The Vienna Boys Choir

They stood in front of me as I sat in the front row – 23 boys from about age 8 to 16, dressed in sailor suits. But all wasn’t as I expected. They sure weren’t all blue-eyed blond Austrians. Their conductor did look Austrian, his long light hair flowing. He wore a tuxedo and moved with a flourish from piano to stage and back. When he got really excited, exhorting the kids onward, he often went up on tip toes (the advantage of having a front row seat).

The leader told us he was going to have each boy introduce himself. As he passed the microphone around, I heard words such as Germany, France, England, the United States, China, South Korea, Thailand, Colombia … and Austria.

Some kids were so “out there”, some seemed shy. Some sang full-throated, mouth wide open. Some voices rose above the others, in great beauty. Five boys had the highest soprano sound that you can imagine, and at one point those kids held a soaring note for many, many seconds. As the conductor kept his baton hand raised and the boys held the tone, we the audience roared our approval.

Most of the songs seemed to be in German but I didn’t need the translation. The energy coming off the kids was staggering. There was a left section and a right one. Two singers, one from each side, often seemed to be looking at each other. It was like they were throwing their passion for the music from one side to the other and back again.

I met their energy with mine. I was pouring myself into every singer, wanting them to be great, drawing forth their sublimity.

At the end of most songs, the final note hung in the air – a pure expression of spirit. And then it faded to silence. There seemed to be a little space between the end and our applause, as if we were all stunned by what we were hearing.

I made eye contact with six or seven of the boys. I looked at every member of the choir and was pleased that some were willing to return the favour. I wondered if they could feel the happiness and love that I was sending their way. As the concert rolled on, I sensed that the boys were being reached by the goodwill flowing from the 1100 of us. They seemed to be leaning forward into the music, and towards us.

I was lifted by the songs in English, especially “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” and “There’s a Place for Us”. The purity of the voices met the purity of the words. With this music, there seemed to be an even longer delay before our clapping started.

The final number was drawing to a close. At the last piano chord, we rose as one, drowning the kids in wild applause. There were shouts of “Bravo!” and “Encore!”. The boys’ faces were smiles. Three more pieces came our way. More standing O’s. The last one rose while the choir was lined up along the front edge of the stage. Their bows and my clapping hands were a foot or two apart. Eye contact up close.

Thank you, young men from around the world. Your eyes and your voices did their job … you and we were together in the song.

Stan and Ollie

I was ten years old, in Grade 5 at Bedford Park Public School in Toronto.  The school had a fun night for us kids and I remember it felt very special to be showing up there in the evening.  There were all sorts of cool stations, such as standing in front of a projector while a mom traced my silhouette on black construction paper.  As I cut out the image, I was in wonder that this was me.  I’m real.

Further on in the evening, after oodles of popcorn and sweets, we sat in the gym and watched a movie.  It was Laurel and Hardy at their slapstick best.  Laurel, pencil-thin with the most flexible face I’d ever seen … and Hardy, so very fat and jolly, complete with a little Hitler moustache (although I’d never heard of that guy).

I was transfixed and exploding regularly with laughter.  Self-esteem wasn’t my best subject and what a blessing to be so very happy in the company of my friends.

Laurel and Hardy clearly sunk deep inside this insecure boy, and stayed there.  On Saturday, I was searching for a movie to see in London.  Stan and Ollie was playing at the Hyland Cinema and it was already speaking to me.  The story focused on their later years, well after the popularity of their one hundred films.  The end of the celebrity was coming and two very human beings presented themselves to me … at odds with each other and yet deeply loving each other.  Here’s a review:

Jeff Pope’s script gives us two men whose partnership needs an audience to thrive.  Alone they’re close but often businesslike, held back; with even a single pair of eyes on them they blossom into life, slipping into routines in the hope of raising a smile.  Every audience from one to a million gets the same amount of effort.

I’m here to perform.  I’m here to be around people and hopefully touch their lives.  Hopefully make them smile.

At one point late in their journey together, Stan looks at Ollie and says “You don’t love me.  You love Laurel and Hardy.”  Biting words, and Ollie chooses not to send the venom back.  As his health declines and he declares retirement, and thus the end of walking onstage, there’s a scene in bed.  Ollie is tired in his PJs and Stan crawls in beside him, fully clothed.  They sit there holding hands, and we the audience are moved.  Simple contact forged over decades of friendship and collegiality.

Here’s another reviewer:

After that delightful prologue, Stan & Ollie begins in earnest – sixteen years later, by which time Laurel and Hardy – now competing with television, their own reruns and a couple of imitators named Abbott and Costello – have been forced to tour second-tier theaters in Britain, staying in un-grand hotels and playing to half-empty houses.  They’re not happy about it, but they’re troupers above all else, playing their classic “bits” as if they’re discovering them for the first time.  Written with compassion and worshipful wit by Jeff Pope, Stan & Ollie pays tribute to a bygone era when a little song, a little dance, a dollop of slapstick and some clever stage patter counted as enormously successful pop entertainment.  By dint of sheer self-preservation and professionalism, Stan and Ollie manage to turn their final tour together into a triumph, not knowing that it’s a curtain call, not just for their nearly 30-year partnership but for an entire culture.

I see the history of Bruce as I sit in the Hyland.  A little boy, laughing and laughing at big men.  Now I’m a big man myself and happily I’ve not let the joy slip out of my life.  In the falling away of Laurel and Hardy, and of slapstick humour, I see my own future ending.  I expect lots of raucous silliness between now and then.  And I hope that some kids, when they’re in their forties, will look back on their childhood and remember me with fondness.  “Mr. Kerr – he was pretty strange … and nice.”

Day Eighteen: La Soirée

Every year, Lydia and Jo host a New Year’s Day lunch for the twenty or so kids they support. Parents and friends come too. Lydia expected that between 30 and 40 people would show up.

My life has mostly been about small groups, about Jody and me, and about being alone. Thirty human beings together in celebration! The mind boggles.

We from the B&B arrived around 10:00 am and began blowing up balloons. Oh, those life skills that are a challenge! I knew that the arthritis in my right hand would make tying the little suckers an adventure, and I was right. But truly, so what? Once I allowed my balloons to be a little smaller than the norm, life worked just fine. Maybe that could be a koan for my life: “A little smaller is okay.”

And then the arrivals. Little girls in yellow dresses … red, blue and green too. One young boy in a dress shirt, complete with bow tie. A few in flowing robes, a typical Muslim way of dressing.

The balloons were hanging on the walls between triangular banners. Splashes of colour adorned the tablecloths, which were also sprinkled with glitter. Plus smiles were everywhere.

The local school teacher led us in a clapping game, with the kids sitting and the adults standing around the big table. He would call out a rhythm and we’d clap once, four times or ten times, except when some adult got it wrong (such as me!). If you missed, you were out. I think Baziel eventually won.

Then the children sang. I feasted on their glowing faces. Oh my. Where am I? In a very good place, I think.

Time to eat – a delicious vegetarian meal. Was this couscous? Was that cabbage? And a yummy onion sauce. The names of the foods didn’t matter. We were together. There were three big tables, and other folks ate around the coffee table. With me at table were black kids, white teens, black adults and white ones. Basically the world. How I was blessed to be in the presence of them all.

After eating, I joined a table of young Senegalese kids. We made faces at each other. We made silly sounds. I picked up some bits of glitter and rubbed them into my face. Soon many arms and faces were shining red. Balloons were punched into the air at each other. Six-year-olds, ten-year-olds, a fifty-year-old – it didn’t matter. F-U-N.

A girl at home in Belmont, Canada named Sam had given me two bags of chocolate bars for the kids. Another named Jayla had created yarn bracelets. I had the joy of distributing both, and of seeing the smiles in return, with Louisa taking photos for the girls at home to see. Making a difference from many thousands of kilometres away. Thanks, kids.

Such a large human family, spreading its wings from Belmont to Toubacouta, and infinitely beyond. Thank you, dear friends, for sharing the journey with me.

Day Fourteen: Connections

We set off today to give some clothing to the two-month-old son of a young Senegalese woman who’s the sister of my new friends Ali, Aziz and Ansou. Ali led the way through the Toubacouta streets. Paths and side streets brought us past waving local folks (walking or on motos), goats, donkeys and chickens. Many of tbe humans said hi to Ali.

Holding that young man’s hand is a miracle for me. Once in awhile, he’ll come up beside me and slowly let his hand embrace mine. It’s a soft touch and I make sure to adjust my pace to his, and to pause when he’s greeting a friend. Sooner or later, Ali will leat go, and isn’t that just like life? “I love you. I don’t possess you. Go in peace when you need to go.”

In Ali’s home, we were greeted by his mother, his sister and his dog. Mom made quiet requests of him, and Ali responded with grace, without complaint. The star of the show, naturally, was the baby boy. Adult after adult held him, and I finally asked for a turn. There sat the bundle of humanity in my lap, his tiny fingers wrapped around one of mine. His back was so cozy against my chest and I mourned not having been a dad. In an instant, though, the heaviness drifted away and I was left with love.

Later we were welcomed into another home. A grandma in a bright blue dress held a young boy. Mom chatted with us with such a sweet smile on her face but I was drawn back to the child. He and I locked eyes and kept the gaze for maybe a minute. It was just him and me in the whole world. He was inside me and I was inside him. Communion.

Mom showed us the room where she sleeps. On the floor was a small carpet for daily prayer. I asked her how many times a day Muslims kneel down to pray. The answer was four, starting at 6:00 am. The peace on the woman’s face was all I needed to know.

Late this afternoon, about ten of us went to the bissap fields to pick the flowers. The petals are made into a drink high in vitamin C, and into jam. Picking the flowers is deemed to be women’s work, and in the one to two months of the season, they spend five hours a day picking the blossoms and avoiding the thorns. An hour out there in the sun was definitely enough for me. Our hands were stained bright red by the end and I know my back was feeling the effort. I tried to talk to a woman of perhaps 80 who was picking with us but she spoke very little French … just like me.

Lovely human beings are crossing my path every day here in Senegal. Thank you for saying “Hi”, dear ones.

Day Twelve: It’s All About the Kids

When I’ll remember this trip to Senegal, it’s possible that the overwhelming image in my mind will be looking deep into the eyes of the children. Such as today. Lieselot, Sabrine, Anja, Curd, Camille, Olivia and I are staying at the bed and breakfast, and this morning we walked over to Lydia and Jo’s home. As we came through the gate, Iced Tea’s daughter Nima was sweeping grass off the dirt of the front yard. The broom was so much bigger than her, but she was brushing for all she was worth.

The big group of us walked over to the store. In front stood an old man named Moustafa and his donkey Black. On the cart behind were many bags of rice, to be distributed by us to fifteen families whose children Lydia and Jo sponsor.

We set off to the first home. I said hi to lots of people throughout the morning, some of whom spoke only French and a Senegalese dialect, and others who only knew the local language. No matter. We made meaning.

Aziz, one of Jo and Lydia’s kids, took my hand as we walked and held on for half an hour or more. Father and son in my mind. Wow. Aziz’s older brother Ansou walked with us for awhile, often flashing a wide smile.

In front of one home, the family had a darling little girl. Several of us took turns holding her. Me too. What a treasure in my arms.

Mareama helped me yesterday to have a pair of Senagalese pantaloons made, and today she and I picked them up from the tailor. As you’ll see from the pic, I’m basically a handsome African fellow.

We’ll talk again soon.

Kids’ Party

It was happening tonight at the St. Thomas Library – performers singing, playing instruments and telling stories. Kids showing their stuff to other kids taking it in. Wide eyes from the little ones.

First up were the “Jingle J’s”, children singing as well as playing guitar, ukulele and drums, along with adults grooving as lead guitarist, bass guitarist and backup singer. Songs ranged from Silent Night to Momma Rock Me – beautifully eclectic! The young’uns were hopping around and warbling their tunes. They urged we the audience to sing along to classics such as Feliz Navidad but very few of us grabbed the golden ring. I, however, grabbed. Life is short … go for the gusto.

Then it was time for a lovely lady storyteller. She sat on the floor, leaning against a chair, with a semi-circle of five-year-olds spread around her. As she recounted the innumerable adventures of Santa and friends, tiny faces watched her every move. One two-year-old decided to bounce on an upholstered chair while checking the traffic outside. All those cool red and white lights! Her smile aimed at mom would melt the grumpiest heart.

The story creator then turned to song, specifically Jingle Bells. She just happened to have enough wrist bells for every child, and they shook, rattled and rolled for all they were worth. Such delight everywhere l looked.

As Gerard took the stage with his acoustic guitar, a little girl and boy professed their love for each other in dance. Around and around they twirled as he sang, oblivious to any idea of “performance”. Let’s just have fun.

Our fearless leader favoured us with Ricky Nelson’s Garden Party and inspiring lyrics from John Lennon:

A very Merry Christmas
and a Happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

And our mini-couple danced on.

As Gerard started in on Blowin’ in the Wind, one of my favourite singalongs, the woman sitting beside me leaned over and proceeded to tell me all about the children she sponsors in Africa. And in that moment I had a choice: indulge my singing needs or be with her. I decided to look into her eyes and celebrate the kids. It was a good choice.

Now our evening together is over. I spent time with many fine people and I am the better for it. Folks wanted to communicate. I wanted to listen. It works well that way.

Kids’ Play

There’s nothing like the annual Christmas play in elementary school.  Today I got to watch a practice.  How marvelous to see children be children.  I tried to imagine adults doing all the cool stuff I witnessed.  Sometimes the imagining was a stretch.

One young lady has perfected “Bah humbug!”  It wasn’t just her face, which was a contorted mask of fury.  Her whole body got into the act, crouching down in a spasm of scowl.  I just had to applaud.  Sure wouldn’t want to meet her in a dark alley.

Three elves, two girls and a boy, were doing their conversational thing.  The fellow kept extending his ball of greenery towards the nearest girl.  Mistletoe!  She cringed and backed away from him, fending off the offending amour with her arms.  Then he did it again … and so did she!  Ahh, the battle of the sexes.

And soon there were grandma and grandpa, expecting holiday mail.  At the end of the scene, the darling couple exited the stage with their twin canes, slow and bent over as I hope I never am.  (Good luck on that, Bruce)  How strange to see 10-year-olds hobbling along in pain.  My brain just couldn’t make sense of it.  Good acting.

Next was the mailman, striding onto a long white box which doubled as a slippery sidewalk.  Down she went in a heap, slip-sliding away.  Letters and presents tumbled every whichway.  Pure slapstick fun.

Also, what would a Christmas play be without reindeer?  Eight of them lined up on the box, with antler heads proudly displayed.  Arms were flying in the air and mouths bellowed the good and bad.  What a motley crew … and immensely lovable too.  You should have seen them all hopping off at the end.

My favourite moment was when a young girl was pleading with someone  – I think the mailman.  Hands in prayer position … imploring, begging.  So good.  Soon to be followed by another girl, crying her eyes out, in the best tradition of drama.  Angst always gets me.

I smiled a lot
I clapped
And I wished that more than a few of those kids were mine
Maybe next lifetime

Kids!

I’m back volunteering in the Grade 6 class.  Although I talked to some of these kids last year, they’re essentially new to me, except for a few of them who were in the split Grade 5/6 class last year.

Today was my second visit this fall and I’m enthralled to be with these children.  Since the Grade 6’s will graduate in June and head to a school in another community next year, there’s a real sense of loving them for ten months and then letting them go.  Perhaps my life is largely an accumulation of moments in which I often make a difference in the present environment … with new folks showing up after that.  Maybe a few kids will look back when they’re 40 and remember me fondly, or maybe not.  What I do hope is that I plant a few seeds that will blossom when they’re adults.

The Grade 6 teacher is new to the school.  I’ll call him Ben.  He’s already showing a great willingness to have me contribute to the life of the classroom.  The discussion early this morning was about 911.  When I arrived in the afternoon, Ben invited me to share my memories of the day.  Thank you, Ben.  I love sharing my history, in hopes that my stories will touch a heart or two.

I told the kids that I was in an elementary school that morning in 2001.  All the TVs were on.  Students and staff members were crying.  All I could think of doing was going around to kid after kid and saying “You’re safe.”  Of course I didn’t know that.  I didn’t know if Toronto would be attacked next.  I was terrified.

Most of the kids were with me as I spoke.  In general, I think they watch us adults like hawks, trying to figure out how to be one themselves.  So we need to speak the truth, and kindly so.

At one point, Ben had the class read a short story in which a boy ends up applauding a girl who bested him in a hula hoop contest – another great lesson for these young ones.  The victorious girl was Rachelle, and I noticed that as each student read a sentence or two they all pronounced her name “Rachel”.  Afterwards I asked them the question “If, while people were reading, you thought the girl’s name should be pronounced ‘Rachelle’, would you have made the change when it was your turn to talk?”  And then I told them there was no right answer – it’s just something to think about.  The opportunity to say things like this to 11-year-olds is absolutely precious to me.  Thanks again, Ben.

When I’m volunteering, I’m always on the lookout for kids being kind to each other.  It’s what the world needs.  Today I didn’t notice anything but I’m sure it will come.  And when it does, I’ll take the giver aside and privately thank him or her for doing something that helps.  For school is most deeply about growing human beings.

 

Visitors

I had set up my new tent in the family room but that’s not the same as staking it down outside.  And I’d better learn how to do that before I fly to Vancouver on Friday.  So after supper yesterday, I got to it in the backyard.  Made a few mistakes but that sounds like me and technology.  I know myself pretty well and I’ve learned to laugh at my foibles (usually).  Finally the tent was up and was being embraced tenderly by the waterproof fly.  Yay for me!

I was about to crawl into the finished product when I heard “Mr. Kerr!” from around the corner of the house.  And striding towards me were five wonderful kids from last year’s Grade 6 class.  I love them all.  I’ll make up names here: Jessica, Darla, Aimee, Dinah and Jeremy … all smiles.  These fine young people had graduated and are now at another school.  I hardly ever see them.

I was thrilled that the kids wanted to visit me and say bon voyage.  I would guess that right now their friends are most important, with adults a distant second.  These Grade 7 human beings are smack dab in the middle of discovering who they are, and that’s a big job.

They wanted to crawl into the tent (which I’ve christened “Ben”).  Okay … come on down!  In a flash, all six of us were crowded into a two-person enclosure.  We laughed and laughed, especially about Aimee, who seemed to be regularly escaping out the second door.  She was a good hider.  The kids chattered on about this and that, and I just sat back and beamed.  What a privilege to be in the same space with them.

After awhile, they wanted a tour of my house and we went inside.  Four of them squeezed onto the couch and whipped through the pages of the book that the class created for me at the end of last year.  “Darla, here’s something else you said to Mr. Kerr!”  Aimee curled up in my red lazy boy chair and poured through kids’ books I’d bought at a recent book fair.  One was called “Hotel Bruce”, a particularly apt title I thought.

Then it was time for the grand tour.  I love the colours of my walls: red, rust brown, yellow, blue, turquoise, green and purple.  I think the kids enjoyed them too.  Jessica played my keyboard in the bedroom.  Kids bounced on the bed.  One ventured behind the shower curtain in my ensuite bath.  In the den, I told them the story of the ancient toy truck I was holding.  When I was five or so, I left the truck outside and a bird pooped on the cab.  “Somebody painted my truck!” I screamed the next morning.  Mom and dad took their time in letting me know what really happened.

In the family room downstairs, Darla started in on her rap lyrics.  Actually, she was pretty good at it.  Jeremy wanted to know more about my ride across Canada and I loved answering his questions.  They all wanted to try my cross country ski machine and managed to schuss along in their sock feet without hurting themselves.  At one point, I looked around to see Dinah rolling on my exercise ball.  Gosh, it was fun!

Aimee, Jeremy and Darla had to get home so Jessica, Dinah and I headed back to the living room where we talked about life and family and goats and bike rides and writing.  Dinah said she wanted to read all my blog posts, which would be a trick since there are 682 of them (soon to be 683!)

Finally the last two walked out my front door and waved goodbye.  “Have a good time, Mr. Kerr.”  I sure will, kids.  I will see my country by bicycle and meet Canadians at every turn.  Plus I’ll often think of those five young’uns crammed into my tent.  Thank you for including me in your lives, dear ones.

 

Moments With Kids

I was volunteering this afternoon in the Grade 5/6 class.  What I most enjoy about teaching is the conversation, especially when it’s just me and one child.  Had a few of those today.

Jayne loves having the students give Book Talks, the chance to share the author’s thoughts and the reviewer’s reactions with classmates.  She asked me to visit kids and record the title of their next book, and to mark down what page they were on.  Just two simple questions but I enjoyed the connection so much.  From child to child to child … moments of eye contact and often the sharing of a book cover.  Perfect.

Jayne talked about limericks, and how silly and fun this type of poetry can be.  How wonderful that there’s a place in education for lightness and laughing.  She had the kids read seven limericks and deduce from the examples what the principles of this poetic form were.  Marvelous!  Far better than listing “the rules of limericks” on the board.

One young man – “Trevor” – told me that the last words of lines 1 and 5 were always the same.  As it turns out, that wasn’t quite accurate, but it certainly was a tendency of limericks.  Later, Trevor left the room for awhile, just as the discussion of limerick rules was starting.  I hadn’t noticed what Trevor had, and I could feel the urge to blurt out his idea without giving him credit for it.  Happily, I squashed that plan and told the students about “Trevor’s insight”.  And that felt so good, to acknowledge him, even in his absence.

Later I got to coach individual kids as they wrote their poems.  A limerick has three “beats” in lines 1, 2 and 5, and two in lines 3 and 4.  It was such a delicate process to sit with a child and have her see that “He decided to go to the moon” wouldn’t work for a line 3, while “He went to the moon” got the job done beautifully.  We counted out the beats together and I loved it when the child felt the rhythm in her own poem.  Those “ah hah” moments are joyous ones for any teacher.

I love being in that class.  Being next to the energy of young minds and hearts is the best.  Hearing from a girl how sad she was that some people and animals have become sick due to cropdusting … is a blessing.  May we all grow in compassion and insight.  And may those 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds turn into adults who express their highest values long after I’m gone from the planet.