“CMack’s Angels” used the vocal music annex for rehearsals. It contained a piano and risers; the students inevitably arrived before me. They gathered on the annex porch steps and loudly insulted one another. Overlapping accusations of “big head,” and “fake Nike,” and “butter teeth,” and “big juicy girl” could be heard by the neighbors across the street, the classes in the gymnasium, and, if the second story windows were open, all the way to the cafeteria. Empty Cheetos bags littered the area, dress code violations were as plentiful as the insults, and I once again wondered why I left my job at Dillons grocery store (just as I was going to be sent to manager training) to become a teacher.
When I worked at Dillons, there was a screen between me and potential insult hurlers, a security guard, and a janitor. I could not take any work home with me because my job was to count money, bundle checks, balance tills, and send Western Union money transfers. I clocked in, I worked very hard for 5 to 9 hours, and then I clocked out. I began as a donut fryer and eventually became a closing manager. When I clocked out, my workday was done. Finished. Complete.
As a teacher, my workday was never done. When I was not at school, I was thinking about school. I noticed things like misspelled signs, catchy song lyrics, and radio show formats because they all gave me ideas for seventh grade Language Arts lessons. Usually, my preoccupation with school was productive and energizing.
Arriving to practice and discovering my angels engaged in all sorts of non-angelic behavior was disheartening. But, as I have mentioned before, I have a huge soft spot for seventh grade frequent flyers. Underneath the bravado, the chest thumping, and the horseplay, I saw curious, creative, and vulnerable beings trying to find their way.
“I’m happy to see you, please go in and have a seat on the risers,” I greeted my angels.
They jostled for the back and front rows.
I stared at them. I slowly took my gaze across one row, then another, and then another until I had looked into all of those beautiful, bright eyes.
“You mad, Ms. CMack?” Greg was always the bravest and the boldest.
“No, I’m not mad,” I said calmly and continued to stare at one row after another.
“Yes you is,” he said under his breath.
“She said she ain’t mad,” said Alondra.
“She is disappointed,” another angel said in a patronizing voice while putting air quotes around disappointed.
“No, I am not mad. I am disappointed. But, mostly, I am just curious,” I said.
Some of the seventh graders sat with bowed heads, some looked at me with tilted chins, and Greg broke the silence.
“What you want to know, Ms. CMack? What is you curious about?”
“Well, Greg, thanks for asking, I am curious how many of you regularly attend church on Sunday. You do not have to tell me, but I am curious.”
Nearly every hand shot up proudly and cries of, “I be goin’ to church every Sunday,” and “My grandma don’t give me no choice,” and “I go to church and Sunday school” competed for air space.
“Oh,” I said, “I was curious because I did not think you knew how to act in church.”
My students were rightfully insulted.
Their volume increased in protest.
I held up my hands, palms toward them as if asking forgiveness and waited for them to be silent.
“So, when you get to church, you tell Mr. Smith that his head is so big it looks like a pumpkin?” Then you scrunch up your face at Mrs. Smith and say, “Mrs. Smith, your breath is k-k-k-k-k-kickin’ today? Next, you holler at Mr. Taylor that his teeth are as yellow as buttered movie popcorn?”
The students started to giggle and give each other sideways glances.
“Or,” I ask, “do you just go straight to the take-downs, the wrestling, and the chest thumping? Is that what you do to all of the church mothers and deacons?”
“I tol’ you she was mad,” Greg proclaimed.
“Shut up, Greg!” several students pleaded.
Maurice, a shy, short, quiet boy held up his hand. When Maurice held up his hand he did not appear to be wielding a sword, or sitting on a sledge hammer, or punctuate his hand movements with verbal staccatos of “Oh! Oh! Oh!” In other words, Maurice was mature for a seventh-grade boy and also a natural peacemaker. He was a frequent flyer because he rarely turned in homework or had any supplies, not for physical aggression or outrageously loud behavior.
I loved them all—the rowdy, the rebellious, and the reserved—but I especially loved Maurice in that instant.
“Ms. CMack, I think you are trying to tell us not to act like a bunch of fools when we are outside waiting for you. You don’t want us to playfight because those old people across the street might think we are really fighting and call the school secretary. Then the school secretary tells the principal that kids is fighting. Then the principal ask where and the secretary say out by the music annex,” Maurice said.
Greg joined in, “Yeah, and everybody already know we is the bad kids so if an old lady say that we fighting, the principal is going to believe that we fighting. Ms. CMack, is we still going to have a gospel choir?”
“Yes,” I said, “absolutely! We are going to have the best middle school gospel choir ever.”
“We the only middle school gospel choir,” Greg said.
“So,” Alondra shot back, “we can be the only and the still be the best.”
“We are going to spend our precious time on precious music. We are going to be ready when our piano player gets here. We are going to thank him. We are going to act in a way that would make everyone’s grandma proud.”