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Lesson Three: Critical Thought

Posted on Fri Dec 22nd, 2023 @ 9:46 by Liana Zhao & Alastair Temple
Edited on on Sun Feb 4th, 2024 @ 12:37

Chapter: Winter's Crest Festival
Location: Al's classroom
Timeline: Monday, 7th December (Afternoon)
3740 words - 7.5 OF Standard Post Measure

"So, a major key is what you use when you want something to sound optimistic, triumphant," Al spoke, playing the opening bars to a particularly famous piece - Bohemian Rhapsody, in its original key, singing the words as he did. "Mama, just killed a man, put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger now he's dead," He was no world class singer, but could carry a tune, easily well enough for a demonstration.

"But if you play the same song, the same melody in a minor key, it completely changes the feel of the song. The melody is the same, the backing chords are the same, all you did was change the key," and he played the same piece. Chords on the keyboard with a piano patch selected, the same words about killing a man and calling out to his mama - except now it sounded haunting in its plaintive tone.

"But why do we need to learn this?" called out one of the students, someone Al had twigged long ago as being a bit of a rebel, someone who'd prefer to be out practicing sports instead of learning about music. "Are we ever going to use any of this?"

"Well, no. The chances of any of you ending up needing music theory are very low. You only need it when composing or producing, really," replied Al, glancing up as he saw the door to his class silently open and a form quietly make her way inside. He smiled when he recognized the visitor.

Sorry. The apology was mouthed in an attempt to minimise the interruption. As much as it had been Liana's intention to get around as many classes as possible, to sit in and watch the students without the need for any direct intervention, there hadn't been an opportunity to warn every staff member. In this particular instance, providence had supplied her with an extra amount of time previously unanticipated and the counsellor had found herself gravitating towards the Music department, as much to appease her own sense of curiosity as anything along more official lines. She slipped in quietly, content to nestle herself against the back wall, leaning.

"And yet, it is my hope that you'll use the lessons that I teach here every single day for the rest of your lives," he added with a warm smile, moving over to his desk and sitting down on it, facing the class. His comment caused a bit of a murmur. How did he mean? Did he just mean he hoped everyone was going in to music production?

"That doesn't make any sense," the rebel offered, seemingly confused.

"No? Sure it does. Let me explain," Al kicked his feet out, rocking forward and back on his desk. "What do you do for fun. You run, right? Work out? Lift weights?"

"Yeah, that's right."

"Why?" asked the music teacher. "Do you believe you'll ever end up in a situation where running a mile in nine minutes will make the difference? Or do you believe that someone's life might hang on being able to bench a hundred and fifty pounds?"

"Well, no - but training makes my muscles stronger. I work out so that I'm stronger and more fit," the rebel answered.

"Exactly!" Al jumped off the edge of his desk, pointing sharply at the rebel, smiling broadly. "You work out because it makes your muscles stronger. Think of the brain as a muscle, too. And the things you learn here at school help you train your brain to be stronger." Al looked to Liana for confirmation.

Though a little taken aback by the sudden swivel of heads to acknowledge her response, the counsellor took the invitation in her stride and dipped her head to the side in general agreement.

"How do you mean? How does learning music help with that?" asked another student.

"Well, all the subjects you learn all train certain aspects of your brain," Al explained, pacing slowly from left to right and back again in front of the classroom. "Like, math trains the logic centers, to better understand how certain things lead to certain outcomes. English and literature trains the language centers, how better to read between the lines of what politicians say. History teaches about the world, and why it is the way it is. And music teaches critical thought. Who here knows what critical thought is?"

Silence from the class.

A tousled head in the back row craned around to peer backwards. "Do you know what it is, miss?"

One of the most vital components to any successful assistance she could render in a professional sense, Liana always advocated, was the focus on relationship and respect from very early in the process. For advice to stand the best chance of being heeded, it needed to come from a trusted source, and no amount of framed academia on her office walls was going to gift her the benefit of the doubt from a bunch of teenagers who were being actively shown that a good portion of the world expected nothing but trouble from them. This wasn't her lesson to intrude on, and it hadn't been her intention to impose herself on Alastair's instruction, but the direct invitation from a student was an olive branch that couldn't be ignored. The counsellor affected a thoughtful squint for a moment and then, eyes twinkling with amusement, addressed the girl directly.

"Critical thinking is arguably the most important task my mind has to perform on a daily basis. Beyond," she consented, "the obligatory regulation of my vital organs." Liana winked at the student. "Without it, I'd be a disorganised, dishevelled, disoriented, indecisive mess. Not only that," she added, "I would struggle to properly realise the uniqueness of my own perspective."

Her dark eyes lifted to meet the music teacher's briefly before returning to the young mutant.

"And I would never grow as a person. Critical thinking requires analysis, not only of situations but of our own interpretation of them. The better we are at it, the more likely we are to assimilate new ideas and concepts, and adjust our decisions to reflect a better outcome."

"Correct!" smiled Al, leaning back against his desk and folding his arms over each other, observing the class. "Critical thinking is the ability to listen to a piece of music and recognize why it makes you feel the way it does. What the writer wanted to achieve, and how he achieves it. Critical thinking is hearing your boyfriend or girlfriend saying they're 'fine', when you know they're not, and being able to understand why they're feeling the way they are. How to make them feel better. Critical thinking is a manager recognizing that an employee isn't working to their potential and analyzing how you can make them more comfortable to they do better work."

He now pushed off the desk again. It seems Al was a fairly animated teacher. "Critical thinking is seeing what legislation a politician is pushing, understanding the agenda behind it, and how it impacts us mutants."

"You're a mutant too?" asked the rebel, with a soft tone of sudden respect.

To that Al simply smiled. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then with a poof and an explosion of black feathers the teacher was no more, in his stead stood a large raven. It spread massive wings to an impressive eight foot wing span, then fluttered up to perch on the edge of the desk. With a caw the majestic bird folded its wings again, leaving the students agape. Just in time for the buzzer to sound. "Til tomorrow!" the large bird croaked, approximating the sound of the words.

The kids stared for a moment. Some gasped. One or two even cheered, though they all packed their things and started to file out, busily gossiping among themselves. Some slower than others, but before long the classroom was empty apart from Liana and Al-as-a-raven.

She was not, Liana would have argued, as flamboyant as Alastair Temple in the grand scheme of things. This was not meant in any way as a criticism of either of their temperaments, especially not his; he reminded her somewhat of her father in that regard and there was no greater comparison to be made as far as the brunette was concerned, rendering the observation more of a compliment than anything else. Her own movements tended to be a little less grandiose, veering more towards a flowing elegance, but where perhaps she held her own was in the palpable expressiveness centered predominantly in her eyes but radiating outwards to impact her entire facial expression. She was a woeful liar as a result, not much better at containing amusement or joy and only marginally proficient at masking sadness and vulnerability because professional obligation didn't always leave her room for being immediate in her own suffering. When confronted by the transformation of an already-visually impressive colleague into a form that was so instantly empathetic, there was virtually no chance that the counsellor was going to marshal the kind of composure that would have hidden how utterly, splendidly astonished she was.

She remained oblivious to the titters and elbows-to-ribs of the most astute students as they left.

And continued to stare, transfixed, as the room emptied into energized silence. The tiniest smile, whimsical and approving, at least assured that she wasn't horrified, but it took a moment for Liana to rouse herself enough to slowly make her way through the lines of desks to approach the front. She sat herself atop one in the first row, hands tucked beneath her thighs so that her feet swung gently.

"It suits you."

Something about her tone ensured that the observation landed, not as a jest, but a very sincere and obvious admiration.

Al couldn't remember the last time he felt so self-conscious. The silence after the students had left was palpable. He observed her with intelligent eyes, as she made her way forward through the classroom, wearing a smile that he wasn't quite sure how to read. Part of him hoped that he wasn't staring too much, as the moment lasted, followed by silently musing whether or not a large raven looking at you would even be considered staring, and therefore uncomfortable. His thoughts though interrupted by her words as she had taken a perch not unlike his own.

"Thanks," he squawked.

But as self-conscious as he'd felt before, that was nothing compared to now as he prepared to change back to his human form. A moment of concentration, and with a poof there was no longer a bird sitting on the desk but a man. A man who's first act was to make sure he still had his clothes on - he had, which filled him with relief. It wasn't that long ago that he wouldn't have been so lucky, but recent developments after being healed by the mutant powers of another staff member seemed to have unlocked some abilities in him, which including being able to take his outfit along when he transformed.

"So, yeah. That's me," he offered a halfhearted shrug and a soft smile, seemingly quite tired after changing forms twice in quick succession. "Sorry, changing takes it out of me. Anyways, what can I do for you?"

"You don't need to apologize, I understand entirely." As apt as it was as a generalized placation, there were shades of deeper meaning to the counselor's reassurances, for all she chose not to elaborate. Instead, focusing on his question because she perceived it to be the kindest way to circumvent his obvious discomfort, Liana offered an apology of her own in the guise of a warm smile. "I didn't mean to sneak in without warning. Most of my work this side of the holidays will be simply making myself known, and sitting in on classes is a good way of doing that. Ordinarily I would have organized it in advance, this was somewhat impromptu because my afternoon plans changed rapidly." A gentle huff of laughter was at her own expense. "I forgot how cold it gets up here this time of year."

"Eh, don't worry about it. My door's always open. And you've seen enough of my class to know I don't exactly hold to any sort of old-fashioned teacher-student type of relation; I prefer to think of my classes as a forum for learning and discussion," he waved dismissively. "So what's got your afternoon plans all changed, then?"

"I was hoping to do a spot of holiday shopping in town, it's been a while now since I've been able to visit." Hunching both shoulders upwards, Liana offered a wry smile before allowing her posture to relax once more. "Of course, I completely overlooked the weather and, more specifically, the need to do a little more with the car Jess and I brought up from Manchester than park it outside in the ice and snow. Cameron has promised to defrost it," she laughed. "Until then, I think the distance may be a little too far by foot, at least when the wind is this bracing."

"I've got a car," Al replied readily, inwardly cursing himself for that near involuntary response, feeling rather tired after shifting forms twice. He really wasn't looking forward to playing chauffeur for anyone. But then, it might be a fun distraction from all the work he'd been doing. Teaching class, organizing a performance, training and practicing with his singers. It'd be good to be out of the castle for a bit, he decided. "Granted, it's twenty years old and not very big, so depending on what you're planning on buying it might not fit in Omen, but I'd be happy to drive you to town and back," beat "If you want the company, of course."

The slightly bewildered pause that followed was at least indicative of a lack of conniving intent. If she was honest, Liana hadn't really considered asking any of the faculty for assistance, mostly because the trip had seemed low enough of any priority list to warrant postponing. Her first impulse was to refuse, purely because there really wasn't any need to compensate for poor management on her part when the trip had been rather frivolous to begin with. Liana hesitated though, mouth slightly agape with unspoken reassurances, struck by the impulse of curiosity to pursue a line of inquiry first. "You've named your car Omen?" Raised eyebrows did little to mask mounting amusement, expressed as a slowly dawning warmth.

"Well - yeah. Miss Bright seems to think her name's Skylar, but no, she's Omen," Al seemed confused about why she'd latch on to that of all the things he'd said. He pushed off the table and offered her his hand, as if to help her down from hers, quirking a brow as he smiled softly. "I mean, come on, can you honestly say this is a big surprise to you?"

"I...no, not exactly." Though his consideration wasn't necessary, Liana took Alastair's hand with a gentle nod of thanks and reclaimed her footing with a huff of laughter. "It's just not every day that a man capable of transforming into a large corvid offers me a ride in his car." Her dark eyelashes blinked several times to saturate the moment in humor. "That he calls Omen." Reclaiming her hand, the counselor swept both behind her to stand with elongated posture, her own eyebrows quirked despite her general disposition suggesting she found the thematic tendencies rather endearing. "I'm inclined to accept out of sheer curiosity but I really don't want to impose on your time."

A shrug from the man. "Wouldn't have offered if it was an impose - ... ment. Imposition. If it imposed," To be fair, he was a music teacher, not an English teacher. "Besides, I have the rest of the day to myself and could use a break from all the work. It'd do my good to be out of the castle for a bit," he added, motioning towards the door. He had been working twelve hours a day easily with everything that was on his plate, so tired as he was, he was looking forward to some fresh air and a trip to town. "Just need to put on a warm coat and grab my keys and we can head out."

And, just like that, she was going into town. "I should grab my own coat. I can meet you out front in ten?"

It took several minutes for Liana to recognize her own haste and force herself to slow down. Whilst buoyed by a sense of obligation not to be more of a nuisance than was already likely, she was not ignorant of the fact that there was a flutter of nervousness she didn't often have to deal with. It was easily rationalized, or might have been if meeting and keeping the company of new acquaintances wasn't her bread and butter. Temple had thrown her from the onset, an unexpected ally on a unanticipated front, and as she pulled on her coat, wrapped a scarf around her neck and jammed a woollen hat down over her ears, Liana conceded to admit to herself that she was simply looking forward to exchanging conversation with someone who could speak to her passions. Claire was a dancer and there was some overlap there, but it wasn't quite the same.

By the time the counselor stepped outside the main doors, she was well-rugged for the weather and yet already pink-cheeked from exertion. "It's on my list to spend some time in Iceland during one of their milder months, but a Scottish winter gives ample pause for thought on the matter." She clapped her hands, now gloved, together and cupped them over her mouth as if a rush of warm breath was really going to permeate the leather.

Al was waiting, leaned against his car, as she arrived. The car an older model sportscar, subdued exterior, but immaculately maintained, gleaming polished white pain and unblemished subtle chrome detailing. Al was wearing a black wool greatcoat with a double row of buttons, a black wool captain's hat with brass buttons on the side and a gold colored braid running along the edge. Finally some black wool gloves completed the outfit.

"Iceland, huh," he smiled, walking over to the passenger side of Omen and opening the door for her. "Been there a few times, on one of our European tours. Didn't get to see much of it though, just hotel and venue."

Though the topic of his previous occupation was not an unwelcome one, the timing of its introduction was unfortunate enough to coincide with Liana's distraction in regards to the car she was about to step into. She was no expert, a fact plainly evidenced by her inability to apply anti-freeze effectively, but she had a brother overly fond of automobiles and had at least a passing understanding that she wasn't being offered entry into just any production line basic model. Easing herself in, she ran a gloved hand over the seat before swinging her legs inside properly, casting a look at the upholstery overhead as she reached for the seatbelt. "I think you do her a disservice," she observed. "This doesn't seem ominous at all."

"No?" If anything, the warm smile on Al's features turned somewhat mischievous as he made his way to the driver side and got in as well. Seatbelt clicked in before he put his keys in the ignition and started the car, the machine awakening with a shudder and a vicious, guttural snarl. "Now, Miss Zhao, do you want a calm and pleasant drive? Or a slightly more exciting one?"

In the process of pulling a pair of sunglasses into place, Liana paused to glance across, her raised eyebrows all the more pronounced as they peeked over the rim of each lens. A slender index finger pushed the glasses into place and the brunette paused to consider the landscape directly ahead. Someone had been busy de-icing the driveway, and the heaviest snow of the season was yet to fall, but it was frosty and not really the kind of conditions one ought to be taking risks with.

A faint smile curled her lips.

"As long as I get there in relatively one piece, I would say driver's discretion is in order."

"As the lady decrees," Al smiled - though if one called his smile a grin they would be forgiven. He knew the road wasn't in the best of conditions and the weather was against him, but he also knew his car very, very well. He knew the machine's limits, and how to stay well within them while still making the ride spirited and add some excitement. With judicious use of the handbrake and throttle he pulled out of the parking spot, counter steering as the rear end kicked out and flicking into swift turn, lining the machine up with the road away from the castle. A moment's respite as he winked at her, seemingly having entirely too much fun as he peeled away, rear tires slipping as he did.

Three decades of conservative rhetoric demanded a certain response. Expectations, standards, etiquette, inescapable facets of her personality because they'd been such a prevalent influence during her formative years. If her mother's side of the family were to be believed, there were dozens of ghostly fingers pointed directly at Liana right now, accusatory disapproval from ancestors whose spiritual opinion was supposed to matter in some way. She had tried for a very long time to fit the mold, only to melt it into a puddle of ancient copper when her ultimate inheritance manifested as the very antithesis of tempered control. A wildfire trapped inside a bottle was just as destructive, you couldn't hide an inferno behind closed doors. There had come a point where no amount of historical disdain was going to prevent her from being...well, from being.

In short, they could keep their long-dead opinions to themselves. Sometimes, it was nice to feel young again.

Dark eyes, dancing as if reflecting a candle's flame, stared across at Alastair and, at his rakish wink, the press of lips became a futile attempt at controlling a grin.

"That can't be all you've got."

 

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