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Creative Nonfiction

High School Musical

Sally Toner

If you’re my student, and you want to show your appreciation, don’t bother with the Starbucks gift cards or the scented lotion packs. Instead, give me a piece of art with a bit of cannibalism.

Aaron handed me the box wrapped in blue Hanukkah paper the Thursday before winter break.

“Can you open it now?” he asked. “I want to explain it to you.”

Inside a thin box, tucked in a protective clear plastic envelope, was something that needed no explanation—a program from the original run of Sweeney Todd with Angela Lansbury’s signature.

“I looked high and low for this!” He was a six-foot-tall tuning fork, quivering with positive energy. He was adorable.

I stood there in front of him on the verge of ugly crying. He is a senior—one of 1,950 I estimate I’ve taught in my career. Out of that number, I have written college recommendations for at least a quarter of them and looked over as many essays. Angela Lansbury starred as Mrs. Lovett in 557 performances of Sweeney Todd, which comes to about the same number of recommendations I have written. For writing those recommendations, I often receive a thank you note, or the aforementioned Starbucks or Barnes and Noble gift card. Always appreciated, to be sure. I often smile as students thumb through the gifts their parents send them to school with, looking for my name among those of other teachers. But, after twenty-seven years, I am rarely surprised. And I am rarely at a loss for words. Today, though…this kid…it was different.


“I don’t know what to say.” I thanked Aaron, hugged him, sent him off on his winter vacation.


Yes, I love Sondheim. The elementary school teacher might prefer Gilbert and Sullivan, the middle school teacher Rogers and Hammerstein. The “Modern Major General,” “You are Sixteen…” The sweeping adventure, the sweet love story, children walking down the hall in lines and endings tied in neat little bows. 


But the high school teacher is okay with the discord. The complexity. The barber chair where the villain might slit your throat and send you into the furnace UNLESS you happen to come in for a haircut with your wife. Then you are spared because, after all, even the murderer knows true love.


“There's a hole in the world like a great black pit and it's filled with people who are filled with shit and the vermin of the world inhabit it,” the barber sings.


It ain’t “Doe, a Deer.”


Then there’s the melody inside the cacophony. Like the love song, “Johanna.” Pure, exposed, with an uptick in pitch you don’t expect. It excites you, challenges you. The music is rich, textured, surprising. “Not While I’m Around”—a lullaby in red and black sung by a henchwoman about to send a child into flames. In the end, the child survives as the hero. Mrs. Lovett cannot hide from Toby’s truth. 


I cannot hide from my students’ truth.


And their truth is complicated.


Our school did the musical Sweeney Todd five years ago, when Aaron was in the seventh grade. We had talked about that show, which is how he knew how much I loved it. We discussed the difficulty of Sondheim. With the quality of his music, if the vocals aren’t executed precisely, it’s a mess. Like a lesson plan that goes south (and many do) or the wrong word said to the wrong student at the wrong time. Our building can be, as the song says, a “City on Fire.” So can my classroom. That nightmare every teacher has where I’m trying to explain something to my students, and they are literally swinging from the rafters? It’s been my reality. Chasing a mouse who appeared in the middle of one period (he was in search of the gourmet foods class across the hall) was more interesting than King Lear last December, after all.

There are also mice in the streets of Sweeney Todd’s London, aren’t there?

“There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit,” the Demon Barber of Fleet Street sings. Yes, the world contains quite a bit of darkness and confusion.


Still, like Sondheim at its best, my high school musical can also be a perfect blend of harmonies—rich, textured, surprising. 

Sweeny Todd does not have an ending tied in a neat little bow. As I stare at the program, now framed in my study, I know that my teaching doesn’t either. Aaron walked out of my room that morning, and the chaos of the week before break rolled on. The internet went down, my new assistant principal decided to do drop-ins while I was teaching literary term bingo with the movie Elf. Half of my students were out doing an assembly for the middle school anyway. I was grumpy, tired, preoccupied. 


But for that second when I opened Aaron’s present, the harmonies of 27 years blended perfectly.




Sally Toner is a High School English teacher who has lived in the Washington, D.C. area for over 20 years.  Her poetry, fiction, and non-fiction have appeared in Gargoyle Magazine, The Delmarva Review, Watershed Review, and other publications.  She lives in Reston, Virginia with her husband and two daughters. Her first chapbook, Anansi and Friends, from Finishing Line Press, is a mixed

genre work focusing on diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from breast cancer.

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