Category Archives: Swartwood, Robert

Our Father, the Music Teacher

by Robert Swartwood

Our father claims he is a child star. When asked what he’s appeared in, he will proudly say Disney films. This is, in fact, quite disingenuous. Yes, our father has appeared in Disney films, but they are not feature films. They are not even direct-to-video films. They are just Sing Along Songs, a series featuring adults dressed up as Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck and Goofy dancing around with children too hyper and excited for their own good, while, at the bottom of the screen, the lyrics of each song are presented, the Mickey icon bouncing from word to word. Our father was one of those children. He had blond hair and freckles. He, like the rest of the adolescent cast, smiled too widely at the camera. His voice was high for a boy his age; he was clearly going through puberty. He appeared in only two of these Sing Along Songs. That is it. He sometimes admits he had hoped it would eventually lead to a spot on The Mickey Mouse Club, or even as an extra in one of the Disney shows, but nothing ever came of it. Still, though, our father never gave up on his dream. He was the lead in his high school play of West Side Story. In college, he tried out for Hamlet but was only granted the role of understudy. The next year, he won the part of Ren McCormack in Footloose. He even went to New York for a summer, where he auditioned for dozens of plays. Despite high hopes, he never had any callbacks. And that’s why, I guess, he is our father. He ended up marrying our mother. He ended up teaching music at the high school. Every spring he directs the school musical. When people ask him what he’s appeared in, he will always proudly say Disney films. Those who don’t know the truth are impressed. Those who do simply smile and nod. None of them know what we know—how sometimes, late at night, our father gets out of bed and tiptoes down to the basement where he slips one of the Song Along Songs into the VCR and lets it play with the volume low. And there he dances, like he’s thirteen again, jumping around boxes and other junk strewn about the floor. He sings too, his low and heavy voice going high. But not too loud. Not loud enough to wake our mother. Not loud enough to wake us, even though we’re already awake and standing at the top of the stairs, hearing everything. We stay there until he stops singing, until he stops dancing, until he stops the video and rewinds it and ejects it from the VCR and slips it back in its case. By then we’ve returned to our bedrooms, have slipped into our beds, and lay motionless, silent, staring at our ceilings and the shadows that dance there by the moonlight like children in a dream.

Robert Swartwood’s work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Daily Beast, Wigleaf, PANK, Storyglossia, among others. He is the author of several novels and the editor of Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer. His most recent collection of very short fiction is Phantom Energy. Visit him at www.robertswartwood.com.

What comes to mind when you think of “child stars”?

    Exploitation, mostly. Very talented youngsters in way over their heads in a harsh business. Many “child stars” that come to mind never went on to do much after they were no longer “child stars,” but a few were lucky and still have successful careers. Still, it’s a lot of pressure, and I give them credit for doing what they ostensibly love. I say ostensibly love because behind some child stars are the parents who see them as merely a meal ticket, which brings me then back to my first point: exploitation.