So, when I attended the school it was the policy to require every student to take some sort of home economics class, even the boys, though only boys were required to take a shop class of some sort, as well. A half-sexist policy, I suppose, but there it is. It has undoubtedly changed by now. But in those days, I had to take either cooking or sewing, and I chose sewing, as the cooking students had to eat their mistakes. (Dickensien!) In the sewing class, we made aprons out of unbleached muslin. Even then, it struck me as odd that we were making something that would have been useful had we taken the cooking class, instead. But, had we taken the cooking class, we would not have made the aprons. This may have been the point in my academic career when I began to realize that school was sort of messed up.
But sewing class isn't what I was talking about. I was talking about Put on Your Old Grey Bonnet. You see, the school, ever progressive and enlightened, also required every student to take classes in art or music, too. So, in seventh grade, I enrolled in the boy's chorus class. I had wanted to be in the band, and, in fifth grade, the band teacher from Garvey School had come around to all the elementary schools in the district and tested all the students for their ability to recognize tones. I passed, and got to take a clarinet home that night. The band teacher, M. Roberts, chose that instrument, because I was rather small at the time, and he thought the clarinet about the right size for me. I was delighted with it, but my mother wasn't. She had always made a big deal about wanting her children to have music lessons, and had in fact provided my older brother with a guitar, but when she saw the clarinet, she freaked. Not in any obvious way, of course, but by various signs and signals and oblique comments, she mad it clear that she didn't want me to have it. There were remarks about noise from practicing, and remarks about it getting lost or damaged, and remarks about the fact that it had been played by other kids and was probably unclean. At any rate, I got the message, and didn't join the band.
Instead, as I said, I ended up in the boy's chorus. There was a half-assed test to get in to that organization, as well, and everybody passed it, even those who couldn't carry a tune. The teacher was a balding man in late middle age named Mr. Roth. It turned out that he had a fondness for sentimental and comic songs of the Victorian era, and those became the bulk of our repertoire. Among them was Put on Your Old Grey Bonnet. From time to time, one of those songs we spent so much time singing will pop into my head, and tonight, it just happens to be that one. I remember Mr. Roth, playing (rather badly) on an old, slightly out-of-tune piano, singing along with us, frequently dropping an octave, since the songs all seemed to be in the wrong key for him, and he wasn't all that good a singer, himself. About the only song we learned in that class which wasn't a decrepit once-popular piece was Bach's setting for the Ave Maria, which we learned specifically for a Christmas concert which was given at a local church. There were about thirty of us in the class, but I was one of only six who showed up for the performance. Luckily, the event did not thus turn into a fiasco, as one of the other five who showed up was a curly-haired blond named Glen, who sang the lead in that particular number. He had an astonishingly good voice, full of boyish sweetness, but already rich and resonant. It turned out to be the best concert we ever gave.
Since there was a boy's chorus at the school, there was also a girl's chorus, and on one occasion, the two were merged for a special performance. The teacher of the girl's chorus was a Mrs. Jones, who had actually been my first grade teacher. She was considerably more talented than Mr. Roth, but shared with him a fondness for material that might be considered just a bit odd for performance by children of twelve or thirteen. Specifically, she was a fan of the works of Cole Porter. Among the songs she chose for this performance were Night and Day, and What is this Thing Called Love? I can tell you that it seemed very strange to me at that age to be singing:
Night and day, under the hide of me,
There's an oh, such a hungry yearning burning inside of me,
And this torment won't be through
'Till you let me spend my life making love to you,
Day and night, night and day.
This seemed even stranger to me than Mr. Roth's old favorite:
Put on your old grey bonnet
With the blue ribbon on it
While I hitch old Dobbin to the shay,
And through the fields of clover
We'll go riding off to Dover
On our golden wedding day.
I suppose I could make the case that it was experiences such as these that contributed so much to the general weirdness which I have displayed for most of my adult life. On the other hand, maybe I'd have been weird even without these experiences. I suppose I'll never know. What I do know is that, somewhere in a drawer, I have a small 14k gold pin in the shape of a musical note, with the initials "GBC" engraved on it, for "Garvey Boy's Chorus." It is an odd little relic of an odd time, as are the Victorian songs which now and then work their way into my consciousness, even after all these years. And, once in a while, when I hear a Cole Porter song, I find myself chuckling at the memory of a room full of pre-pubescent children of the rock and roll era singing Night and Day.