Schadenfreude Set to Music

My elementary school music teacher got kids excited to play music. She worked closely with us, teaching us how to play, encouraging us to practice, giving us not only the skills to play our instruments but also helping us see how much fun music could be. I’m sure we sounded as bad as any elementary school band, but we were engaged. We wanted to play.

I figured middle school would be more of the same, but then I met Mr. L. He was in his twenties, wore his hair long, and liked popular music. 

He was also the worst teacher I ever had.

I wonder sometimes who convinced Mr. L. to work with children. Because they did the world a grave disservice.

We all have bad days. But some people seem to have bad lives. And if their lives are bad, they want everyone else’s life to be bad too. The German word “schadenfreude” comes to mind here—gaining pleasure from observing the suffering of others.

Mr. L personified that term. In our “classes,” between one and four of us played the music he set out for us. His idea of teaching was to give us music we were not yet ready to play, and then berate us for how badly we played it. On good days, he was only snide. On more frequent bad days, he shouted his derision at us. On the worst days, he screamed so loudly—within the sound-proofed room he used as a studio/classroom—that teachers in adjoining classrooms had to come over and tell him to pipe down.

Band practice, of course, was no better. Instead of just a few of us, thirty students got to either hear him scream at us collectively, pick out a single section to rail against, or sometimes just berate an individual. By the time I met him, I assume he’d earned his tenure; he seemed little concerned that any teaching skills he might have once possessed had long been overshadowed by his foul temper and apparent joy at torturing middle-school children.

I played saxophone under this petty tyrant for three years of middle school. Partway through eighth grade, when it was time to decide whether or not to try out for high school band, he held a large assembly and told us how important music was, and how hard he’d worked to ensure we all went on to high school band. He then told us that if we weren’t planning to continue on that path, we could just get the hell out. 

So I did just that. I picked up my sax, walked out of the assembly, and gave no thought to making music again for many years. I ran into my elementary school music teacher around the time I graduated high school, and she told me how frustrating it was to spend a career exciting children about making music, only to have their interest crushed by this small, angry excuse for a teacher.

So thanks, Mr. L. I called you my worst teacher earlier, but in the long run, you turned out to be an excellent teacher—just not of anything related to music. Through you, I learned how influential a pathetic, sadistic excuse for a human being can be, and how much more influential a decent, encouraging teacher will be. I learned to repress any desire to take a personally miserable day out on everyone around me. Most of all, I learned how excellent it is to do things that bring you joy, even if you’re not very good at them.

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