When I was in sixth grade I somehow got lumped into the same class with the Gifted kids. They were called “AT” in our school system (for “academically talented”). The AT program had its own special teacher, one per school, who would teach us things that had nothing to do with the regular curriculum. The man attached to my middle school was Mr. Mason.
For reasons I’ve yet to figure out, Mr. Mason would regularly preempt our classes, take us all to his little class room, and talk opera at us. Specifically, he would lecture on Wagner’s Ring Cycle. He had a little stage and paper dolls to act out scenes of the various operas and everything. After he’d gone through the whole cycle he grouped us into pairs, assigned us another opera (ours was Aida), and made us do the same sort of thing for that opera that he had just done for the Ring Cycle.
My partner was a very serious girl , 1st generation American, the only child of very serious Polish parents. On top of being wicked smart she was a virtuoso on the piano. I never saw her after 8th grade. I don’t know if her family moved or if she got admitted to the Philly performing arts school or what. If she’s not a concert pianist now, she’s probably off trying to cure cancer or working for a Supreme Court judge.
Ours was not a happy marriage. She would get irritated with me on a regular basis. I can’t remember the reasons. Perhaps my artwork wasn’t up to par. She was a perfectionist, and I had not yet discovered that yes, I could indeed draw. (I didn’t figure that out until I was in my 30s). Perhaps I wasn’t serious enough--did I mention she was serious? Almost to the point of humorless. It was Very Important that she do well at whatever she attempted. If she hasn’t become a concert pianist, a lawyer, or a research scientist it’s probably because her head exploded sometime in college.
The upshot of all this opera hooey is that my mother demanded I get taken out of the AT class. The school fought her on it, but she told them to test me: if I didn’t meet the criteria for “AT” (I was skating right on the edge), she wanted me in a new class the next year. I didn’t know about this at the time. Maybe they asked her not to tell me about it so that they could get accurate results. Probably a good thing. If I’d known, I might have thrown the test. I was so unhappy with those AT people. I was not so much fish-out-of-water as goldfish trying to live in a tank full of clownfish.
I got called to the guidance office, sat down, and asked a bunch of questions. I think it was an IQ test. I guess my score was again right on the edge, but (thankfully) just low enough to put me with the normal kids.
Sixth grade has left some lasting marks:
- Grammar mystifies me. Not usage--I know the rules instinctively (I hope) but I have never been able to articulate what those rules are. Past participle? Gerund? No idea. I use them, I suppose, but I wouldn’t know one if it bit me in the behind. I blame sixth grade and Mr. Mason for that, because it was the English classes he kept poaching for his little operatic tutorials. I have a very clear memory of sitting on the stairs at home, watching Mom cook dinner and grumble, “Going to be standing in the unemployment line, not knowing what a linking verb is. But she’ll know the plot to Aida!”
- I do actually know the plot to Aida. I threw back my head and howled when I heard Elton John was making it into a musical. Two protests there: ever since he and his writing partner split up decades ago, every single song he sings sounds exactly like the one before it—bland; and? Musicals generally have happy endings, unless you’re talking about Camelot. Operas do not. I haven’t checked to see if they messed with the ending. I don’t want to know.
- I vaguely remember the plots to the Ring Cycle. This only comes in handy when watching an episode of “Morse” or “Lewis.” And I can recognize “The Ride of the Valkyrie” when I hear it after one measure is played.
Still, when the local theatre sent out an email about the Metropolitan Opera’s season a few weeks ago (which they stream live and in HD into the theatre downtown) listing Das Rheingold, the first part of the Ring Cycle, as the opening performance of the year, I was interested. After a little bit of dithering I decided I was going. It’s today. Homecoming weekend. Town is going to be nuts. The performance is at 1 pm. The game starts at noon. That means I should be able to get to town just fine (we turn into a ghost town during the actual playing of the game), but coming back afterward is going to be an absolute nightmare.
I sure hope there are subtitles ‘cause otherwise I’m going to be a little lost. Sixth grade was an awfully long time ago, and Wagner’s stuff didn’t stick in my head the way Aida did.