Symphony 67

“It’s not fair.”

“Why do I have to be fair?”

Tony Caraveli was probably the only one enjoying the exercise. He had a pile of candy and he liked confusion. He shouted out, “Because the school board will get you for it.”

Neil had to grin. “Tony, you have a beautiful sense of how things really work. You are right. The school board would get mad at me. But what if I chose to ignore them?”

“You won’t.”

That part of the conversation wasn’t going where Neil wanted it to go, so he turned back to Stephanie who was still standing in the aisle looking like Liberty Leading the People. He asked, “Why do I have to be fair? Is life fair?”

“Yes,” she said defiantly.

He raised his eyebrows and invited the rest of the class to comment. They all but shouted Stephanie down, and the essence of their opinion was that life was not fair. “All right,” he said, “I want you to think of one time when life was not fair to you.”

Almost every hand went up. Neil waved his arms and said, “Wait! Just wait. I want you to take three minutes to think of the very worst way life has been unfair to you. Now think!”

They couldn’t wait. They couldn’t stand it. They twitched; they seethed; they bubbled. It was like watching a pressure cooker. Finally Neil said, “Okay.”

This time, every hand went up, but Neil simply got to his feet and began distributing paper. “I want you to write down what you just thought of,” he said, and a collective sigh rolled through the room. 

“Mr. McCrae,” Bob Thorkelson whined, “can’t we just tell you? Please.”

Neil shook his head.


“Write it.”

They knew from long experience that there was no appeal to the command to write. They took up their pencils and within seconds the room was silent except for the scratching of graphite on paper.

Meanwhile, Neil got his tape deck out from under the desk and put the Garfunkle tape in it. He had already cued it to the second cut on the back side. When most of the students had laid their pencils aside and raised their hands again, Neil said, “Since it’s a party, I thought we’d have some music.”

“Mr. McCrae,” Tanya wanted to know, “don’t we get to read our papers?”


The class couldn’t decide whether to be upset at having to wait or happy at the thought of getting music instead of work. The last few students put down their pencils and Neil started the tape. Garfunkle sang with sweet melancholy.  Without the music, the words would have meant little. With the music, it became a lament for loneliness and abandonment that even eleven year olds could understand.

Mary was an only child,
Nobody held her, nobody smiled . . .

After the last chord had died away, Neil shut off the machine and began to rewind. Laura Diaz said in a small voice, “Mr. McCrae, can we hear it again?”

A dozen of the students added their appeals to hers.

“Sure,” Neil agreed. “First let me give you these. I typed up the words and ran them off so you could understand them better.”

This time through about half of the children followed the printed sheets as the music played.

“That was neat!”

“Yeah, but sad.”

“Neat but sad is exactly what I think of it,” Neil agreed. “Does anybody want to hear it one more time?”

They did, and it carried them to the break. more Monday


ASIDE: I have too much respect for other writers to print the lyrics of Mary Was an Only Child without permission, but you can find them on line. Better still, you can hear it on YouTube.


1 thought on “Symphony 67

  1. Pingback: Symphony 67 — A Writing Life – Angelyn A.

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