Thursday, November 30, 2023

Roasting, Rapping and Rapport

A music teacher colleague of mine wrote a wonderful piece about some recent classes he taught and posted it on Facebook. I commented: “According to today’s standards, everything you did in this class is wrong, wrong, wrong. And I love it! And most importantly, the kids did too!” He granted me permission to share it on this Blog and here it is. Congratulations to Aaron Kierbel for refusing to drink the Kool-Aid and trust his own intuition.

One of my favorite hip hop songs growing up was “Ya Mama” by Pharcyde.

It’s a playfully absurd diss track where each member of the group takes turns insulting each others’ mothers with quips like “Your mama’s got snake skin teeth,” and “Your mama’s glasses are so thick she look into a map and see people wavin’ at her.”

What I love most about the song is how much fun they’re having with each other. Normally insulting someone’s mom would be an incitement to violence but these guys sound like close friends hanging out, laughing and enjoying one upping each other.

They’re not just playing around having a good time — they’re drawing from an African American tradition called playing the Dozens (or the “Dirty Dozens”) a game of verbal dueling where two people go back and forth exchanging increasingly severe insults about their opponent’s character, appearance or family, to the delight of the group watching, until one of them gives up.

Rapper and scholar KRS-One says the game originated with enslaved Africans. They were usually sold one at a time but if any of the enslaved people had a physical or mental defect, they would be grouped in lots of a ‘cheap dozen’ for sale to slave owners. They would go back and forth with each other in front of the group, making fun of one another’s defects until one person would give up or wanna fight.

This tradition found its way into other forms of African American cultural expression, from blues music to Harlem Renaissance literature to jazz and rap. Author Elijah Wald wrote a fascinating book connecting the Dozens to insult duels in other cultures, such as Arabic rhyming duelsdrum fights of Greenland and Flyting from Medieval England.

This was on my mind this past week when I was teaching a middle school drumming class, all African-American students. I had initiated a group discussion about what each student thought their unique talent was. After each kid had spoken, one student wanted to know what mine was. I gave my go-to answer:

Freestyle rapping.

Naturally, I was put on the spot and asked to demonstrate. Without hesitation, I got a beat going and tried to start rapping but the majority of the class wasn’t paying attention. I announced that if they didn’t quiet down I would turn my freestyle into a roast of each kid.

They all immediately got super quiet and attentive, little grins growing on their faces.

I knew exactly what was going on: They weren’t quiet out of fear — they WANTED to get roasted by me! And I knew they wouldn’t settle for a light roast. The insult needed to be based in truth and have the right amount of diss to be funny without being too mean or inappropriate.

And that’s exactly what I did.

With their full attention, I went around to each kid and dished out an insult which rhymed with their name. There was Amani who “looked like old salami”, Royalty who “smelled like fish oil to me,” Marshaun who needs to “put deodorant on,” Marcel with the “old car smell,” and so on. It got the whole room laughing and participating, even the kid who I was roasting.

They were being good sports about it and none of the kids visibly got their feelings hurt or antagonized one another. Sociologist Harry Lefever and journalist John Leland point out that other ethnic groups often fail to understand how to play the game and can take remarks in the Dozens seriously.

The energy in the class felt just like that Pharcyde song.

I’ve never gotten formal training as an educator, but I would assume that roasting your students is not a recognized tool in the teacher toolbox. But in my 15 year experience working with predominantly African American and Latino youth, it’s clear that, if done in the right way, it’s an effective way to connect, engage, and build rapport with the students.

It allows the student to be seen and joked with in a way usually reserved for their close friends/family. It’s a culturally relevant teaching tool that uses African American cultural traditions as a bridge to connect something familiar in the outside world to the classroom.

It also happens to be a really effective way for the teacher to blow off steam and diffuse the stresses of teaching in a creative and playful way. It shows that the teacher is willing to step out of their typical role and participate in the thing middle schoolers love to do most:

Play with the boundaries of what’s appropriate.


Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Vertical and Horizontal

Coming of age in the turbulent late 60’s, I was of the “never trust anyone over 30” generation. I fiercely rejected the idea of the old bearded guy in the sky who demanded my obedience and compliance and didn’t do well with the clean-shaven teachers in my high school either. I signed up to help dismantle the top-down hierarchy that sent young people to war, steered them to Wall Street, modelled both sexual and emotional repression. I went from an all-boys high school that was a Country Day School for Young Gentlemen complete with suit-and-tie dress code and calling your teachers “Sir” to a hip college where I attended protests with some of my teachers, backpacked with them and occasionally smoked marijuana together. The energy shifted from top to bottom to side by side, from a vertical hierarchy to a more horizontal connection. I went from college to teaching at a school where the kids called us teachers by our first names, we played together, camped together, cooked together occasionally. 


But as the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.” I’m re-reading a sleeper book by Robert Bly titled The Sibling Society where as early as the 1990’s, he warns us of the dangers of dismantling hierarchy instead of replacing it with a more positive hierarchy. As he describes it: 


“Paternal society had an elaborate and internally consistent form with authoritative father reflected upward to the strong community leader and beyond him to the father god up among the stars, which were also arranged in hierarchical levels, called the “seven heavens.” Children imitated adults, and were often far too respectful for their own good to authorities of all kinds. However, they learned in school the adult ways of talking, writing and thinking. For some, the home was safe, and the two-parent balance gave them maximum possibility for growth…”


 Less you worry that Bly is evoking a MAGA na├»ve mentality, read on:


“…for others, the home was a horror of beatings, humiliation, and sexual abuse, and school was the only safe place. The teaching at home and in school encouraged religion, memorization, ethics and discipline, but resolutely kept hidden the historical brutalities of the system.”


The above is certainly why things had to change and taking part in that movement, as I did, should not be a matter for shame. But we need to acknowledge a sense of stability that was lost when babies were thrown out with their bathwater and take a look at how we’re suffering in a different way from the result. Read on.


“Our succeeding sibling society, in a relatively brief time, has taught itself to be internally consistent in a fairly thorough way. The teaching is that no one is superior to anyone else, high culture is to be destroyed and business leaders look sideways to other business leaders. The sibling society prizes a state of half-adulthood, on which the repression, discipline and the Indo-European, Islamic, Hebraic impulse-control system are jettisoned. The parents regress to become more like children, and the children, through abandonment, are forced to become adults too soon and never quite make it. There’s an impulse to set children adrift on their own. The old (in the form of crones, elders, ancestors, grandmothers and grandfathers) are thrown away and the young (in the form of street children in south America or latchkey children in the suburbs of this country) are thrown away. …


What the young need—stability, presence, attention, advice, good psychic food, unpolluted stories, the truth of history—is exactly what the sibling society won’t give them. As we look at the crumbling schools, the failure to protect students from guns (Note: This was published in 1996!!!!), the cutting of funds for Head Start and breakfasts for poor children, cutting of music and art programs, we have to wonder whether there might not be a genuine anger against children in the sibling society.”


In short, the dismantling of the old hierarchies has not gone well for children and is getting worse every year. Bly,  who recently left us at 95 years old, would be aghast, but not surprised at where we are almost thirty years later. Indeed, he predicted it!


“Looking at the decline in discipline, inventiveness, persistence, reading abilities and reasoning abilities of adolescents now compared with adolescents thirty years ago, we must be ready to grasp how much steeper the decline will be thirty years from now. “


The good news is that it is possible to dismantle toxic hiearchies without dismissing the notion of vertical culture. We can cultivate a surface respect of younger for elder "just because" while also nurturing the deep respect that comes from the elder’s conscious work of attaining life-affirming wisdom. We can teach children that they are perfect as they are, but have to put in the work to prove it and that it will require some uphill ascent. When I read the statistics and hear the stories of children’s intellectual, emotional and physical health in sharp decline, I believe it, but don’t see it so much in the actual children I’ve known for a half-a- century. There are plenty of schools and plenty of parents doing skillful work in navigating the horizontal/vertical culture divide. It is possible. But not without being aware of these forces at work. 


A lot of food for thought here. Enjoy the meal. 


Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Measure of Love

20.2 gigabytes, to be precise. That’s how much room on my Desktop my School Business folder took up. When the rainbow ball from hell started spinning every five minutes on my computer, I suspected I needed to free up some space. My helpful friend Veronica from Apple Support affirmed that and suggested it was time to delete, delete, delete. Rather than do it piecemeal, one document at a time, I saw that folder and thought “Bingo!”


Rather than open it and read through it all, I just dragged the whole thing to the trash. After all, I’m three years retired from the school and I don’t really need copies of my 4th grade report cards in 2013 or the revised Holiday Play rehearsal schedule or a snarky note from my ex-boss. All that temporal flotsam and jetsam of the daily round that deserves to be sent off into the ether. Especially when I’m finished with the details of that 45-year enterprise.


So into the trash it went, a satisfying little crunch as I emptied the trash and poof! it’s gone. 

I wish I could report some euphoric release, some sense of the ever-hovering dark clouds blown away, some click of a door behind me that sent me off freely into a new adventure. But truth be told, none of that happened. For three clear reasons:


1) Had I read through or at least skimmed each document first, that would have been a proper farewell. It was too abstract to simply remove a folder I’d barely looked at the last three years.


2) Under my real desk is a big box of school paraphernalia awaiting that rainy day (week? Month?) for me to look through and either save a bit longer, pass on or recycle.


3) I actually moved the whole electronic folder to an external hard drive, so that kind of read- before-tossing time might still await me. If I so choose.

Meanwhile, my old computer is happily humming along again, released of the weight of those twenty-plus gigabytes. And inside those documents is the whole glory and catastrophe of the human comedy and tragedy lived in that little building on 300 Gaven Street. Most of it on the glory/comedy side, but nowhere can one give so much love and attention and commitment to a community without facing disappointment, betrayal and loss. I had more than my fair share, in exact proportion to how much I believed in and loved and dedicated myself to that place, those people and our collective mission. It was a sure recipe for some heartbreak and after a glorious 30 years or so, the last 15 were fraught with the pain of trying to defend the school’s character from a new admin that didn’t understand it and felt threatened by those who did. Inside those 20 gigabytes are the records of more beauty and memorable moments than the average human (whoever that is) can expect, but also the evidence of the swamps I trudged through that tried to pull me down into the muck. And sometimes succeeded. 


Most I have forgiven, but none of it is forgotten. In the strange way that wounds are connected to gifts, it ended up making me stronger and clearer and more sure about what I think matters, yet more dedicated to protecting and preserving and passing it all on. It took me a long time to understand this, but these words by David Whyte helped:


"…to realize that you have always had your life shattered and your heart broken and your faith tested by loving too much and too often and that all along, it was never too much and never too often, and that you were never, ever, fully broken. …” (From his poem Still Possible)


And that was the true full measure of my love for the school, far, far beyond 20 gigabytes. 


PS I got a call to sub there today, but had to turn it down because I’m meeting a student I taught in the early 1980’s who is now a school principal. Haven’t seen him for 40 years, but that’s how deep these connections run.  

Monday, November 27, 2023

Family Matters

If you remember typewriters and 8-track players in the car and ditto machines and such, if you listened to the Beatles and Bob Dylan and Smokey Robinson and Joni Mitchell as each of their new albums came out, if you were deeply influenced by books like The Catcher in the RyeOn the RoadCatch 22Cat’s CradleThe Autobiography of Malcom X and more, you might be around my age. And perhaps in those formative college years, you acquainted yourself with a book called The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. Gibran was born in Lebanon, came to the U.S. at 12 years old and published this book in 1923 at 40 years old, a book that became one of the best-selling books of all time, translated into over 100 languages.


I haven’t thought it about it for a long time and now am curious about re-reading it and seeing if it holds up. I thought of it this morning wanting to write a bit about my children, since my second daughter Talia just turned 39 yesterday. I remember there was a passage about children and here it is:


 Your children are not your children.
     They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
     They come through you but not from you,
     And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
     For they have their own thoughts.
     You may house their bodies but not their souls,
     For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

     You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
     For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
     You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
     The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

     Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
     For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Not bad, Mr. Gibran! A good reminder to parents with children of all ages. Combined with James Baldwin’s  'Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.' they cover two essential truths:

1. Each of us is born with our own ingrained destiny, our own essential purpose and style and character that is wholly independent of our parents. 

2. That inner sense of our particular genius is also influenced and affected by our parents, both in our rejections and our carrying forth. 

I feel both with my own children. I’m deeply connected with Kerala through our mutual love of writing and the similar themes we write about. Likewise, deeply connected with Talia in our mutual paths as teachers and our leadership in ceremonies and group gatherings. In both cases, the uniqueness of their voice and perspective is clear, coming from their own experience, their female point of view and the influence of their different generation, friends and peers. We all love to cook and hike and read (sometimes the same books, sometimes quite different) and travel and play games, all of which is a great pleasure whenever we gather together. We rarely have a single political disagreement. 

At the same time, despite piano lessons for both and four years of Talia playing sax in high school, neither followed the music path as players and both listen to music much more to the current pop side than the timeless jazz and classical and world music side. Neither sits zazen (though I did do a one-day Zen retreat with Kerala many years ago) nor does Crostic puzzles. Neither tends to go to concerts or jazz clubs or to my wife’s dismay, to art museums. Likewise, she has not been able to convince either to knit or sew, though they both have solid visual art skills. 

You might note the slight edge of disappointment about the above— and likewise with our grandchildren. Zadie doesn’t care to read, though is loving drawing and Malik loves to read and draw, but not sing. Both are athletic, funny and love to play games and Zadie is starting to play my favorite Solitaire game. 

So thanks to Mr. Gibran for the reminder that all of them are their own people, with their own bodies and thoughts and Souls that “dwell in the house of tomorrow” and my job as a parent and grandparent is, has been, and will be to be the mere bow aiming at a target I can’t see and they can, doing my best to shoot the arrows swift and far. 

And so a happy birthday to Talia! Twang! 

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Time Well Spent

I have no claims to any enlightenment experiences, extraordinary talents, elevated humanity that have brought me well-deserved and hard-earned fame and fortune. But I have made some good choices as to what I considered important and put in the needed time to accomplish some. They have been proven time and again to be useful, to bring something worthy to various occasions and uplift me in the process. Simple things that any of us can do if only we thought them important. May I suggest you consider them? 

Here’s my partial list:


• Memorizing poems: I’ve chosen some 20 to 30, mostly classics from Shakespeare, Yeats Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Mary Oliver and such. Useful for reciting (not reading) at weddings, funerals, Thanksgiving grace, workshops and more.


• Jokes: Lots of them. If I meet a fellow enthusiast, we trade back and forth, each one suggesting the other. Again, good openers in public speaking and crucial to have some on hand when hanging out with children.


• Storytelling: Some 15 to 20 in my repertoire drawing from fairy tales, folk tales, myths. Perfect when hiking with grandchildren complaining that they’re tired, for bedtime stories and for gatherings around the campfire.


• Songs—Some 200 songs with melodies, guitar chords and words all at my fingertips and tip of my tongue, mostly from the folk repertoire. Again, perfect for anything gathering with children, but good for adults to and a healing experience in the pandemic neighborhood sings I led. Additionally, another two to three hundred jazz songs with melodies and chords on piano (but not always all the lyrics), perfect for my weekly gatherings for seniors at The Jewish Home for the Aged. 


• Children’s games: Again, some 20 to 30 I can call up without much effort to enliven any music class, be in with kids or an adult workshop. Some 15 folk dances can be included here.


• Card Tricks: Have been spending Thanksgiving break with my granddaughter remembering some we learned from a book I gave her and learning some five or six more. Up to maybe 10 on a good day. Good to have at hand stuck at airports when a fellow stranded passenger started showing me his.


Juggling: Useful when a group of Guatemalan children back in 1975 gathered around me while traveling through their town. And other such occasions.


Add to the above skills like leaf-popping and table rhythms and you have the foundation for a life well-lived. And note that all of the above is stored in the muscle-mind-memory and is not dependent on a single electronic device, book or piece of paper. So also good when walking to keep yourself company—especially the poems.


Give it a try! 

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Fibonacci Thanksgiving

1) I

1) am

2) grateful

3) for this chance

5) to gather here now

8) with this beautiful family

13) and the presence of those absent who have shared before

21) the bounties of this grand glorious earth—grains, fruits, vegetables, meats. 

         May we be worthy.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Speakling Spelled Syllables

Again, the many-headed hydra of invasive e-mails is increasing—35 out of today’s 35 e-mails, to be exact. But one of them is from one I actually enjoy called “Inspiring Quotes,” which included the above from Victor Hugo. The opening phrase is common knowledge in my field, but the second clause opens up a new perspective. Well done, Mr. Hugo! It reminds me of William Carolos Williams quote: 


“It is difficult to get the news from poems,  yet men die miserably every day  for lack of what is found there.”


Which leads to yet another Victor Hugo quote from his masterwork Les Miserables.


“You are always eager to make everything useful, yet here is a useless plot. It would be much better to have salads here than boquets.”


…the bishop replied, “You are mistaken. The beautiful is as useful as the useful.” He added after a moment’s pause. “Perhaps more so.”


I read Les Miserables many years back and have several pages of notable quotes from that extraordinary piece of literature. As a lifelong reader, I’m enjoying many modern authors, but there is a clear difference between fiction and literature. The latter— Dickens, Hugo, Zora Neale Hurston, Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger— all tell good compelling stories with memorable characters, but go further into reflections on the human condition that ennoble us, open us, transform us. How rare to find that in even the best of today’s authors. (I can imagine some outraged disagreement here and would be happy to have a conversation that proves me wrong!). 


In my pages of quotes, I have various categories and since art, education, poetry, social justice and such are always on my mind, those are some that attracted my attention. More to come. 


• Man lives by affirmation even more than he does by bread. 


• The two highest functionaries of the state are the wet-nurse and the school teacher.


• The true division of humanity is this; the luminous and the dark. 


To diminish the number of the dark, to increase the number of the luminous, there is the aim. That is why we cry; Education! Knowledge! To learn to read is to kindle a fire, every syllable spelled sparkles.


May your spoken spelled syllables sparkle!