I was a young teacher once. It’s true, dear readers. I wasn’t always old and fat and cynical. Well, I wasn’t always old and fat.
My first British teaching post was at the school next door to our flat. When I taught there I used to commute in from my flat in East London. Now I live next door to that same school and commute to my work in East London. Ironic, I know. It sums me up, always getting things barse ackwards.
It is an Anglican church school as it has been since 1699. I arrived 287 after it was founded; reinforcing the old World War II British stereotype that the Yanks are late for everything. Except the buffet queue.
The old school was attached in principal, not geographically, to an even older church three streets away. The church is a London landmark. It stands on what was the upper banks of the ancient Thames, occupying the same site for almost a millennium. A Victorian engineer named Bazalgette later narrowed the Thames to create London’s sewer system (he then went on to become one of the original engineers to work on the Blackwall Tunnel project). The narrowing of the Thames meant the church which had stood on the banks of the river was now 100 meters from the shoreline. It remains so to this day.
The pupils from the school would fill the church on certain Holy Days and larger school celebrations. Each of those special days would have a theme. Each class would perform a song or a dance or a short play based around the same motif. The transitions between class performances would take the form of a communal song that all the children knew.
And it is those communal songs that form the objective of today’s blog.
As adults, we yearn for changes to our daily routine. We crave variety. Many children do not. Many children learn by repetition and adhering to constant patterns to their day.
For example, the rhythmic and phonetic pattern of the Alphabet Song is one of the first thing toddlers learn by heart. It is an early skill that follows us through our lives. I’ll prove it:
What is the fifteenth letter of the alphabet?
I’ll wait here patiently while you sing to yourself the same alphabet song you learned as a two year old and count on your fingers.
The children of that old Anglican school had to know a handful of songs by heart that would be appropriate for the communal singing section of special days at our local church.
The music teacher taught them to sing a few songs by an English folk-poet and song writer named Sydney Carter. You might not know his name, dear readers, but you will certainly recognise the songs he wrote. I am certain those who went to a British school could join in if I started singing, “Dance then, wherever you may be…” Perhaps a few less but certainly a respectable number would sing along to “Life is like a magic penny…” or “One more step along the road I go…” or “When I needed a neighbour were you there…”
Kids like Sydney Carter songs. They are easy to sing and catchy. But anyone who has children and has had the experience of listening to the same children’s song CD in the car, the same DVD over and over again ad-nauseum will know these songs quickly challenge the most passive of souls.
If the above paragraph describes your experience, dear readers, I share your pain. With my own children it was Barney the Purple Dinosaur singing “If all the raindrops were lemon drops and gumdrops…” Even today, at least 11 years on, I can’t hear that song without wanting to rip my ear drums out with a dessert spoon. Hell has a special place reserved for that bloody dinosaur and his friend Baby Bop as well. And it will make la Brea Tar Pits looks look like a stroll in the prehistoric rainforest, I promise you that much.
But I digress.
So Sydney Carter songs were the plat du jour for communal singing. Always. Sydney. Carter.
First song: Lord of the Dance. Next: Magic Penny. Third: When I need a Neighbour. “And on our way out of church”, the priest would say, “I want to hear everyone singing ‘One More Step Along the Road’ loud enough so Christ in all His Glory and all His angels can hear you.”
I sat at the back of the church with my class of 11 year olds during one such service. I sat next to another young teacher, not from the USA but from New Zealand. We shared the same contempt for the choice of music. We quietly complained to each other as the church piano tinkled the intro to the next predictable song.
An elderly gentleman entered the church and stood at the back, directly behind us. This was not unusual as aforementioned; the church is a London landmark and is frequented by tourists. I turned to my Kiwi colleague and whispered, too loudly, “If I hear one more fucking Sydney Carter song I swear to God I am going to scream the place down.”
I immediately realised my stage whisper had caught the ear of the tourist behind us. I turned and smiled at him apologetically for my inappropriate language in church and in a school service in a church at that. He smiled back, forgivingly.
You know where this story is going by now, don’t you dear readers?
At the end of the service the priest announced that before our final song (which he expected the children to sing with gusto enough to impress Mary Mother of God herself) he wanted to introduce a friend of his and a special guest.
“Boys and girls, I told my friend how well you sing his songs and he has come along to hear you for himself. Let’s give a big school welcome to Sydney Carter!”
I didn’t have to turn around to know who was standing behind me.
RIP and apologies to Sydney Carter 1915-2004
“Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.”
Keep the Faith,