The “music lady” was named Mrs. Drogy. She must have been in her late-60s. She wore her hair piled in a sloppy bun. Long, beaded earrings dangled down her neck and withered face. Her neck was a wattle of flesh housing a raspy voice.
Just saying the name Drogy made me feel like I had to clear my throat.
Mrs. Drogy was heavy-set and wore a variety of muumuus printed with giant petunias. She moved slowly about the room but made a point of walking all the way over to the world map that hung on the far wall and pointing out the location of each song’s country of origin. It seemed we spent most of every hour singing traditional folk songs from around the world, and we squinted to make out the tiny dot that was supposed to be Israel as Mrs. Drogy pointed at it with her rubber-tipped wooden stick.
She would say “Portugal” like she was hiding wads of gum in her cheeks, and we would repeat the word after her.
The best part was getting to play an instrument. Once each class, a handful of us were allowed to come to the front and play along. If you were picked first, you chose your instrument first, probably the triangle. If you were picked last, you banged together a pair of old sticks with stripped black paint. Sometimes a single child was chosen to play Mrs. Drogy’s autoharp. You’d strum the strings with a pick and Drogy would command you to push down the correct chord button at the right time. No matter how easy it looked, no one ever made anything very musical come out of that contraption.
When Mrs. Drogy sang, her garbled voice became clear and filled with vibrato. Her dull sausage fingers played the autoharp, and though the resulting music was loud and clear and earned our respect, it felt ancient and decrepit.
Then in third grade everything changed.
I can still vividly remember walking into the music room that year. Unbeknownst to us, Mrs. Drogy had retired. In her place sat Miss Burchick.
Miss Burchick was fresh out of college and most likely in her mid-20s. She looked young enough to make elementary school kids think, “Wow… she’s young.” She styled her hair in a jet black bob and often wore black and white striped tops with short, tight-fitting black skirts, sometimes with sheer stockings underneath. Her cheekbones were high and finely chiseled. Her nose was petite, her eyes were warm blue. To say she was pretty was an understatement.
Miss Burchick didn’t play the autoharp; she played the acoustic guitar, and when I think of her now, I see her like this, blonde guitar resting on her right thigh, looking diminutive behind its wide, round body.
On the first day she taught us the “Crawdad Song” and belted it, strumming the guitar and rocking her whole body, sending silky wisps of her black bob flying. None of us had ever seen anything like it.
We heard, “You get a line, I’ll get a pole, honey… You get a line, I’ll get a pole, babe… BA-AAA-BYYYY!”
And that was it. Right then I knew we were privy to something special. Miss Burchick belted the word “baby” with abandon, throwing her head back with eyes closed, a wide grin on her face. The grin remained when she finished and looked reassuringly at those of us who simply stared back, agape. It was as if she knew this class had never sung songs in which people called each other “babe” or “baby.” It was as if she knew she was breaking the constraints of a bygone era in that music room, as if she knew her mission was to free us from outdated notions about what music should be.
That was the moment I knew I loved Miss Burchick.
She encouraged us to belt like her, and the boldest kids could be heard screaming, “BA-AAA-BYYY!” It seemed so wonderful and profane. And our enthusiasm only inspired Miss Burchick to further rock and shake and let her hair fly. She showed us what it meant to love music.
We sang this way all year. We sang Beatles, John Denver, and Jim Croce tunes. We sang traditional songs made more folksy, bluesy, or jazzy by Miss Burchick and her guitar. We learned about other religions when she played a recording of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and explained the meaning of “hare krishna, hare rama.” We learned about other cultures when she played recordings of Ravi Shankar’s Indian sitar music and Jamaican reggae.
I didn’t hear an autoharp all year long.
I wish I could remember my last day in Miss Burchick’s music room, but I don’t. There were never any goodbyes, never any thoughts on the last day that it would really be the last day.
The following year the music class was discontinued from our school curriculum, and we never saw Miss Burchick again. I wondered if she moved on and shared her art with other students. I knew her passion for music could never be truly silenced, and I’d like to think it still resonates in all of us who were lucky enough to share her first year as our music teacher.
Christian Cerone was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. After a boring stint in the corporate world, including a few good years at the Los Angeles Times, Cerone was hired as a language arts/social studies teacher in the LA Unified School District, where he survived a year and a half at a middle school and eight years at El Camino Real High School. After spending a few years away from teaching in Portland, he enjoyed a one-year stint at Taipei American School in Taiwan. He has since settled with his family in Seattle and teaches language arts at Renton High School. He has a wife, two children, and a nagging desire to figure out what he wants to be when he gets older.