Friday, December 9, 2011

Life in the Hallways

I spent most of 3rd grade in the hall. My teacher, Miss Rice, wrote on my report card (I still have it!): “Douglas is very, very annoying.” And truth be told, I probably was. I generally felt like school was really cutting into my day and keeping me from roaming around the park skipping stones in the lake and climbing trees and such. But still, Ms. Rice, I think you didn’t wholly understand me.

I often wonder what kind of student I would have been if I had gone to the school I teach in. I imagine still on the feisty, mischievous side, but so much happier—especially on Wrong Words Day! (See last posting—and by the way, it was every bit as wonderful as I thought it would be, the highlight singling out the proverbial “bad boy” for not singing the wrong words!) I suspect that my commitment to the kind of school The San Francisco School has been was a reaction to school as I knew it—and as so many have known it. Out of movies on the plane, I watched an interview with Jennifer Aniston talking about her Waldorf School experience with great affection. I like the idea that people become who they are partly because of their school and not in spite of it. The latter was certainly true for many of the people who shaped American culture— like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, for starters, most of whom didn’t get past 5th grade.

But I say “partly” because school and family and our surrounding culture can only go so far in shaping us. Read James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code for a modern interpretation of an ancient understanding that we come with our character fully formed as an image that our soul grows toward. Our lives are like a slowly developing photograph—some deep part of us knows what the picture will look like and guides us toward the choices that help it come into focus. Schools and such can support and encourage us in our life-long journey to become ourselves or hinder and distract us. But we ultimately stand alone with our daimon (that hidden knowing part of our soul) and it’s a life work to learn to listen to the right voices to guide us.

And so back to Irving Berlin. He escaped to New York from the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia when he was five years old, lived in a cold-water windowless flat on the Lower East Side, and dropped out of school at 8 years old to sell papers to help the family survive. He discovered that if he sang out while selling, he could earn a few extra pennies and, with his daimon whispering in his ear, told his mother that his ambition was to be a singing waiter in a saloon. As a teenager, he realized that first ambition while living in the squalor of the Bowery and then began to make up his own songs. He got his break in Vaudeville with his first hit song, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, in 1911 and went on to write some 1500 songs over 60 years, many of which are an indelible part of the Great American Songbook. (One of which is White Christmas—go figure! What would his cantor father have thought?)

And here we arrive at my next re-lyricked song, sung to Irving Berlin’s “Always.” (If you don’t know the tune, go do your homework.) Inspired by my friend Fran Hament, who wrote her own version about life in the hallways of the Jewish Home, this is the summary of my 3rd grade in Harrison School.

I spent my 3rd grade in the hallways
Got kicked out of class into the hallways
The teacher called me pest
And though I did protest
I had to take my desk, into the hallways, always.

Life didn’t seem so fair in the hallways
No one seemed to care in the hallways
Not for just a day, not for just a week
But my whole 3rd grade in hallways.

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