He stood very still. The children, unable to be still, watched him open the thick binder and feel the pages.
He was in charge of them for only half an hour, their eight-year-old selves in his care. When the bell finally rang (after the incessantly loud second hand on the clock ticked 1800 times), the dreaded six-year-olds would come with their sticky fingers, sniffles, and utter inability to whisper. Their teacher, Mrs. Browning, newly married and very nervous, would hover in the hall, instead of running for a coffee and a chance to pee. He knew the children would watch her as she peeked at him and them through the window in the door. She was never quiet. If little Freddie, who smelled like peanut butter and sweat, so much as wiggled in his chair, Browning would tap twice on the door and give him a look. But for now, since their teacher had already fled, he was the sole protector of the eight-year-olds.
He knew all their names. He’d taught them songs for three years now, and knew where they sat (alphabetically), who could hold a tune (not many), and who needed to be afraid and who did not.
It interested him that some of the children feared him (but clearly, not all). He thought about it often, wondering if there was something in his face or manner that looked monstrous. He tried to smile, but it’s hard to smile when no one smiles back. He knew what a smile sounded like. His mother used to smile at him all the time and her voice sounded just like honey tastes, and just like a warm breeze feels on your face. There was rarely honey or soft wind in an elementary school chorus room with a tired old blind man in charge.
He tapped twice on the metal music stand and thought “F sharp. It always sounds like F sharp.” He heard his own voice sing, “Shoulders back. Chins up. Deep breath. Ready, children?”
“Yes, Mr. Andrews,” they sang back to him. Jolie kind of screeched it at him. Maybe he could rearrange the aisles and increase their number by one seat. That would put her in the back of the first row instead of the first seat in the second row. On second thought, it would move greasy Glenn (of the fifth grade set) to the front of the last row by the window, and, though only ten, that boy smelled unmistakably of tobacco. Best to keep the stinker in the back after lunch and try to ignore screechy Jolie.
“Please count off to the tune of Old McDonald and his. . . what animal. . . Kelly?”
Kelly whispered, “Pig,” and roll call began.
“Three,” and so it went up to 26, at which point their little voices sang the rest of the verse: “Old McDonald had a farm, e I e I o.”
“Now listen,” he sang, “and follow my beat.” His pencil struck the music stand: Rap, tap, rap-a-tap. “Pencils, please!”
The children drummed the end of their pencils on their desks: Rap, tap, rap-a-tap.
He struck his stand again, same pattern and sang, “Toes, please.”
The children tapped the floor with one toe.
“Good! Now listen to this one and drum it back to me with two hands.” His pencil drummed “Rap-a-tappity, rap, tap.
Dozens of little fingers drummed away. He felt his face smile and was sure some of them were smiling, too.
“Ok, at ease.” Some giggling. “Today I’d like to introduce the idea of resting in music. Does anyone know about resting?”
“Ah, no, that’s not what I mean. You should not be resting. You should be thinking. Does anyone take piano lessons?”
Silence. Almost. Something was happening.
“I think someone’s hand is raised. Please knock once on your desk if your hand is raised.”
From the back of the fourth row a knuckle knocked on a desk. A boy’s knuckle. Fifth seat. “Bobby?” he asked.
Laughter. Then Bobby’s voice, “How do you do that?”
“I’m a good guesser. Tell us about resting, Bobby.”
“Sorry, Mr. Andrews. I don’t know anything about resting. I just like watching you guess.” He didn’t sound mean. Mr. Andrews knew the tone of mean. This boy sounded impressed and respectful, a nice surprise from an eight-year-old.
“That’s all right. I’ll show you a simple beat, you play it back, and then we can talk about rests. Ready?”
“Yes, sir.” The children were silent. Watching. Listening. The blind man clapped his hands while he nodded his head to a slow beat.
“Everyone watch him. You do it, Bobby.” The boy shuffled in his seat.
Clap. Clap. Clap. Pause. Clap. Clap. Clap. Pause. “How’s that?”
“I’ll tell you in a second. Children, did Bobby move his head while he clapped?”
They giggled and all yelled, “Yes!” and Mr. Andrews felt a breeze on a sunny day and smelled honey. “The nod without a clap? That was a rest. Bobby, you did a nice job.”
“Thanks. Can I pick the first song?”
They sang Row Your Boat and Kumbaya in rounds, with Mr. Andrews singing around and through their young voices in a clear and happy tenor, until the second hand clicked around a bunch of times and the bell rang.
On their way out, each child tapped once on his music stand with their pencil. He counted to twenty six and the room was emptied of sounds and smells for almost two hundred clicks on the clock before the six-year-olds shuffled in single file, lips together and eyes wide, while Mr. Andrews hummed “I’m just a little black rain cloud” from Winnie the Pooh, and Mrs. Browning cleared her throat and snapped her fingers a dozen times before the door clicked closed.