After school I floated around for a while. Busked on the streets in Paris until my clarinet got stolen at a phone booth, then herded baby goats on a farm in Languedoc-Rousillon. Afterwards I headed to Israel to do ethno- research on Yemenite women’s vocal music and to study orchestration. One day I received the news that a close friend from college had died, and I decided to return to the States for his funeral. So at 22 years old, I found myself back in New York, lacking gainful employment.
After a few weeks of intensive searching, I landed a position teaching music to emotionally disturbed youths at a residential treatment center. One of the largest of its kind in the country, the center housed about 1000 boys. My duties were teaching the after-school music program and conducting the choir.
I was grateful to receive a steady paycheck, but the job was exhausting. These were not your average kids; they had graduated from the school of hard knocks. Many were already experienced thieves and drug sellers. The week I arrived, one of my students – home on a weekend visit – was arrested after midnight in Queens; he had been discovered in a stretch limo along with two prostitutes, carrying several thousand dollars in cash. He was 12 years old and sang 2nd soprano in my choir.
At this place you could never predict which and how many kids were going to show up on a given afternoon, nor in what mood they would arrive. So how do you plan an after-school program that might randomly consist of a 6-year-old, four 8-year-olds, a 10, 11, and 12-year-old, three 14-year-olds, and a 17-year-old? The answer is: you don't. You summon your most potent powers of improvisation, adjust to events as they take place, and try to weather the class period, as the clock ticks ever more slowly.
Luckily I had a seasoned pro as my mentor and cohort, the drama teacher Maxine. I had seen her wilt a youngster – and many an adult – with her glare, only to turn around and lavish effusive tenderness on another. She taught me the ropes: staying ‘on message’, maintaining consistency in my program, exuding a calculated aloofness, arbitrating squabbles with impartiality, setting realistic goals, and taking time for myself when I needed it. Above all, she emphasized the kids’ desperate need for compassionate discipline.
Reggie was one of the toughest boys at the center. His name wasn't short for Reginald. It was Reggie on his birth certificate; he had been born around the time the Yankees won the World Series, in the late ‘70s. Unfortunately he hadn't quite lived up to his namesake's reputation. He was a bully with low self-esteem, prone to throwing small children across the room and to emitting bloodcurdling screams in his sleep. The rumor was that he had set fire to his grandmother's house twice. At age 9, he had been removed from his home and sent here for rehabilitation. Now, at a venerable 13 years old, he would clearly never be adopted (the quixotic wish of most of these institutionalized kids), and this unspoken reality made him even more bellicose.
I had dismissed Reggie from my choir after he punched another boy in the lip, knocking out a tooth. Nonetheless, he came regularly to my after-school music program. At first I couldn't figure out if he was appearing of his own volition or if he was being dumped on me by other teachers frustrated with his tendency to pummel smaller children at the slightest provocation (or non-provocation). Either way, he did demonstrate a remarkable soft spot and a natural aptitude for music. Most kids gravitated toward rap or other types of pop stuff (I regularly held emcee contests in which I could sometimes be cajoled to participate - yo!), but Reggie was interested in melodies; he had stellar pitch and a formidable ear, an uncanny ability to hear tunes and sing them back immediately.
One day Reggie sauntered into my room a few minutes early, which irked me because he was using up my 'sanity-time' (i.e. my break). "I wanna learn this song," he announced.
"Which song?" I responded, not looking up from my book.
"It goes like this: na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-naaaa, na-na-na-naaaaa, na-na-na-naaa....." he intoned in a blasé tenor. It was several seconds before I recognized the tune.
"That's Für Elise", I told him, amused and slightly astonished. "Where did you hear that?"
"On a commercial. What did you say, fur and leaves?"
I smiled bemusedly. "It's Beethoven."
He stared at me blankly. "That's a man?"
"Beethoven is a composer; a guy who writes music. Like me. Or Michael." I nodded towards a kid in the corner who was improvising lyrics while a cliché beat emanated feebly from a mini-Casio keyboard.
“You know him? Beethoven?” Reggie asked.
“He’s dead,” I replied. “He’s been dead for more than a hundred years.” I waited for that fact to sink in; but it didn’t seem to mean much to Reggie.
"You can teach it to me?" he implored.
I eyed him skeptically, then turned back to my book. "I'm not doing any favors for you until you learn to behave in here."
"I can behave! I can behave!" he assured me unconvincingly, tugging at my shirt.
"Get off me. OK, listen," I ventured. "Here’s the offer. I put you in charge of keeping the other kids quiet. NOT by beating on them, but by example. If you can tone down your antics in here, then I'll spend five minutes at the end of each class teaching you Für Elise. But if you mess up… forget it, Buster. You can sit on the time-out couch, like your friend Lester." I gestured towards a sullen-looking kid parked awkwardly on a faded brown corduroy divan, his lower lip drawn into a pout. “Got it?” I asked.
Reggie smiled. For better or worse, it was a deal.
Maxine didn't particularly like Reggie. So I expected her to be skeptical when I informed her about the ‘deal’. But she seemed surprisingly pleased. She was impressed by his commitment to music. “He trusts you,” she observed. “Maybe you can teach him something. Just remember, these kids are badasses, every single last one of them. If he doesn’t behave, sit his skinny behind on that couch, and let him take a few minutes to cool down.” She lit a cigarette. “Some of them need a damn lifetime to cool down.”
At first I tried to teach Reggie notation, but he became exasperated trying to read the music. One thing would lead to another, and he would end up on the time-out couch, sneering. He gave up altogether on several occasions; but each day, Phoenix-like, he arose anew, ready to fight the battle again. Eventually I dispensed with the two-way torture of teaching him to read notes, and we started to make real headway. He absorbed Für Elise by ear, using a recording I had lent him. From his progress, it became clear that he was practicing on his own; one of the staff at the dorm even lent him a keyboard, which was promptly reclaimed after Reggie smashed another kid in the ribcage with it.
The sessions were difficult for me. I would get very frustrated with his inability to concentrate for extended periods of time; the most insignificant thing could distract him - another boy's voice, a bird chirping, a car honk in the distance - and he would be useless for the remainder of the session. Particularly annoying was his habit of wearing shirts too big for him; the cuffs covered the lower halves of his hands. At first I chalked it up to the kids’ general tendency to wear dramatically oversized clothes. But it was getting towards summer, so his insistence on dressing this way was starting to seem bizarre.
On one particularly stressful day, I lost my cool. "Reggie, you've got to roll up your sleeves." He kept playing, ignoring me. "Reggie, listen to me when I talk to you. Stop playing and roll up your sleeves. They're getting in the way of your fingers, and you’re making tons of mistakes."
"Na na na na na na na na naaaaaa…" he sang along with the music, willfully deaf to my entreaties.
"OK, we'll do it the hard way then." I grabbed his left arm, gently but firmly. He squirmed. I rolled up the sleeve. The music stopped. I gasped audibly. His arm was covered with what looked like a scabby, flaking rash of bright red and white circles. Shaken, I dropped his arm; it landed weightily on the keyboard in a chromatic cluster. Reggie was staring spacily over the piano, slowly plunking random notes with his right hand. The other kids were watching, hushed.
"Man, Reggie…” I was at a loss for words. “…I'm sorry. I really am," I said, as the bell rang, not an instant too soon. Reg bolted out, along with the other kids.
It was the end of the day. I shook myself, and headed up the stairs, angry and sheepish. In all these months, why hadn't anyone informed me that the poor guy had a disease, or scars, or whatever those marks were? I decided I would check his file to find out more. On the way upstairs, I ran into Maxine. She sensed my mood.
"What's up your butt?" she inquired.
I looked at her squarely. "What the hell is wrong with Reggie?" I asked.
"He's a badass."
"Yeah, yeah. Come on, what happened to him? Why does he have those-"
"Honey," she interrupted, "you need to chill out, take a day off, and stop worrying about that hoodlum."
"I'm going up to look at his file and see what happened to him."
"I wouldn't do that, D…” she cautioned.
"Why not? Why else are the files there? How am I supposed to teach these kids when I don't know where the hell they're coming from? I just embarrassed him in front of the whole damn class; you should have seen it."
"He'll get over it."
"I'll see you tomorrow, Maxine." I said, and kept climbing.
I had never actually examined the files before, though they were easily available for us to consult. Initially I had arrived at the center with great idealism, prepared to read all the case histories. “Don’t bother, Derek, really,” Maxine had insisted. “It will just wear you out. Too much information. With these kids, you need common sense, not facts and figures. There are much more important ways to spend your time than reading those stupid reports. Here, learn to juggle.” She tossed me three tennis balls. “It’s actually easier if you start with two…” And so Maxine taught me to juggle. She also taught me devil sticks, yo-yo tricks, and various card games, which would all come in handy on numerous occasions, especially when kids were bored or restless.
But on this day I craved information, not distraction. I stomped into the office, unlocked a metal filing cabinet, grabbed several dusty notebooks, and began rifling through the pages until I arrived at Reggie's folder.
First I found a bunch of mundane vital statistics, basic facts about his family and school. Then some grade reports. Not too good, worse and worse. Some police reports. Then a psychologist's evaluation from a group home where he had stayed for a few months. I removed the booklet and stared at the worn cover. For a second I felt ashamed, as though I was preparing to read a private diary. But Reggie had never kept a diary; his own viewpoint would remain unknown. I began to read: emotional abuse; physical abuse; continual sexual abuse; cigarette burns covering his arms and legs; found unconscious numerous times; head trauma; hospitalization for schizophrenia and psychosis reports: multiple hemorrhages, grafting, attempted suicide, detox, stomach pump, burned his house down.
So it was true. He had actually burned his grandmother’s house down.
I stopped reading. How could I possibly hope to teach a kid who had already experienced so much? Maxine had been partly raised in a detention center in the South; she could relate to his pain and alienation. I felt weirdly envious of her understanding of these kids' lives. I thought about calling her, but she would have just snapped “Shut up, D; I told you not to read those stupid fuckin’ reports!” Too much information.
Reggie didn't show up to my program for the next few days. I became worried that he had decided to ‘write me up’, reporting the incident to his psychologist as an assault. The month before, one kid had fabricated a wildly elaborate and violent fantasy about a staff member beating and tying him up. The accused was cleared of wrongdoing, but the whole story so besmirched his reputation that he quit the center less than two weeks later. ‘Resigned to pursue other interests’ was how it was worded in the monthly bulletin.
So I relived the Reggie incident in my mind to try and determine whether I done or said anything that could be deemed ‘abuse’. Maxine laughed at my preoccupation with the event. "D, you need to take a day off and stop worrying about that garbage. These kids won't write you up unless they hate you or unless you insult them on purpose. Reggie’s not stupid; you made him a deal, and he's gonna collect. No one else wants that pain-in-the-ass in their program besides you anyway. Trust me; he's got nowhere else to go."
I wasn’t convinced. But sure enough, in a few days Reggie began showing up at my program regularly again. Nothing was said; it was as though the incident had never taken place.
Steady progress was made on Für Elise. Soon Reggie had memorized the opening A minor phrase and began working on the subsequent C major section. One day he seemed unusually distant and unapproachable. Instead of launching right away into the ‘song’ (as he called it), his hands drifted restlessly around the keyboard, fiddling with hints of the melody. I watched him curiously as he experimented and decided to leave him on his own for a bit. Then I set off to encourage the wanna-be rappers, who were busy trying to adjust the volume on a cheap karaoke machine that the school had recently bought.
“Don’t go!” Reggie exclaimed.
I turned around. “What do you need me for?” I asked. He was holding down the damper pedal, trilling the opening figure in the lowest octave.
"Why you think he wrote this?" he asked.
"Yeah." His hands moved pensively over the keys. "I mean, like, do you think he was hearing it all the time and just kept writing the notes down? Or did he just make it up, on the spot, like, freestyle?"
I was about to reply, but hesitated. "What do you think?" I asked him.
"I think....like, I think he was hearing it all the time, until he had the whole thing, like, in his head. Then he wrote it down, all at once.” He looked out the opened door onto the blacktop where the other kids were playing in the late afternoon light. “Sometimes I hear it at night, in my dream…the song…you know?" He looked embarrassed.
“Yeah.” I probably should have responded with something profound or authoritative - or at least humorous - but I was tired. And I had just noticed that the kids at the karaoke machine were starting to fight over the microphone, so I stepped in quickly to diffuse the situation. The bell rang and everyone ran out. Silence was a welcome relief.
About a month after the 'deal' had been struck, Maxine took me aside. "I've never seen Reggie concentrate on anything before. What you are achieving with him is incredible. What do you think about having him do a real performance for the other kids?" Her eyes sparkled. So we arranged to have Reggie perform for the entire school one afternoon, following the weekly assembly. The big show was to be in two weeks.
On the day before, Reggie and I were summoned to Maxine’s studio. She had prepared a wonderful surprise: a fake, glittery tuxedo made of shiny polyester, complete with tails and a top-hat. She fitted it on Reggie. "What a dapper young man!" she exclaimed.
He beamed. "Gotta go practice," he shouted and skipped off.
“Nice tux!” I said to Maxine and laughed. “Are you gonna have it cleaned?”
Maxine frowned at me; her mood had changed instantaneously. “These kids have nothing, Derek," she said deliberately. "Nothing. Remember that, okay? To him, that is a tuxedo.”
I was shamed into silence, remembering that Reggie hadn’t even gone home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Maxine was putting on her coat. "What other stuff are you working on with him?" she asked opaquely.
"Other stuff? What do you mean?” I asked, mystified.
"I mean, what's next?" she said, hanging up the tux.
"Why? You think he'll screw up?"
"You should be planning what comes next, that's all. Continuity, D. You ought to be working on something else, too. With Reggie." She walked wearily towards the stairs. "I'm going home; these kids are driving me crazy. See you tomorrow."
I stood there, peeved and resentful. Continuity? What was that about? I had sunk more time and energy into working with Reggie than with any other child. More time, hell. I needed to focus on other kids, many of whom had noticed that Reggie was getting more than his fair share of attention.
The big date arrived. All the kids were packed into the bleacher seats of the gym. Assemblies were always pandemonium; staff dashed around quelling fights, ordering misbehaving children back to their dorms or sending them to the director’s dreaded office. Reggie was excruciatingly nervous. Backstage, in Maxine’s studio, he paced around anxiously in his fake tux.
"I can't do it," he said. "I'm gonna forget the whole song. Everyone out there wants me to mess up. They all hate me."
"They don't hate you, Reg," I said. "They're rooting for you, and so are we. You’re gonna be great. Just take a deep breath before you start. Take two, actually. Be sure to do that, OK? Keep thinking, breathe! Hold that word in your mind as you walk out onto stage. And remember to take your bows. Show me your bow."
He bent awkwardly for too long, facing the ground, then sprang back up abruptly.
"Wait, let me try again. I’ll do it better. Watch me, watch me!"
And so it went, until the drone of the director's announcements ground to a halt. "And now, we have a special surprise for you all."
Rumblings could be heard in the crowd. Some of the older kids knew about the upcoming performance.
Reggie was sweating profusely. Maxine gave him a rough kiss and practically pushed him out into the gym. We watched - not without trepidation - from backstage as he meandered foggily towards the out-of-tune upright piano and plopped down, stoop-shouldered, on the bench. Then he suddenly stood bolt upright. He had forgotten to take his bow. He looked back at us for reassurance; Maxine stared impassively back at him. Painstakingly he turned around and took his segmented bow. At this point, a couple of kids in the audience applauded sporadically, and it gave Reggie courage. He sat back down on the bench and, after what seemed like ages - maybe he was taking deep breaths? - he lifted his hands and began to play.
And play. He finished the first eight bars and took the repeat. Then he took took it again. And again. He would finish each time with a slight ritard, then tentatively begin the same opening phrase. It was minimalist Beethoven. I turned to Maxine. "He's stuck in a loop!” I whispered. “I can't believe it; we worked on this transition so many damn times!"
"Shut up!" she whispered back excitedly. "He'll get it. Don’t worry about it! These kids don’t know Beethoven from a hole in the ground." She was clearly enjoying herself, but I felt suffocated with empathy. With each repetition of the first phrase, the notes became more weighty and bedraggled. Rather than a light and effusive work, it began to sound like a dirge, the heavy keys pounding gloomily one after another.
After what seemed like endless iterations of the first eight bars, Reggie paused for an achingly long interval. And then, miraculously – instead of the trill – a heavenly sound ensued: three tentative upwardly rising notes, and the tonality changed – C major! Reggie had done it; he had broken the cycle! He had worked his way out of his first ever memory slip of his first ever performance. He began to gain confidence and started to play more relaxed and fully. Maxine and I could barely contain our glee. She squeezed my arm and smiled as we listened. "This is the best day of his life, you know," she said, regarding him wistfully. "The best day of his life, for sure."
Reggie finished Für Elise in an anticlimactic fashion; he stopped abruptly with hectic incertitude, then turned his head back towards Maxine and me, grimacing imploringly. His hands were still poised at the keyboard and he was trembling. The atmosphere in the ‘concert hall’ was charged with tension; at that moment, you could have heard a switchblade drop - from out of one of the kids' pockets. Luckily, none did. Maxine gave an almost imperceptible nod towards the audience. Reggie stood up awkwardly, turned to his colleagues, and bowed stiffly. The gym erupted in cheers. The kids screamed and hooted. Reggie stood silhouetted in the glare of the flourescent lights. He bowed again. He bowed yet again, looked back agitatedly, then turned and bowed again. The hoots had become a rhythmic chant and the kids were stamping their feet. “Reggie! Reggie!”
"Damn, I forgot to tell him how to exit the stage!" I blurted. So I dashed out into the limelight of the gym floor, grabbed his shoulder, and ushered him back to the studio. He was panting and dazed, but very happy. His heart was beating wildly. Maxine hugged and kissed him. The kids were already scampering out of the gym in an unruly mob, herded by the staff through the double-doors.
I hadn't see Reggie for at least a week after his grand success. He had finally been allowed home on a short visit, and hadn’t shown up to my program since he’d returned to the center. Two kids had been assigned to help clean up my room. The bell rang, and they instantaneously sprinted up the stairs and outside.
I hadn’t seen Maxine either; she had been busy making costumes for a new play. Before leaving, I stopped at her studio to linger a bit. She was busy knitting wool stockings for the show. “How’s it going?” I asked.
“Same as it ever was,” she said, without looking up.
I noticed the shiny tux hanging on the rack and chortled. “Man, I still can't get over that performance, you know? I’m just so proud of Reggie,” I said. "Where's the top hat, by the way?"
"Gave it to him," she said.
“Hey, I haven’t even seen Reggie once since the show! You have?”
“Once,” she said. “That’s when I gave him the hat.”
I feigned indignation. “Oh, so he came to your program! I guess now Reggie's too big a star for me, huh?" I laughed.
"Guess so," she said curtly. "Or vice versa, maybe." An uncomfortable silence welled up. "What's that supposed to mean?" I asked.
She fixed her gaze on me. "Reggie's not coming back to your program. He's not coming back here. Period."
I was uncomprehending. "He went home…" I blinked. "You mean…his grandmother took him in? She wants him back?" That would have been a surprise, but anything was possible.
Maxine shook her head slowly and kept knitting. "They’ve sent him upstate. He tried to burn his house down. Again." She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Three strikes.”
‘Upstate.’ That was practically a swear word. Worse, actually. Around here swear words were more common than normal speech. But 'upstate' was a bad luck spell, an unutterable curse. It meant a juvenile detention center, in a new, faraway place, And it meant a rougher, harder, rawer cycle of institutionalized despair.
I stood frozen in the doorway, feeling an unfamiliar mixture of anger, irony, and impotence. I remained there for a while, staring vacuously at the glittering tux draped in faux-elegance over its wire hanger.
"Little badass..." Maxine grinned and shook her head, still knitting.