When my daughter entered first grade last fall, I was not afraid to raise the really tough questions.
Striding up to her teacher, I asked, "Who's your class accordion player?"
My own first grade had an accordion player, and I assumed the accordion was still the official instrument of first grade. I was shocked to find that not a single child in my daughter's class played it. Lawrence Welk died in vain.
Dale Slaney was our accordionist. He was as big-eared and dorky as the rest of us in 1959. This was the age of Brylcreem, and a little dab did Dale into a freckle-faced rube with an accordion strapped across his chest.
The occasion for a performance mattered little. A birthday? Miss Barnes would light up and say: "Let's get Dale to play "Happy Birthday" for us!" And Dale, his dark hair slicked back and a grin from ear to ear, stood in front of the blackboard and played "Happy Birthday," then "Lady of Spain."
The other first-grade class also had an accordion player, Betty Jo Walker. She played a passable "Happy Birthday," but she couldn't play "Lady of Spain." By the third class birthday, we all hated the song, but it did give us a sense of belonging, like an alma mater. Dale's accordian was always there, except for the week Nick Riley hid it in the rest room.
Still, we thought we'd only have to hear Dale on birthdays. Then came Halloween. "Let's get Dale to play a Halloween song!" And Dale played "Happy Birthday," then "Lady of Spain." Wiser kids were beginning to suspect something. "Hey, he only knows two—" "Shhhhh!" Miss Barnes shout-whispered. "The only sound I want to hear from you, Nick Riley, is applause."
Young musicians don't start on the accordion anymore. They go straight to the violin. This explains the rise of ADD — Accordion Deficit Disorder. ADD makes you wonder what schools are teaching these days. How will kids compete in the global economy without an accordion player in their classroom? How will they learn patience, fairness and acceptance of mediocrity unless they suffer accordion at an early age?
Listening to Dale play "Happy Birthday" for Thanksgiving, we learned a vital skill. We learned to sit still and watch a well-meaning person make an utter fool of himself. It's a skill I put to good use throughout school and later at many jobs. Yet, tragically, today's kids are not learning it. No wonder so many young adults shout out during movies. We elders can only shake our heads and whisper: "No accordion training."
As Christmas approached, rumor had it that Dale was learning another song. By the party, however, he had mastered only the opening bars of "America the Beautiful." We had a patriotic Christmas in 1959, along with "Lady of Spain" at Miss Barnes' request. And Christmas, she reminded us, is the happiest birthday.
Dale's standards served him well on Lincoln's Birthday, when his accordion had shreds of brown paper towels on it. They rang out on St. Patrick's Day, Easter and a dozen more birthdays. In late June, when he played the opening of "America the Beautiful," first grade was over, and so was our ordeal by accordion. The upper grades were all business — spelling, long division, "How a Bill Becomes a Law." We never heard an accordion again in school, but we had learned how to listen.
To fight ADD, I am desperately searching for Dale Slaney. Perhaps he has a child who could visit my daughter's class. Then her teacher could say, "Let's get Dale Jr. to play an Earth Day tune!" And my daughter will have to sit and take "Lady of Spain." Like a first grader.