From my 3rd through my 5th years teaching middle school, another teacher and I ran a school talent show, first once a year and then twice. There was a comedy act or two, a rock band, a chorus elective led by the two school secretaries and singing Motown songs mostly, some student films made under the auspices of a filmmaking elective the two of us taught, some teacher skits and joke music videos, one of which you can still find on YouTube, some gymnastics routines, a few socially inept boys playing piano, lots of girls singing pop songs, a rapper or two, one or two Chinese-language and Spanish-language singing acts, and lots and lots of dance acts, some good, some terrible. When I started at the school- also when I started helping out with the talent show- the school was a tiny set of five classrooms on one end of the third floor hallway that was mostly given over to administrative offices for the city’s school safety officers, above two small but not as-small elementary schools on the two floors below, and for a month or two before the talent show the little microcosm of a school would get consumed by auditions, rehearsals, film production, gathering the sound equipment and piecing together backup bands for the chorus, tearful fights among dance groups with creative differences, begged entreaties for this kid or that to join somebody’s act, flyers and posters promoting the various acts of the show, along with the secret preparations for whatever silliness the teachers had planned, which usually involved “leaked footage” of teachers sneaking out of detention or of the principal wearing a do-rag and gold chains; in one skit I jumped on top of a table placed on stage that was the setting for a dramatized staff meeting and, paraphrasing Phife Dawg, called out “I like ’em white brown yellow porto rican and haitian, my name is [Spotted Toad] from the Jewish nation”: you get the idea. Teaching middle school is full of agonies and disappointments but in one way it is far superior to teaching high school: the kids are still at an age in which the school is their world, and most of us teachers were young enough in spirit or reality to have little in the way of competing demands on our time and emotional energies.
The following year I got married and my first child was born; midway through the school year our district superintendent was visiting and, always presumptuous, buttonholed me at the door of my classroom to ask me why I wasn’t running the talent show anymore. I explained that family life was keeping me pretty busy, to which she replied, “well, the baby isn’t here yet!” True enough, although giving up the show, along with simply spending fewer evenings in the school building, had probably made me a better teacher and made my science class finally closer to what I was going for all along; giving half of yourself to a community and keeping some in reserve is often more efficacious than giving all. But occasionally, even now, I’ll hear one of the mid-2000s pop songs that were the talent show’s bread-and-butter and find myself nodding and tapping along. I wonder if the reason so often we find our musical tastes fixed in our late teens is not merely because of our declining neural plasticity but because we never again have the experience of being in the madding crowd the way we were in school, among those who would teach us to love a new or new-to-us song; surely the formation of our tastes is a matter of who we would think ourselves like or akin to as much as it is a dispassionate judgment of aesthetic form.
The talent shows themselves were seemingly epic in the moment, even if in reality they only stretched from six-thirty to eight or so: fifteen to twenty five acts going on one after another, with a crew of hyperalert miniature roadies passing up and down microphones and instruments on and off the stage and eyeing the set list gravely to see what was coming next, and the audience of students and parents and eventually alumni of the school waving their cell phones back and forth in imitation of lighters at a concert, and at least sixteen different boys standing up and pretending to hold the winning raffle ticket when the PTO president got up midway through the evening’s entertainments to demand silence and announce the results of the fundraiser they had held at the door. Then the principal would stand up and shush the boys and ask for silence for the next act, for the tiny kid waiting anxiously in suit-and-tie to go play piano or the six girls dressed in marginally-school-appropriate outfits on the wings of the stage to go dance to “Hot in Herre” or “Pan de Replay,” and the boys holding up the imaginary raffle tickets would snicker at the principal and then sit down, knowing that in another three acts the teacher skit would start and the principal would be revealed onstage in do-rag and basketball jersey, demanding candy over the PA system or throwing paper airplanes in the faculty meeting. This was the agreement we made in that school for its first few years- that we’d do our part to make the school a fun-enough place and the kids would work reasonably hard and treat us like human beings when they could, and forgive us the disorganization and mishaps of trying something new. The talent show didn’t make anybody learn much more, of course, or learn more at all, but the point of school is hardly learning, but to figure out a way to be in the same building with a bunch of other people day after day after day, to clap when the lights come on and laugh even when a joke doesn’t quite go right, to do your piece and then let somebody else go onstage and do theirs.