Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Bitter Antique

I was 8 years old when I won the pie-eating contest in my school’s summer program. I forget what prize was offered, but the fact is, I never got it. Years later, I broke the high school pole-vaulting record and eagerly awaited the customary lunchtime announcement by the headmaster. It never came. That same year, I entered the school public speaking contest and waited at graduation to hear who won. I never heard it. (They decided that none of the speeches were worthy enough.)

And so began my initiation into the world of personal injustice and bitter disappointment.
I had done what the world required and yet it failed to deliver its promise. In the past five or ten years, the undeserved slaps from world have come one after another. I taught for six years at the SF Conservatory in each of their programs—adult, kid and collegiate, bought two sets of Orff instruments for them, hired the subsequent teachers for the kids’ classes and got consistently glowing evaluations from the collegiate students. And then was let go on the whim of the Dean with no explanation. I put Mills College on the map of music education, doubling the course size in our 12-year Orff Certification trainings there and was kicked out so they could clean the dorms a week earlier. I published three books with one company and one with another, but neither would consider publishing my jazz book that lay in the closet for ten years.

And so the stories began to pile up, even inside the institutions closest to me. And in every single one of those cases, the closed doors led to another opening, a new direction that in retrospect made me grateful. Like forming Pentatonic Press to publish my own jazz book and the subsequent successes of the three books I’ve done myself and the one I just published of my colleague Sofia. Moving the Mills Course to the SF School has been a blessing many times over and while I still am sorry not to give Conservatory students a kind of experience they so desperately need, it has freed up energy in other directions.

So when students in my Level III class were asked to describe me in a student’s recent teaching lesson, “wise” and “fun” were joined by “bitter.” Of course, that threw me into defensive mode—“I’m not bitter. I’m just outraged and indignant. The more I see how fantastic things could be, how intelligent and heartfelt and envigorating, the more difficult I find it to accept the mediocrity, stupidity and frozen emotion that gets the larger press in the culture.” And that’s true. Still, though, I suppose a touch of bitter is on my tongue and I have to be careful not to let that be the dominant flavor. Because, as I reminded my students, I am lucky beyond anyone’s normal of measure of good fortune to get to teach the students I teach in the places I teach them. And that’s sweet.

The Brazilian’s have a beautiful word for the special combination of bitter and sweet—saudade— and I do find bittersweet chocolate most to my liking. So bitter need not be all bad, especially if it’s balanced by appropriate gratitude for the sweet. And as I said above, each closed door opened another one that in retrospect had to be. And then we find ourselves in the weird situation of thanking those who disappointed or betrayed us. Even if their intentions were not honorable, they moved us further down the path than we might have traveled otherwise.

As for the title, a student in the recent jazz course described my status in my school by calling me an “antique.” So there you have it. I think that I’m giving these teachers something worthy that they value and stand as a model of sorts for them to aspire to in their field—and at the end of it all, they perceive me as a “bitter antique.”

But luckily, I’m not bitter about it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I better get back on the shelf.

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