balking…. I don’t recall if there were any children of other faiths, but they would have been lumped in with us as well.
I usually excelled at music because I was enthusiastic and sang in tune. I didn’t excel at much else except making my friends laugh at my hijinks. I had not yet had the diagnosis of “dyslexia” that I would carry with me after testing in grade four. I made an adequate bench warmer in sports and could not figure out my dominant side. I write left handed, but the testing called me “ambidextrous”. “A-dextrous” would have been a more accurate description. Our jock neighbour who lived next door had a derogatory nickname for everyone he encountered. Mine was “spaz” as in “spastic”. His nickname should have been “bully” or “asshole” which aren’t necessarily exclusive.
In grade 3, the teacher (a generalist-not a music teacher) decided we should sing “Onward Christian Soldiers”. Here is where the trouble started. I was singing along with the class, proud to be loud and in tune and leading. I sang a line in particular that bothered me. “Marching as to war”. This struck me as not something I could support. I had a strong Christian background and knew the Ten Commandments by heart. I knew that killing was wrong. My first awareness of news and current events had arrived several months before on November 22,1963. I then became exposed to and aware of the war in Southeast Asia and saw the bodybags on the news. Looked wrong to me even at such a young age.
The teacher noticed that the hymn was not unfolding as it should and saw that I wasn’t singing. She ordered(not asked) me to sing and I refused. I told her I didn’t like the song because it promoted war. I was sent to the corner. I know now that “as to” is two prepositions together meaning “as if” and is an imaginary comparison, a simile. The song did not mean “marching to war”, but following with the determination and discipline of the military. She could have explained that to me and it might have been win/win.
The whole idea of Christian Soldiers was/is confusing. Protestants and Catholics were killing each other in Northern Ireland, the Nazis as well were ostensibly Christian but doing decidedly un righteous things.
I hadn’t yet discovered Bob Dylan or his song of ascerbic irony “With God On Our Side”. I was just trying to make sense of things. My religious upbringing at home was making me an idealist and it flew in the face of senseless authority. I dug it when Jesus overturned the tables at the temple. Surely Goodness and Righteousness shall follow me all the days of my life.
Having grown into a life where music plays a defining and central part and from which I have made my livelihood, performing, teaching and writing, I look back on this event and wear the badge of “Unsatisfactory” with honour. I don’t know where I got this rebellious streak, but I have had to stand up against other teachers, administrators and school boards and parents with their skewed and fearful versions of reality and defend my choices of my reality with conviction and honesty. Also able to promptly admit when I was wrong.
“Truth and Beauty” to quote Bill Evans. It is in my music, my teaching,my writing, my love, and a pretty good raisin d’être.