If you ask any of my former preschool-aged music students what they remember about my classes, they may sing one of two phrases back at you. The first is ‘sticks on your shoulders’, which is sung to an annoying, but memorable tune. It’s a reminder to the kids to keep their wooden rhythm sticks on their shoulders so they’re not waving around, or hitting friends, or entering their mouths or ears. This rule is about safety. The second little tune is all about the color of sticks, or scarves, or other props they might get to use that day. It goes like this:
You get what you get what you get, get, get
You get what you get what you get, get, get
You get what you get, please don’t get up-set
You get what you get, get, get
It’s sung to the William Tell Overture tune (otherwise known as the Lone Ranger’s theme song), and it works like a charm ninety-seven percent of the time. Because we’re singing an upbeat tune, the kids actually enjoy taking in this information that might be otherwise troubling. Yes, they might want the purple scarf, or the yellow sticks, or the duck puppet, but we’ve all agreed that whatever color or animal we get, it’s okay. We even do a ‘thumbs up’ about it, which is basically a preschool contract. And like I said, it really works, except when it doesn’t.
Sometimes I’ll have a student who cheerfully sings the song, does the ‘thumbs up’, smiles, and then insists on a particular color anyway. They don’t yet understand our mutually agreed upon social contract. They want it their way. When a child insists on a particular color, they often refuse the sticks I’m offering, preferring to sit out and sulk. And, if I’m honest, when I hear a kid loudly insist on ‘only red’, as I did the other day, I go digging in my bag for blue.
I’m not a mean person. Really! Actually, my Dad says I’m the nicest person he knows. And ninety-seven percent of my students would agree.
After years of working with preschoolers, I know I’m teaching much more than music. I’m teaching kids how to wait, how to be polite, how to share, and how to accept when things don’t go their way. So when I give blue sticks to someone who insists on red, I’m trying to teach them that, although it’s not what they wanted, it really will be okay. They can make music with the blue just as well as the red, and later in life, that kind of flexibility will come in handy. After all, in this world, sometimes you get what you get, what you get, get, get.
I understand the frustration, I really do. I have ‘red stick’ moments all the time. Sometimes in life, I am that child, looking up at God and insisting on red when He’s giving me blue. I cross my arms and cry and sulk and shake my fists. I’m seeing red. I am incredulous. Doesn’t He know that I am supposed to get red, get things my way, get it on my timetable? Doesn’t He know that I would make amazing music that everyone would love if I just got those red sticks? It’s supposed be red. This sounds unbearably cranky, I know, but please remember that sometimes a stick is more than just a stick; it can be serious stuff, critical, and life-altering. In those cases, red is just sometimes clearly, unmistakably better than blue, and it really isn’t fair. Not when I’m always such a good student, not when I listen and help and learn with all I am, every day, all the time. And, really, shouldn’t that matter? As a teacher, I would think so. Still, while I turn inward, get really grumpy, and make no music at all, God just looks on me in love, offering something I won’t claim. I won’t unclench my fists. As a dear friend gently told me, I’m clutching fake pearls in my hands while God wants to give me the real thing. Why can’t I let go?
It’s about expectation, maybe, and a need for greater flexibility, but it’s also about trust, which is doctorate-level tough lifework for me. What if I finally let go of expectation of the things about which I have felt the most certainty, the things that are critically important in my life, the things I’ve felt God Himself has shown me? What if I do all that work, which feels impossible, and my hands are then filled with some scraped-up, broken, messy, bound-for-the-garbage sticks, or worse, nothing at all? What if there are no more sticks? What if the Teacher has already walked away? What if everyone makes music but me?