Saturday, June 3, 2017

Antidote to Despair


“Ignorance is bliss” is the new American motto. There’s the purposeful ignorance of denial of climate change, the extraordinary ignorance of our own history from people who graduated from college, the naïve ignorance of the need to step forth and speak out. It may give some weird comfort to those practicing it that they can bury themselves so deeply in not seeing that they can continue some semblance of comfort. But bliss it is not, not for anyone.

For me, one of the most maddening instances of ignorance is the refusal to look at all the reasons for hope, the lack of exposure to life lived leaning toward kindness and beauty and joy. Of course if you all you do is watch Fox News, work in jobs you don’t like, mingle with people who are mean-spirited or small or hateful, never have an artistic moment beyond pop fluff and Hollywood shoot-em-ups, there’s not much chance you will ever vote on the side of life.

But for those who have kept a shred of their childhood hopes for a better world and would like to see what that looks like, please come visit The San Francisco School. It’s not polite children who answer all the questions correctly or adults and kids floating in beatific stupor to New Age harp music. The kids have moments akin to the bad children in Pinocchio getting turned into donkeys and the intrigue amongst the teachers can rival the midnight assassinations in a Shakespeare tragedy. It’s the whole catastrophe of flawed mortals gathering day after day to try to make sense of the world and how to be in it together.

But sometimes and in fact, often, and in truth, almost every day, I witness moments that lift me as high as a Bach Mass or a Coltrane solo. The last two days, for example. Three classes in a row—2nd, 3rd and then 4th grade— with 24 kids in each class learning basic samba steps and in a record-breaking 10 minutes, gathered in mixed gender groups of four that I chose and came up with a dance routine that was coherent, energetic, artistic and spirited. One group at a time went to the center to share it, kids noted their favorite group and favorite dance and shared some of their criteria. Note: The kids didn’t bicker about who was in their group, didn’t ask their religion, ethnic identity, class status, etc. Just got right to work, shared ideas, practiced them and created something that used the whole of their bodily, mental and soulful intelligence to make more beauty in the world. As I say more and more often, why can’t Congress start each session doing something like this? Why would any sane person resist the fun, connection, open-heartedness and intelligence such daily practices bring to a community? Why do people laugh when I suggest Congress hire me to lead their sessions? What’s to lose? Nothing—and I mean nothing—could be worse than it is now.

And my days continued with first graders combined with 3-year olds playing, singing and dancing across the age divide. Then again two groups of thirty 4 and 5 year olds doing the same. There was also a group of 6th graders preparing for our end of school Samba Contest, ending our school year next week with a glorious bang on big bass drums, bells, shakers and hip-shaking joyful dance. In 45 minutes, one group nailed the percussion parts, another a group dance, another a clown routine and still more decorating and making paper flowers.

And then joy of all joys, my last two 8th grade classes to cap off another glorious year of jazz. Last year, I tried a closing circle where I attempted a profound story about what jazz means and remember getting angry with two kids who kept talking to each other the whole time. This year, I lowered the profound bar and decided to do a preschool music class with them. For some, it was a repeat of what they did with me 11 years ago, for some, it was their first preschool class with me and the Tom Robbins quote rang true: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” For those who still think of 8th graders as miserable eye-rolling uncommunicative grunters, you really need to see these kids light up with all their childhood innocence (not naiveté) intact. Kids taller than me in heaven chanting “Criss-cross applesauce” with middle, high and low voices and dancing in the middle of the ring to “Johnny Brown.”

I haven’t even mentioned the Middle School student presentation for Asian-American Month and the opposite end of their childlike openness—their eyes-wide-open serious and deep engagement with the unjust world we’re handing them and the power of their refusal to accept it. They are more adult at 12 and 13 years old than most members of Congress and I mean that sincerely.

As always, my week ended with the singing at The Jewish Home for the Aged that I’ve been doing for 9 years and there were 10 more reasons for hope and antidotes to despair named Edie and Rudy and Edith and May and Steven and some other new folks gathered around the piano, equally enjoying Embraceable You, Schubert’s Impromptu and Happy Trails to You.

I don’t want the damn TV cameras to come into my school, they’d get it all wrong. Trying to capture this in words is futile and it’s not likely that a single person reading this will actually come to our school to witness what I’m talking about. But still I feel obliged to let you know that everything you hope a world could be like is closer than you think and I have the extraordinary good fortune to encounter it most every day of my working life.

Yes, I’ll feel that small burst of release with summer vacation just around the bend and yes, it is hard work to create and sustain these classes and yes, it will be good for the soul to have some unscheduled time ahead, but if it weren’t for the fact that most of my summer is filled with more miracles ahead in the adult summer courses I lead, I’d miss it. Who would want to give up these daily antidotes to despair?

Not me.

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