Wednesday, December 2, 2015

8th Grade Empathy


Here’s how I started my 8th grade Jazz Listening class today.
“So when I was a kid, I played mostly with boys and thought girls were icky and weird. And I’m sure they felt the same about me. Until around 7th and 8th grade and I began to see them a bit differently. Sound familiar? And there was one in particular I found myself noticing more than the others—Linda Snodgrass. (Yes, that was her real name).
My friends were having the same changing feelings about girls and we started to have some parties where couples would sit together on couches and …well, I don’t want to say too much. At the first party like this, I was hoping to sit with Linda, but she had eyes on my best friend, Bruce Crookston. So she and Bruce went off together and by the time everyone had paired off, the only ones left were me and Susan Herman. We weren’t particularly attracted to each other, but had to make do by default.
I went home that night heartbroken and thinking, “I’m a fool to want to be with Linda.” After several days of moping around, my older brother noticed and asked me what was going on. I told him the whole sad story and he said, 'Okay, you’re coming with me into New York this weekend (I lived nearby in New Jersey) and I’m going to take you to hear a singer at a jazz club. Then we’ll see how you feel.' And here’s the singer and the song she sang.”
At this point, I showed a Youtube video of Billie Holiday singing “I’m a Fool to Want You.” The clip was not a live video, but a recording from one of her last albums, Lady in Satin with a series of poignant photographs. The kids got very quiet and listened from some deep part of themselves in the way that Billie can make you do. At the end, I asked them how they thought I felt after hearing that song.
“Like she knew what you were going through.”
“ Like she sang exactly what you were feeling and you felt it even deeper.”
“ Emotional. I have so say it almost made me cry.”
I asked them how her voice compared to Ella’s (Fitzgerald) and they all felt the difference.
“Billie really sings like she means it. No matter what the song, she makes it deep, mixing sadness with the happiness. Ella takes the sadness and makes it happy. Louis too.”
I find 8th graders can often nail it as good as if not better than the people who write liner notes to recordings (remember those?).
For the record, I asked them who believed my story and then confessed that it was true up until the part about my older brother (I don’t have one) and going to hear Billie in New York (I was 8 years old when she died). I then showed them an extraordinary clip of a 7-year old girl in Norway singing the same song above in just about flawless imitation of Billie’s style and sound. Seven years old! Norway! Music know no boundaries—age, race, geography, experience.
During my story, I noticed one young girl listening with a pained yet empathetic expression on her face. Later in the day I told her she seemed to be really concerned about me and she said:
You’re right. I felt so sad for you."
And then she flashed me a big smile and said, "But I’m glad your love life improved.”
I love my job.

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