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Cooties

Big stuff going on in education right now--teachers marching, billionaires sneering, Sixty Minutes fantasizing and Obama suggesting that we'd better pass his update on a truly destructive law, or 82% of schools everywhere will sink into a black hole.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, kids are risking their lives by taking Band class. That's right, bacteria and fungi are endangering our music students. Research done on thirteen scummy band instruments proves this must be true; therefore, the article suggests, kids are now justified in quitting band, immediately. Sigh.

As a middle school band teacher, I was the resident Saliva Queen. Contact with bodily fluids is inevitable in the band room; I kept soap, disinfectant and bleach handy next to the sink. Note: these items are not available in the school supply room, and must be purchased by a teacher. The first thing a kid learned when he got his hands on that shiny euphonium was how to keep it sanitary.

Keeping things clean in the band room is the equivalent of showering in gym class: it should be a given. The bigger issue is personal contact.

I'm a touchy-feely kind of person. As a middle school teacher, I used a hand-on-shoulder gesture to calm down angry boys, and gentle one-finger contact to indicate "let's get moving, guys"--or "cool hoodie!" A principal once requested that I refrain from hugging students at the annual awards night, because it embarrassed the other teachers and made the program too long.

In my college music methods class, we were instructed never to touch a child's fingers, when demonstrating a drumstick grip or clarinet fingering, but to use a pencil instead, to avoid any appearance of impropriety. I don't remember anyone ever telling me not to touch the kids because they were agents of infection, however.

After decades of teaching in secondary environments, I moved to a position teaching elementary music--a kind of touchy-feely banquet. Almost 500 children (with their attendant secretions and incubating viruses) passed through my classroom every week, and most of them wanted a hug, right now.

The teacher I replaced had words of wisdom for me, as she was moving her stuff out of the room: Don't let the children touch you. As I helped put the last plastic crates in her trunk, she added that anti-bacterial hand gel would become my best friend.

In my year at the elementary, I was sick enough to be out of school five times, sometimes for multiple-day stretches. It's often easier to come to school when you don't feel tiptop--these were days where I simply could not gut it out. I had symptoms you wouldn't mention at a dinner party, the Bronchitis That Wouldn't Leave, and a full-blown asthma attack requiring a trip to the emergency room.

I was in a rundown portable classroom, with two dusty window units supplying heat (lots of heat) in the winter. The air flow system was comprised of two features--the quarter-inch crack between the two halves of the portable (which I covered up with posters) and a broken vent, through which snow drifted. I spent most of my music budget on a large circular carpet (cut from a remnant) because the floor was disgusting--covered with duct tape and who knows what else. There was no water source (or phone or computer). But I liked this classroom. It had a funky, casual ambiance that matched my improvisatory teaching style.

It wasn't the room that caused illness, however. It was the centerpiece of my work--the adorable children, rocketing through the slush up the splintery steps ready to sing, move and play instruments. Little kids want to sit next to their teacher, hold her hand in the circle dance, and breathe heavily and moistly in her immediate vicinity. I was clutched everywhere, but always with the best intentions.

Teaching music is a very people-oriented occupation. Making music is what we're meant to do, as human beings. Cooties and all.

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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