1700. The hand we’re dealt

Look at that! 1700 is a round number if ever there was one! Usually for such a significant number I deviate into some true narrative or other. This time I’ve hit a complete blank. I don’t believe in “writer’s block” but I must admit that these last ten or so postings have been like trying to get blood out of a stone. I wanted to get to Story 1700 before Christmas and then have some time off until sometime in the New Year. And so I’ve drawn a blank. Let me think…

Well I’ve thought of something… but I don’t know if I should chat about it or not. Counting up it happened 33 years ago!

The photo incidentally is not of what I am going to talk about – it’s of another group unknown to me, but it gives the general drift.

I dare say those involved have long since moved on. I was teaching Music and English at St John’s High School in Hastings, New Zealand. Hastings had a pretty “varied” population. St John’s High School was a boys-only school and the only High School in the city that would accept students who had been expelled from other schools and couldn’t find another school to attend. That’s how I ended up teaching a class of 24, 14 of whom had a “history”. They were all aged 14. Montzie, for example, had a criminal record since the age of six.

The school didn’t have a great number of resources. My classroom was an old shed set apart from all other classrooms and in the middle of a field. We called the shed “The Shack”. The record player and all the stuff for music were in The Shack. The trouble was: The Shack couldn’t be locked. I told the class that if anything was ever stolen from this shack I’d “have their guts for garters”. (I also had to explain what garters were).

“Don’t worry,” they said, “we’d never steal from you.” We were the only school Music Department in the whole city that hadn’t had all its electronic equipment go missing. And then it happened. One night, the classroom was stripped. The policeman was very nice about it. He took notes and said he’d keep an eye out. That wasn’t good enough for Montzie and friends. Did not the policeman want to know the names of those who took the stuff? Did not the policeman want to know the place in the city where these thieves stored their stolen goods? The policeman was kind of stunned!

With such information it still took six months for the police to act. In the meantime insurance paid for new equipment and when our goods were returned we had two of everything. And Reuben, a master of the “five-finger discount”, would most days bring five or six long-playing records that he’d “got from the shops during lunch break” to replace the records stolen. I explained it was wrong. It was above his comprehension. He was helping out. (And I might add that not even the shops wanted to know because the packaging had been removed).

Many other things happened during the year which can wait another time, except to say I am a master pickpocketer; for they passed on skills you wouldn’t believe. I was never party to their activity, but they were surviving in the only world they knew.

The highlight came when I was selected (because I was pretty good at it) to represent New Zealand at an International Youth Theatre Festival – with theatre performances from Germany, England, India, South Korea, Australia, United States and New Zealand. It was inordinately expensive to get a theatre team to the festival and to survive a week. That is when I started to write little musicals for elementary schools and market them. Within two easy weeks, we had enough money to travel. I suggested we do a performance about New Zealand’s many endangered species. And would you believe? The class wanted to dance it, and from all the five-finger discount stolen records to dance to they chose extracts from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé”. At least I’d taught them something!

It was street-dancing. They did the choreography themselves. It was an outstanding hit! The boys were so well behaved and more charming than I could believe. At the end of the performance the audience didn’t clap; they stood and sang a song they all knew. It was very moving. The newspaper reviews were stunning.

I dare say these kids would be heading for their mid-forties now. Those who aren’t dead are possibly in prison. I know a couple have done murders and some are destroyed by drugs. A teacher can’t keep in touch with everyone.

But they were one of the nicest and most talented group of kids I’ve ever taught. A pity they weren’t dealt much of a hand.

(A Happy Christmas and New Year to all! See you some time in 2020!)

25 thoughts on “1700. The hand we’re dealt

  1. Andrea Stephenson

    A very moving and fitting story to end the year on Bruce – it could be a film. It just shows that your real-life alter-ego has done so much good that the fictional voice can’t help but stray into murder and mayhem for light relief! Wishing you all the best for Christmas.

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  2. observationblogger

    This is indeed a Christmas message if ever there was one. It’s always a pleasure to read a snippet of your ‘actual’ life. I don’t think I could have handled that stress – managing those kids let alone enabling them to partake in such a ‘once in a lifetime’ event. Extraordinary! Bravo Señor. Have a wonderful XMAS season amigo.

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      1. Yvonne

        This is rather long, but sounds like something you would write!

        It’s Christmas week, and here’s a Christmas story. There’s a story called “Dancing Dan’s Christmas,” by Damon Runyon (books by this author). Runyon set many stories in New York City of the Roaring Twenties, creating characters who coolly defied Prohibition laws.

        It’s Christmas Eve and a few buddies are at a speakeasy owned by Good Time Charley on West 47th and Columbus. They’re drinking mugs of hot Tom and Jerry, glossed by the narrator as “an old-time drink that is once used by one and all in this country to celebrate Christmas with, and in fact it is so popular that many people think Christmas is invented only to furnish an excuse for hot Tom and Jerry.”

        There’s a knock at the front door and in comes a good-looking, well-dressed young guy by the name of Dancing Dan, and he’s got a package under one arm. Dan’s legendary for his dancing skills and also for his suspected involvement in illegal activities. He throws down the package and has a few rounds of Tom and Jerrys, declares that he likes the drink so much he’d recommend Tom and Jerry to everyone he knows, except that he does not know anyone good enough for Tom and Jerry, “except maybe Miss Muriel O’Neill” — a nightclub employee whom he adores.

        A guy dressed as Santa knocks on the door, and they recognize that it’s their pal Ooky, who’s usually a janitor for a clothing store but this week has been doing advertising duty dressed up as Santa. They let him in and give him Tom and Jerrys, and he soon passes out drunk. A very intoxicated Dancing Dan decides to try on Santa Claus’s outfit. They strip snoring Santa of his suit, put it on Dancing Dan, and decide to go do Santa’s work: stuff stockings.

        The enthusiastic drunk men head up Broadway a couple blocks to W. 49th Street, wishing Merry Christmas to passersby, and arrive at the little tenement flat where Miss Muriel O’Neill lives with her grandma. They walk through an unlocked door and find a patched-up, heavily-mended stocking. Dancing Dan unslings his Santa sack, opens the package he’d had under his arm when he came into the speakeasy hours before, and dumps out a bunch of diamonds — diamond rings, diamond bracelets, diamond brooches and diamond necklaces — into Grandma’s hung stocking.

        The narrator suddenly remembers headlines from the afternoon papers about the robbery of a diamond merchant. A few weeks later, he learns that Grandma O’Neill dies just after Christmas believing that there is a God. Her daughter, Muriel, called the diamond merchant to return the stolen goods, and he rewards her with $10,000 for her honesty. And outlaw Dancing Dan has gone off to San Francisco to reform himself of his outlaw ways so that he can train to become a dance instructor and in good faith court Miss Muriel O’Neill.

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        1. Bruce Goodman Post author

          Thank you Yvonne for that bout of Christmas Cheer! The turkey is in the oven, the Yuletide Log is made and dripping with rum and chocolate, and we await visitors (hopefully not Dancing Dan) before daring to open a bottle (or two). Happy Christmas!

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          1. Yvonne

            I’m still in my pjs, waiting for the loaf of bread to rise (not like Lazarus, though), so I can chuck it in the oven. I’m eyeing off the bubbly, but better not open it before the guests arrive. Can’t replace what I drink with water, I guess. Happy Christmas to you and the animals.

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  3. umashankar

    I am surprised to come upon this unsung Odyssey, scintillating, heartwarming and saddening in equal measures. What you could achieve with the motley crew of wayward youths is a marvel of human ingenuity and potential. It is sad the rough pebbles you had polished to gems were returned to the dust and grime.

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    1. Bruce Goodman Post author

      Thanks, Uma. I was in two minds as to whether to tell such a tale, because it seems to use/abuse the students – but I was always pretty good at dealing with what was viewed as the world’s bastardry – and between you, me , and the wall, it wouldn’t satisfy the educational PC pundits these days. Thanks for the Christmas wishes – such magnanimous greetings would also be viewed as unacceptable to the PC world – and I’m very grateful for the breadth of your largesse (which is a lot more educated than mine)!

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  4. disorderlyjottings

    Wonderful story. I’ve taught some raggamuffins in my time but cannot match this. But I’m with you and your first correspondent; these are the children that you enjoy bumping into later on, and the supposed “good’ kids” are indeed the ones whose names you cannot remember. Happy (belated) Christmas Bruce and all good wishes for the New Year.

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    1. Bruce Goodman Post author

      Thanks for the comment and good wishes Simon – which I heartily return. Am having horrific computer troubles at present and am almost too scared to click on anything! So if I disappear a while something might have died.

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  5. parkermccoy

    Wow, that’s a very cool story. It sounds like you guys had one heck of a time at the competition. I’ve never taught but I’m sure it’s times like those that really mean the world to a teacher. Great post!

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    1. Bruce Goodman Post author

      Thanks Sarah – and may your 2020 be a wonderful happy year! Have started the year (actually finished last year) with computer woes – so have to fix it properly before blogging continues! However, I’m having a new experience by writing little stories in a notebook longhand!

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I delight in having my dull life coloured by your intelligent perceptions, your wit, and your vivacity.

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