Walkabout. Learning to Sing with Miss Quinn Edition.
Often when I walk along the canal, I listen to music on my headphones. Sometimes I sing along, which doesn’t seem to bother the fish but backyard dogs don’t particularly appreciate it. They remind me of Miss Quinn.
Miss Quinn, the music teacher, was not to be trifled with. Not on a good day, not on a bad day, and most certainly, not on music day, especially when music day was the day before the school-wide music show. Miss Quinn: Think of a rotund dervish of brightly colored flowing dresses, silk scarves, and gold lamé shoes with an unkempt shock of fire engine red hair preceded by a deadly, cloying musk of roses and meat loaf, whirling into my sixth grade class to practice one more time, our song, “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. We were terrified.
Her piano had not arrived yet. When it finally did arrive, pushed through the door by my best friend Zookie, it sailed into the classroom unfettered, nearly knocked down Miss Quinn, careened into several desks in the front row, sending Bernadette, Olive, and Robert scurrying for their lives. Pandemonium. Zookie disappeared down the hallway. Miss Quinn was furious. She flailed her arms and screamed orders to several boys in the front of the class until the piano chair was retrieved from the second row of desks and reunited with the piano in the front of the room. Silence. No one uttered a sound or looked anywhere but at our desks.
And we practiced. And practiced. “Raindrops on roses.” “Whiskers on kittens.” We sang our hearts out until Miss Quinn beat down hard on the piano keys twice, slammed down the cover, stood up in a furious huff so violently that the chair flew over behind her. She stared at us. Each of us individually, and all of us at once. There was nowhere to hide.
One of you, she finally cursed. One of you is singing off key. One of you is ruining this performance for the class. For the concert. For the whole school! I will find out who the culprit is who hates music so much that they can’t even sing in tune.
And so the inquisition began. One by one, we had to stand and sing by ourselves for Miss Quinn. It was embarrassing and painful and as she worked her way to the back of the class, I was worried. Jean Newbower sat next to me in the last row. Jean Newbower may have been the tallest girl in sixth grade, but she had the smallest, squeakiest voice in our class. When Jean stood to sing, I cringed. But to my amazement, she bellowed out her lines like an opera singer. Next! boomed Miss Quinn.
I stood, confident. I had to sing the lines, “When the dog bites, when the bee stings.” My friend David, in the third row, still in the world of the living, was bold enough to shoot me a quick glance, followed by pantomiming with his mouth full of braces, a snapping dog. I almost lost it, caught myself, but a brief smile escaped across my face.
So this is funny, Arthur; is it? You think this song from the greatest musical of all time is humorous?
I snapped to attention. I assured her I was serious and when she commanded me to sing, I took a deep breath and thought that, to make up for my lapse in focus, I would add a hand move I had seen Vic Damone use on The Ed Sullivan Show the previous Sunday.
One, two, three, I counted out. And then my right hand gyrated up and down to the beat of my snapping fingers, and I crooned, “When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling bluuuuuuuue…”
Stop! Stop! Miss Quinn yelled. You are the one! She pointed at me. You are the culprit! You cannot sing in tune. From now on, she bellowed, through practice and through the concert on stage tomorrow night, I want you to mouth the words to this song! I don’t want to hear a sound out of you. Not a sound! Do you understand?
I nodded and sat down. David shot me a look of pure terror. I closed my eyes. I went silent.
I did not sing.