October 30, 2011

My epic-fail adventure in early childhood education


I probably shouldn’t be telling you this story.  It doesn’t exactly show me in my most favorable light.  And it’s my blog, you know?  I should be going with the favorable-light thing as a general rule.

You’d think.

Santa Claus: it's a LIE! IT'S ALL A BIG LIE!!!
But here we go.  This will make a decent blog post, even though there is a 100% chance that your opinion of my common sense will have been sharply downgraded by the time you reach the end.

So, to quote Deborah Kerr in Tea and Sympathy: “When you speak of this - and you will - be kind”.  

I joined the professional opera world in the summer of 2004 in my present position as “guy-who-explains-opera-to-ordinary-people” for Virginia Opera.  And when I say “people”, I mean actual people (i.e. adults) as opposed to theoretical people (i.e. little kids).

That sounded condescending, didn’t it?  Look, I have nothing against little kids.  I used to be one, and my wife (who was also a little kid once; I know, I’ve seen photos) and I raised our own.  I’m just not paid to explain opera to them.  

Virginia Opera has an extensive opera education program for K-12 with a long and distinguished history, reaching tens of thousands of little miniature Virginians each season.  I’ve composed operas for that program, but my lecturing and teaching is limited to grown-ups.  Little children, we’ve found, only control the family finances when it comes to deciding which breakfast cereal to buy, not whether or not to spring for opera tickets.  

There was one glaring and  unfortunate exception.

Right away, in my first season just weeks after being hired, I got a request:  would I please go to the Ghent Montessori School right across the street from our home base at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk and tell the students about our opening production of Puccini’s Turandot?

“It’ll just be this one time”, I was told, “they ask us for a program every year, and you’re the only person available to do it this time.  Just give a short talk that won’t be over the children’s heads.  Make it age-appropriate.”

Well, you know how it is - you’re new on the job, wanting to prove what an Ideal Employee and Team Player and Asset To The Company you are, so you say:  “Sure.  No problem.  Happy to help out.”

Thus it was that on a sunny weekday morning in late August I strolled with purpose across Llewellyn Avenue to the inviting, brightly-decorated interior of this temple of early childhood education, this Montessori school, with a mass of eager young opera-starved faces staring up at me.

I wasn’t worried.  After all, what is Turandot if not a fairy tale, am I right?  You’ve got your handsome prince, you’ve got your beautiful princess, you’ve got your riddles; kids eat this stuff up.  They LOVE it.  Nice easy gig.

And I thought I was knocking the ball out of the park!  It was going so great.  They were listening attentively.  I was playing up the entertaining aspects of the story, right down to the three clown-like masques Ping Pang and Pong.  (Kids like clowns.)

Then I got to the kiss.

If you don’t know the story, Princess Turandot hates men and takes sadistic pleasure in beheading all of them who can’t answer her riddles.  Prince Calaf is the only guy who is smart enough to answer them correctly, which really fries her panties.  She’s all huffy and everything untiil Calaf goes for a grandstand play and plants The Most Romantic Kiss In The History Of Kisses on her icy, man-hating lips.  Suddenly, she melts into his arms and realizes, “Men are the coolest thing ever!!  I LOVE men!!!”  

No, I didn’t put it that way to my room full of cherubs.  I had been trying hard to express all plot points in terms they could understand.  So when I got to the the big kiss, I said this:

“You see, kids, when Calaf kissed the princess, it turned her world upside down.  It made her realize everything she thought she knew was totally wrong.”  Searching for the right way to “nail” my explanation and drive the point home, I continued:  “It was like...  it was like...  it was like when you found out there was no Santa Claus!”

Yes, friends, I - Glenn Winters - told a roomful of little Montessori students that there is no Santa Claus.

Even in that moment, the awful depths of my blunder did not register.  I thought my talk rocked!  I’m REALLY GOOD AT THIS, I thought.

When the talk was over, the principal stalked up to me like an avenging angel, her face so frozen in mortified shock that I’m fairly certain actual icicles were forming on her ears and eyelids.

“I. just. want. you. to. know.” she said in a staccato stutter of barely-controlled outrage, “that. the. parents. of. these. children. are. going. to. call. me. tomorrow. and. ask. me. who. explained. to. their. sons. and. daughters. that. there’s. NO SANTA CLAUS.”

I don’t really remember what happened after that.  It’s all kind of a blur.  But two things I can confirm with absolute certainty:
1)  Ghent Montessori has not asked me to return in the seven years since that day; and
2)  I’ve stuck to adults since then.  I’m really good at talking to them, by the way.  Aces, in fact.

Remember:  you promised to be kind...

1 comment:

  1. I actually thought this was kind of hilarious.

    I mean, yeah, poor kids, but I'm Jewish and Santa's not from my world. I always felt really weird when I was around people who were trying to convince me to go along with it. But then, I'm sure they felt just as weird that I was trying to get them to act out death scenes from Hoffmann with me.

    When I was nine I went to see Turandot and my mom let me dress up as her. I made a headdress out of one of those styrofoam trays they sell zucchini in, and dental floss, and plastic sparkly beads shaped (as I found out as an adult) like star anise.

    (By the way, I came here because Anna Feucht linked me.)

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