Learning in the Midst of Chaos

CASA’s Fall Festival marked my first volunteer activity at Cole, and I was excited to be engaged with the kids and their activities.  As parents and families filed into the auditorium, I could feel the energy rising.

“Where the heck are those programs?” the music teacher asked me, attempting to hide the nervous anger in her voice. I ran upstairs to get the programs I had forgotten on her desk earlier and frantically handed them to parents. “I’ll have 10,” said one mother. “15 copies for me, please!’ another yelled across the room. Other parents, wielding their stack of programs, staked out prime real estate in the center aisles, cameras at the ready.

Beyond the limits of the auditorium, tensions were high. Third and fourth graders, raucously awaiting their musical debut, clogged the hallways. “HUGS AND BUBBLES!” one teacher screamed. “HUGS AND BUBBLES!!” Some disregarded this hysterical command to hug themselves and fill their mouths with air, choosing instead to rage war against the smaller students.

Meanwhile, an instrumental cacophony echoed down the stairwell. Last-minute band practice. In what I assumed to be an attempt to save time, each member rehearsed a different song. Behind them, the girls’ choir leaned coolly against the wall. “So when are you guys supposed to go on?” I asked. “Like 6:15.” In other words, ten minutes.

I shepherded them in the direction of the auditorium, stopping to peek in over the balcony.  An indoor lightning storm had hit the audience. Stage lights flashed on and off as a large group of 4th graders shuffled onstage for their “Thriller” performance. I watched as the students dutifully prepared for their roles, lying down on the stage, dead.  Lights off. Audience lights on. Stage lights on, audience lights off. Music. Stage lights off. And then, the haunting voice of Michael Jackson thundered across the room. Students reincarnated as zombies awoke.

Choir tensely waited to go onstage as “Thriller” ended, and drama erupted as the microphones came out. “I’M supposed to have one!” each one of the choir members asserted. Unfortunately, only five of them were right. Minutes before entering the stage, two of the young ladies began to fight. “YOU didn’t get one because YOU don’t have a good voice!” one said, vehemently. “OH, NO. You did NOT just say that,” the other announced, outraged. By this time the girls were nearly touching noses. Tristan and I intervened. “Let’s just try not to fight onstage,” Tristan said with a winning smile. It worked.  Both girls smiled giddily back. “Mamma Mia” was sung without violent interruption.

I settled down to watch the rest of the performance. I looked around: parents were taking pictures; students who had just finished their act poured down the aisles; frenetic teachers held the side doors shut to keep rowdy kids out; and lights flashed around the room. But when my eyes hit the stage, I saw a completely different picture. The girls in choir were singing their hearts out, all eyes on their music teacher, who stood bravely in the midst of chaos, directing their song and dance.

 I turned and saw parents clutching their programs, smiling along with the students onstage. Others hugged a student who had just finished performing. My brain flashed back to my childhood days when my mother, too, proudly collected my music programs, and my dad took extended videos of my performances, making a point to share both with disinterested relatives that came to visit. I realized that the chaos of the Fall Festival didn’t really matter in the end, because what families remember is seeing their student in the spotlight.  

I think that this lesson represents the larger picture of the DPS-AmeriCorps program: that in the end we’re here for the students. Sometimes it’s easy for me to forget who we’re really trying to help when I get caught up in the frustrations that come with the job—that come with any job. Learning to listen to the needs of the students—just as the music teacher and families listened to their performance—is something that I strive to improve upon. I hope that as I continue my work at DPS schools, it becomes easier for me to remember this. Because with that in mind, even Fall Festivals no longer seem too hard.

– Alison Kjeldgaard


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