The Chronicles of Marla Callahan, Teacher – Part 1

Marla glanced at the clock as Arianne knocked and waltzed in.

“Hi, Ms. Callahan! Sorry I’m a li’l late, I was finishing up at the Caf!”

It was ten after. Marla wondered, just out of curiosity, what Arianne would have had to give up in the session with her lunch mates to arrive on time for her lesson. She wondered if closing out her conversation and arriving on time ever occurred to her precocious student. This was habitual, Marla speculated; a life style. It was a culture. All the students did it, she thought, to avoid being labeled “complicit” to the rules of the institution. It was “the thing”!

“Can you warm me up?” It was 3:30 in the afternoon.

“Do you have any ensembles or singing classes earlier in the day, Arianne? Can we sing some of the assigned materials I gave you last week? You don’t really think coming to class ten minutes late allows you to warm up, do you? Plug in your cell phone and let’s get started… Uh, you did bring something to sing for me, didn’t you?”

“Uhhhh, no, Ma’am, I was wondering if you could warm me up ‘cause I have a gig at 6:30 in Harbourstown. Actually, I have to leave a little early so I can get to the train in time!”

“So you haven’t sung today, you just woke up, and you came to me late to get you started, huh? Hmmm… And leaving early means you’ll do a couple of hums, a scale, sing through the chorus/belt part, and then, ‘see ya’!?”

“Uh, I guess so…. Do we have to do the hums and the scales?”

Let’s not get too deep here; money is not so important to many people anymore. The fact that your folks pay twelve thousand dollars for your voice lessons out of the thirty-eight-thousand- dollar full tuition, has no bearing on your value system. It’s just one more thing they got for you to “entertain” you through your adolescence. It’s merely a technicality, morphing from meme to post to video to flirtation, never landing on any one thing or idea that warrants your full attention, or, heaven forbid, commitment. It is also not a facet exclusively of affluence, the total unconsciousness to cost – value – expense. Youth is inherently a state of unawareness of the value of life. Regardless of economic status though, the consciousness to cost is lost on some youth. It was interesting to Marla that the students who did not come from a more economically enriched background were preoccupied with cost only from the position of want and pining; the other end of the economic arc was a world of total disregard for what it cost the parents, with a simultaneous preoccupation with display of their access to everyone who cared enough to pay attention. Either way, it spelled doom for the youth of the day whom Marla felt were committed to a new term Marla had made up, “Obliviosity”!

Marla kept remembering the line her voice teacher used to say to her.

“You will have students like yourself one of these days!”

She remembered she used to laugh and say,

“Oh, no, Mrs. Jörgenson, I am going to be a singer! I will never have to settle for teaching, I’m gonna be on the road!”


These days in the latter part of her teaching career, when it felt as if she could easily assume no one heard her anymore, Marla had a strangely calm inner peace about the state of education in her school system. Maybe the fact was that the same hopelessness had come over her own elders in dealing with her and her contemporaries. Maybe it was generational. Maybe it was the human state of being. It certainly seemed that Mrs. Jörgenson hadn’t been so lazy, so lacking in discipline, commitment to learning as Marla remembered herself as being. She had been a highly respected performer and eventual mentor in the field of classical pedagogy. Marla had never had even a hint of self-indulgence or laziness when she went to Mrs. Jörgenson’s office half hung over twice a week for five whole semesters. (It would have been six, but Marla painfully that she had indeed flunked one semester when poor Mrs. Jörgenson had had enough. Art and pictures from performances in La Scala, the Met, and all the roles in which she had been so glamorous covered the walls of her studio from ceiling to floor! Marla had been awed but not inspired in viewing these pieces hanging in her voice teacher’s office. She knew she’d never live like that! It was too much work! She thought to herself…So one of the semesters, her spring semester junior year she’d done absolutely nothing! And paid for it with a grade of “F”!

“You have students just as lazy and un-focused as you were, and they will have students like them! Get over it and listen to this girl’s song so she can get out of your office!”, she hrrrumphed.

Marla’s social life had conflicted with her need to get out of college and ease her own parents’ financial strife. Now she recalled that conflict over and over every time Arianne and a few other students were late or absent. Some never even showed up for class after the first meeting. This was a half-assed style of student-hood she’d forgotten. Blow it off, and if you do go, just hit the joint a couple times before you leave so you can stay chill while she’s raking you over the coals about being unprepared. It’s just a fifty-minute lesson! You can make it! Go in fifteen minutes late and lie and say you have a gig and have to leave early. Then come back to the room and finish the roach, take a well-deserved nap and wake up in time for the next class where you have to do the same thing. Then go to dinner, hang with the other loafers, spend the evening playing spades, drinking, getting wasted, and wake up the next morning to do it all again. Listen to some Gil Scott-Heron, Last Poets, glance over at your Brahms book, you know, so you’ll be able to say you “studied”.

“Boy, if my students could hear what I’m thinking! They’d be blown away! They think we have no past, no misspent youth, no way to relate to their immature dalliances. Pitiful little buggers!”, she chuckled to herself.

Marla’d had no sense of how to structure her life, especially not financially. The concept of savings, investment, dividends, the language of an organized monetary scheme were other people’s luxuries. The Callahans didn’t have that advantage with all the needs of six children spanning nineteen years. Marla was your typical middle child, a clown, a disruptor, conscious of the stress their parents were undergoing to keep the ship afloat, but still immature enough to long for and resent not having the things she saw other kids having. Any other kids! The condition of Want was one Marla had taken most of her life, well into her thirties, to heal from, to grow out of. It was a lesson she had been fortunate enough to be cured from in the wake of all the opportunities she’d been blessed with. In the midst of interaction with people who needed no money, Marla had been smart and wise enough to sense the true nature of the hypnotic effect of perceptions of wealth. All her adult life (if there ever was such a thing, she’d muse)she had seen time and time again couples who, for all the things they could afford, were bankrupt of compassion for anyone, even each other! The money just distracted, substituted for richness. Wealth was the consolation prize for lack of wisdom. Marla realized more and more that each soul was its own counselor. She realized that were she going to achieve this structure she needed so desperately, it was all up to her, that family couldn’t save, assist, retrieve, console, or care. It was all up to her. 

“I’m so glad I know who I am and whose I am!”

Up and coming, bright and shining, THE most promising, a phenomenal talent, a natural, prodigy, old soul, the next…

She’d heard it all, and Marla wasn’t having any of it. She’d grown up in a family of pragmatists and immediate suppliers. You do what you gotta do to make it to the next phase, then you push on, doing what you gotta do to get beyond that. Never look too far ahead and get your priorities twisted. And on the way, try to be as kind as possible to folks, bearing in mind that, on the way down, these same folks will be either the pokes in your ass or your landing pad. Steady and even keel was the best route to ultimate glory. No explosive bursts, no flashes in any pans.

As she kept in league with the class of recalcitrant fellow students who would become her life-long friends, Marla was, of course, unmindful of the retrospective regrets she’s endure, like the Arianne’s she faced every semester. In the the beginning days, however, there were only one, maybe two per semester. Now it seems the week was totally filled with the slough of unadulterated disinterest in being told anything other than what was already known.

“What the heck am I here for?”

Marla would sit and listen to the “self-accompanined” singer-song writer playing his new song he was going to in a few hours to record. She was also not so enthusiastically looking forward to the final mix, done on some recording “software”.

Funny, she would often say to herself, this doesn’t sound like the warm analogue live music like the stuff we listened to growing up. These kids really don’t know what their missing, nnh, nnh, nnh.

“Did you just want five bars in that phrase? The usually is four or maybe eight bars in a phrase, I’m just saying…”

“How about a new section of different chord progressions or a new melody over those ones you’re playing over and over?… Oh, it’s the groove, yes…”

Well, it’s certainly burning a groove into my brain! The thought that repetition is the style now was not consolation for the fact that the melody and lyrics didn’t change either.

“We’ve been working on a mixed range when you’ve come to class. Why is this melody sitting in your lower range? Could you sing the chorus an octave up? Could you do anything to give the “groove”, as you call it, a little more interesting dimension?”

In Marla’s day, back in high school, it was called “make-out music”. The lick was hit and it stayed there for forty-five minutes or so, folks a-grinding and whispering lustily into each other’s ears. Hell, Arianne might be the product of such a grinding session at one of those parties!

“That would explain it,” Marla mumbled to herself, on the verge of chuckling.

The nebulous but not nefarious approach to learning was not Marla’s concern these days as she was getting older. Marla was un consciously growing increasingly paranoid about her well-being and peace of mind, her safety in the days ahead as she got older. She existed of late in a state of unacknowledged panic, constantly thinking she should take Krav Magah lessons, buy a gun, take ammunitions instruction, collect AK-47’s as a hobby, go back to school and major in thermos-nuclear annihilation or something constructive like that. She had nightmares of owning a weapon and having it used on her. She had always relied on her sense of humor and a positive outlook, both fading as she interfaced with fewer and fewer people who gave a damn.

Oh, there was no shortage of passion. Passion abounded. The one thing Marla knew would never be lost in this human population was passion. She was constantly feeling the pressure to re-focus this passion in herself first. Then the ripple effect would radiate from her living example and touch everyone around her.

“If I can show young people that there’s no sacrifice in giving up a little time, attention, assistance to another,” Marla thought, “compassion has a chance at least to radiate to a few folks!”

The cell phone rang, vibrating on the desk and flashing the number of her band member, Dejuan.

“Yes, Dejuan, wassup?!”

“Did you talk to Cesarrrr?” asked Dejuan, slightly irritated.

Dejuan, who was the son of a Colombian father and an African-American mother, could not control his rolling “r”! He laughed at this inability to eliminate this betrayal of his Latin genealogy, but really found there was no essential need to work on it that hard, though fellow band members and his girlfriend, Xu, from the Bronx, perennially awaited his soliloquies to jeer and snicker at his residual Hispanic identity.

“I have not… Wassup?!”

“He’s in the hospital! He didn’t call you? He’s probably embarrrrrassed…”

“What the…! No, he has not called nor has anyone else! Please tell me it’s not life-threatening!”, Marla pleaded.

No, Cesar was in the hospital with his daughter who had swallowed his key fob for his garage door.

“Damn, this guy gets all the breaks”, Marla thought sarcasticly.

“Well, I’ll be finished here at school in about an hour… I have one more student, and some grades to turn in, then I’ll be headed over to rehearsal. We can do without Cesar for this rehearsal if we have to. I’m just glad he’s not laid up indefinitely like the last time, remember?”

The previous adventure with Cesar had been fraught with a lot of ripping and running and bailing out and smoothing over and explaining and, oh, the usual. The guys in the band said often it wouldn’t be Cesar if there weren’t some “extra”. That’s what Bob called it. “Extra”. As in, not just a bit of, but a lot of tumult!

“Gotta go now, here’s my last student!”, Marla whispered breathily as Brandon Wilson knocked and came in bright and a little on the hysterical side. Brandon was always on the verge of screaming, it seemed to Marla, but that’s what made him exciting to teach. To keep up with, to find challenges for. This kid was the real deal. He was curious, people-oriented, knew the aspects of the different styles he sang in, got straight “A’s” on all his proficiencies, was in a local band, played in several ensemble projects, had a cd being released soon… Marla wondered how he did it.

“Hey, Ms. Callahan! I produced my track of the accompaniment to my proficiency mats! I wanted you to listen to it all today so I can make adjustments according to your observations and have this music all finished when finals week comes up. So I won’t be caught off guard, you know? I got too much on my plate for any slip-ups, and I gotta leave right after my proficiency and fly to Miami for a club gig with my cover band! We’ve been getting a lot of out-of-town gigs, and the manager gave me a raise!”

Marla was so impressed, slightly on the verge of being star-struck. This was the kind of student that kept her putting up with the Ariannes on her roster. One of these every two or three semesters was worth the wait.

“To whom much is given, much is required…”, she sighed, thinking she’d later find that verse in the Bible just to get an idea of the inspiration and context of its utterance.

Mama would know exactly the book, chapter, verse, story, context, spiritual lesson, corroborating hymn, the works!” Marla missed her mother desperately! To invite her mother’s spirit into the room, she said to Brandon,

“If my Mom were still living, I’d call her right now so she could hear you sing that…it was one of her favorites and the last hymn I learned from her.”

“My Grandmother said she hadn’t heard that song since she was a little girl! She started singing it for me when I told her the title!! Wow, Ms. Callahan, you sure do know a lot of songs!” Brandon was grateful for a reason, he wondered why. Marla knew his understanding was only hampered by his youth.

Marla reminisced with melancholy about the afternoon the old family friend, Jonnie, had knocked on the front door, and Marla had curiously risen to answer it. Mama had arranged the mirror on the wall opposite the front door to reflect the occupants on the front porch. She often would say she didn’t have time or energy to be running to that door whenever somebody knocked.

“Jonnie!!!?”, Mama screamed with delight!

She saw immediately, even with her cataracts, that it was Jonnie, and her voice got lighter and playful! Marla, who didn’t remember who this old lady was, knew she must have been close to the family, as they hugged, giggled, ran the recent histories of all family members, who’s passed on, who was in the rest home, who was coming out of intensive care tomorrow, etc. Then they settled in talking about the church and the old people, their upbringing, the old songs… The got to singing and old one Marla’d never heard before; “I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked, in days of long ago, …”, Mama singing bass, Jonnie singing broken soprano. Marla remembered rushing to find a hymnal to sing the tenor part. It was the last time she’d heard her mother sing. So these days, whenever she had a student curious about the “old songs”, Marla always went to this song and assigned it, or one like it that she’d grown up hearing the “Senior Choir” warble in her childhood.

Brandon left and Marla packed up her things to go to rehearsal, waxing nostalgic. In traffic she sang some of the hymns, hummed some Gershwin, some Ellington, a little Kern. She thanked her mentors for planting the excellent seeds and prayed God enrichened her “soil”, kept her hungry to learn.


© Donna McElroy. All rights reserved.

(picture courtesy