Between the professor’s irritation, the students’ growing confusion, and the hot, stale air in this room, it feels like we’re inside a pressure cooker hurtling toward a boil. And that one person is clapping off the beat again…
…and Professor Barton appears to have spotted him or her, judging by the purposeful way he strides toward one end of the classroom. As soon as I—and the rest of the class—turn our gazes to follow his path, the wayward clapper becomes painfully obvious. It’s an older Asian woman, at least in her fifties if not her sixties (I guess community college classes make good retirement activities?), and it’s just as painfully clear that she has no idea she’s clapping at the wrong time. This heavy, sinking feeling hits me in the stomach as Professor Barton gets right in the woman’s face, clapping like he’s aiming for her nose or eyes, his own eyes gleaming as if he’s fully awake for the first time all day.
The woman gives an uncertain smile, and her hands begin to shake as she realizes she might be doing something wrong. She claps even louder, smacking her palms together as though she can force her way onto the beat, but instead her claps come just after each of the professor’s, like an awkward echo. The rest of us keep clapping too because, well, we don’t want to make it worse for her. At least that’s my motivation.
Please, please, just let it go, I plead inside my head, but instead Barton puts a hand up and tells the class to “Stop for a minute.” He leans down a bit so he’s eye level with the woman and says, in that patronizing tone often used to address young children, the elderly, and non-native English speakers, “You’re off the beat. Can you hear the beat?”
She nods uncertainly. “The beat. Y-yes.” Judging from her accent, she might not be a native English speaker, which would make this whole disaster even worse.
“Show me,” Barton demands. “Clap.” Then he mimes a clapping motion like she might not understand the word.
The woman responds with a few broken, shaky, definitely-not-on-any-beat claps.
“That’s not a beat.” Barton looks like he’s about to grab her hands and clap them for her. “A beat is—”
“—something we should probably have gone over first, before we moved into syncopation and drum patterns and all that.” It takes me a second to recognize the voice, and the lanky but powerful form that’s wedging a space between professor and student. Because for a minute or two, I’d actually forgotten Evan Strauss was leaning against the wall, witnessing all of this. But now he’s ditched the wall—and his detached, couldn’t-care-less expression—and inserted himself right between Barton and the unfortunate clapper. “A beat,” Evan goes on, clearly addressing the entire class and not singling out one embarrassed woman, “is an even division we use to mark time in a piece of music. The beat can be fast or slow, and it can speed up or slow down, but generally we try to keep it steady. Like the steps you take when you’re walking, or the rhythm of your breath. Or your heartbeat.”
My heartbeat’s anything but steady right now, but still, I get what Evan’s saying. Especially when he adds, “Beats and rhythms are ingrained in us. Instinctive. But only when we’re given the time and space to feel them.”
Okay, so his speech was a little cheesy, but damn, did Evan just give it to Professor Barton. Evan’s voice is calm, low and steady, yet I can see his anger in the set of his shoulders, the long, taut lines of his arms. And when Barton spits back, “By all means then, Mr. Strauss, show us how you would teach it,” it’s clear he’s equally pissed. If testosterone were visible, it would be rolling off these two in waves and kickboxing in the air between them.
Evan nods and moves toward the center of the room, away from the poor woman who’s probably decided to drop this class, and with every step he takes he also forces Barton farther from her. Once they’ve reached the teacher’s desk, Evan turns toward the class and continues his explanation of beats as if he was never interrupted. And Barton just hangs back and watches, scowling the entire time.
When Evan gets us clapping again, that woman is still off the rhythm, although she’s much quieter about it this time. Barton jerks up, ready to intervene, but Evan shakes his head and begins to roam the classroom as he continues clapping. He stops in front of a few random students (not me, thank God) and watches and quietly critiques, until at last he reaches the older woman. My heartbeat stutters again; I’m afraid he won’t be able to help her, and the professor will humiliate both of them.
Evan lowers himself to the woman’s level—though not in the patronizing way Barton did—and as he claps and nods his head, I swear I can sense him thinking and feeling the beat so hard, he’s transferring the rhythm to her. And for just a few magical seconds, she claps in perfect time with him. I doubt she’ll ever be a virtuoso percussionist, but—she got it.
And Evan very wisely chooses that moment to end his lesson.