Billie Holiday is right that the most important step of all is to show children who they are (see quote from the last post), to encourage them to celebrate who they are so they’re on the right track to who they yet might be, to organize all activity around helping them discover the gifts of their particular genius and reason for being. Easy to say, supremely difficult (but necessary!) to do! I suggest three things to begin.
Spelling Mississippi: Billie puts this in opposition to discovering yourself and yes, if you had to choose, spelling is small on the list of what’s important. But it still should be on the list! To learn how to spell correctly, to add and subtract, to play your scales on the piano, to correctly weave a potholder, to master the procedure of a scientific experiment— these are the tools that help one master the details of human learning, help one control one’s expression and communicate effectively, help pay honor to the human inheritance of the neo-cortex and its capacity for analytic and critical thought.
On one level, Billie Holiday’s life was a detour around the straight and narrow of traditional schooling. She never went past 5thgrade, did not take music lessons, practice her scales or go to a conservatory. She found her own intuitive way into a song and even then, rarely sang the notes as written. Yet both she and Louis Armstrong (who also didn’t go past 5thgrade) expressed regret that their schooling was so short and so ineffective. In the dream school that supplants the nightmare school, the babies of precision in learning need not be thrown out with the bathwater. Nor need they dominate the intuitive minds of geniuses like Louis and Billie—and Ella and Duke and Miles and Monk and the many more who graduated from the school of Life. Ultimately, we need both.
What happened in Mississippi: Let’s imagine that in our school, children are loved and welcomed and still know how to spell Mississippi. Is that the end of the matter? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to know something of what has happened in Mississippi? To know the story of Emmet Till? To know about Fannie Lou Hammer’s delegation of black voters she took to the 1964 Democratic Convention? To find out how the blues of the Mississippi Delta made it possible for a white boy from Tupelo to become the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a title born of white privilege named by the white folks in power?
You can graduated with a doctorate in most any field from Harvard and still not been told these stories. As a result, you might have voted for the guy who has shot democracy in the foot and then boasts about his cane. What good is a college education if we are not only welcomed into our genius individually, but also not taught the essentials of our collective genius called Democracy? What kind of education is that? Apparently, the one most of us got. So in Billie’s dream, steps one and two are essential.
Beyond Mississippi: Each of us comes to this earth “trailing clouds of glory,” not only in a general way, but in very specific ways, accompanied by our genius, our Muse, our daimon, our particular way of being and seeing the world. Our lives our spent following the little bread crumbs on the path our genius leaves for us so that our Soul’s purpose and destiny is gradually revealed. School is one place where this process can begin and that means encountering the full range of our human intelligence, promise and possibility. Schools that have no arts programs, to give but one example, sever one limb from our whole self. Schools that only care about the right and wrong answers of precision, acing Mississippi on the spelling test, without calling forth our capacity to create, are merely places of instruction. Education means to lead out, draw forth, all of our multiple faculties. Which not only means offering the broad spectrum of the 3 R’s alongside music, dance, drama, visual art, P.E., but widening the way each of them are taught. And then tying all of the above together with action, with doing, with creating.
And so following our own path of genius, we might continue to try to dismantle systemic racism in Mississippi and beyond. We might study the ecosystems there and the threat of environmental destruction and work on solar power plants or sustainable farming. We might dive deep in Mississippi Delta Blues and rise up singing with the next incarnation of this remarkable American art form. Nurturing our genius in Billie’s school is not just for our own satisfaction of a life more fully lived, but a way in which we can contribute to our collective life and help make it more sustainable, more livable, more lovable, more beautiful, more just, more fun!
Billie Holiday is testimony to someone who was graced with an extraordinary gift of song and had the courage and determination to follow that genius through endless hours on the road, facing the constant assaults, both mental and physical, of racism and sexism and drug abuse, and still rose up singing and refreshing the world with the power and beauty of her voice. And also kept some deep seed of kindness alive and some beautiful vision of a world better for the next generation of children, a place where kids could thrive partly because of their education rather than in spite of it.
I’m ready to help out, awaiting the call from President Biden.