My writing group recently decided to take on Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Well, we’re actually not a “group” per se. We are three which doesn’t seem to count as a whole group. We’re perhaps most of a group. A writing few, maybe? Anyway, the book’s aim is to unleash your pent-up creativity and we are working through it one chapter every two weeks. This week I’m tackling the exercises in the chapter which include several trips down memory lane. You are instructed to make a list of the top three people who have somehow squashed your creative impulse. This is your Monster Hall of Fame.
I thought immediately of my grade school music teacher, Miss Perry. How could I not?
She of the kabuki makeup and black wardrobe who inflicted years of pain upon me that indeed mashed my fledgling musical talent into a mere oil spot on the road.
Before Miss Perry there was Miss Cooper, our beloved if somewhat slobbish young music teacher who had braces and would play “Linus and Lucy” or the theme song from “The Pink Panther” if we’d done well in class.
In Miss Cooper’s absence arrived Miss Perry, of (dramatic pause, cue lightning, molto agitato string accompaniment) the opera.
What I remember of Miss Perry clearly is, first, her appearance. Please keep in mind that this was the 80’s and she did adhere to some of the trends of the day. Also, as a student in a private Catholic school, any female adult not in loafers and a mid-calf length denim skirt looked out of place.
Artists such as herself typically wore black to denote their superior status as sensitive artistes. Her bottle-black hair was close-cropped on the sides and thick on top a la Sheena Easton. Severe black mascara, heavy eyeliner, and a peacock colored eyeshadow. Brightly-painted nails. Large hoop earrings.
What I remember second are the myriad little slights through middle school culminating in the piece de resistance smackdown of the eighth grade talent show. I remember her suspicion in fourth grade when, for a music project on jazz, I brought in an original LP of Dave Brubeck’s seminal Take Five.
“Where did you get this?” she demanded, like I’d knocked over a record store.
“My dad. He has lots of records.”
“What other records does he have?”
“I…I don’t know…”
In fifth grade, we began something called “liturgical music” which meant that nobody was singing enough in weekly mass so we all learned the songs really well beforehand. Miss Perry taught these classes plus our regular music class. We were seated in church, she at the piano, and she launched into a lecture on music theory. When she got to something called a “piccadilly third.” My current search for the exact meaning of this phrase reaffirms my belief that she got her kicks from tossing around completely obscure musical theory crap. Anyway, I think I was in the fourth grade and, being obsessed with words as I have always been, I was intrigued by the phrase. What a silly word! Piccadilly. It sounded like candy. My reaction followed suit – I made a face of wonder and tickled amusement that an adult would say such a funny thing and I glanced around to see if my classmates found this as hilarious as I did.
Miss Perry snapped. “Do YOU know what a piccadilly third is?” I shook my head, smile melting off my face. “No. You don’t. So you need to SIT STILL and LISTEN.” Everybody froze.
I’m still not sure what a piccadilly third is.
One year, Miss Perry campaigned for us to have Creative Movement class once a week. I don’t think it lasted long – I only remember her trying to teach us a routine to “Stayin’ Alive” that involved white paper plates as props – for instance, they became visors for the line “I’m going nowhere, somebody help me.” We dutifully followed her choreography, us in our navy and white uniforms and her in black leggings and a loose black top that gave her the appearance of a massive black bat.
We did begin learning to play the recorder in class. As a kid dying to take some form of music lessons (except guitar) this was a treat. Of course, she never hesitated to remind us how horrible we were.
There was fourth grade when I auditioned for a part in the Christmas play which involved talking, singing animals. There are a few things I’m definitely good at. Accents are one of them. I scored the part of the Southern-accented doe. When the play was postponed for the following year, Miss Perry decided to recast some parts…and gave the doe to the girl who hosted the local kids’ show on TV.
And then there was the opera. Miss Perry sang with our city’s opera and every year for the May Day mass, we were regaled with her rendition of Ave Maria. Now, I was raised in a home where the radios were all tuned to WUOL, the University’s classical station, and I know an aria from an alto. But my God, spare me.
Nowhere was Miss Perry more in her element than during Talent Show time. We had auditions for the schoolwide talent show, complete with judges. This wasn’t the audition where they’re really just making sure you don’t just get on the stage and stand on your head while farting the alphabet or do five minutes of the Electric Slide. She wanted talent, by golly, and she wanted a quality show.
In seventh grade, I screwed up all my courage and auditioned with a surprisingly enjoyable version of “All I Want” from My Fair Lady (since I’m good with accents, right?). I had a ratty black felt hat and a tweed jacket of my mom’s, a basket of fake flowers and a long black skirt. I was Eliza Doolittle. I won the school’s show and went on to compete with other Catholic schools where I unfortunately lost out to a girl who wore a red/white/blue warm-up suit with a fake gold medal and sang Whitney Houston’s Olympic chart buster “One Moment In Time.” Meh. Can’t win ’em all.
So in eighth grade, I had discovered Andrew Lloyd Webber and CATS so I went balls-to-the-wall and auditioned with “Memory.” I know, I know – it’s an adult song for a thirteen year old but it was my last year and I really really loved CATS.
I didn’t get picked to be in the show.
Miss Perry worked with kids in her talent show. She coached them, made suggestions, practiced hard spots. Except for me. And the act that won was a song-dance-musical of “The Rose” by Bette Midler, featuring my friends.
Oh, the indignity! But I went to see them perform anyway. I cheered them on. My mom said it was classy of me.
The problem with people like Miss Perry is that they don’t have a clue about their influence in other peoples’ lives. I hate to say this, but I coulda been a contenda if she’d nurtured my talent just a little bit. But she didn’t care about teaching kids or fostering their creativity, she wanted a captive audience for the Miss Perry Show. Written, produced, directed by and starring….Miss Perry.
I have no idea where Miss Perry is today. A few years ago, I was talking with an acquaintance who went to a different Catholic school and apparently Miss Perry had taught them a creative movement class, too. Only their choreographed routine was a version of the barricade scene from Les Miserables, complete with decapitated heads on spikes. C’est la vie, eh?