I was looking at the displays on the wall of the elementary school. It was the typical habitat for my Saturday Orff workshop, this one in Kansas City. The workshop is in the gym and ouside in the halls are the typical school postings about trying hard, leadership, community spirit and more. All the things that we imagine make good citizens.
But I couldn’t help but be struck by some odd pairings. Right next to the exhortation to Reduce, Recycle, Re-use, were displays of the the logos from McDonalds, KFC’s, Taco Bell, companies whose model the antithesis of ecological practice. Next to the words about being a good community member was the logo for Walmart, a corporation that has colonized the U.S., treated local workers shabbily and whisked all the profits away from the local community after shutting down Mom and Pop and destroying the fabric of downtown. Then came the formula poems by the 3rd graders— “I am a child of………, A lover of…… Who feels…… Who needs……Who gives……Who fears……” and so on. (Apparently, almost all these children fear snakes.) My favorite, showing both the quirkiness of kids and the weird world we’re bequeathing them:
“I am a lover of God and video games.”
In the workshop itself, I felt the usual wonder of how supremely imaginative and intelligent human beings are if they’re just given the invitation to show it. I threw simple problems out to the group to solve and once they warmed up to it, their collective solutions were brilliant, beautiful, fun and funny. As I talked about how off-track most of the educational bureaucracies are, cynical about teacher’s and children’s innate curiosities and passion for mastery, making them jump through proscribed hoops that prove absolutely nothing and dispirit everyone involved, I felt the head-nodding of good-hearted people who chose teaching for the right reason.
As always, we moved far beyond simply whining and complaining to delving into some models for doing what schools should do— join folks together in a circle of caring, in the dance of co-creation, in the many ways to reveal the characters of each participant and let them show what makes them shine, what their love and passion is. I ended as I often do, inspired by these folks that gave up a Saturday to get better at what they do, were willing to take some risks and to support their fellow risk-takers, were willing to lay their head on the shoulder of the person next to them and feel the vibrations coming through the shoulder blades as we sang a lovely Estonian song, were open to lifting their heads and let a small tear roll down the cheek without embarrassment.
And yet the way I’m put together, I can’t help but notice the disparity between what happened in that gym and what was outside. The first was being brought some water in what I consider the most evil manifestation of contemporary culture—those tiny four–ounce plastic water bottles. Really, it hurts my heart so much to see them and I was struggling between being a gracious guest and saying out loud, “Please don’t ever buy these.” I’m ashamed to say I went with being polite and simply hid the water bottles and then filled up my own at the drinking fountain outside.When it came time for lunch, I was offered the choice between fast-food places and settled for the more benign Subway, only to discover that it was inside a Walmart. We chose to go to another sub place, but everywhere within 20 miles was like every place else, U.S.A.— mall, mall, mall and mall. How can we teach community, ecology, aesthetics in a world like this? And please, oh lovely Kansas City teachers, don’t take any of this personally. I’m not insulting your culture, but am reminding all of us how this world is anti-culture. It is what is thrust upon us when local government fails to resist economic colonialism and sells the soul of the town and local culture down the river.
On the bright side, I did notice a sign for the American Jazz Museum and rushed there after the workshop to stand at 18th and Vine where so much miraculous music was made by Jay McShann, Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams, a young Charlie Parker and more. Hooray! A Jazz and Blues festival called "Rhythm and Ribs" was in full swing here in this marvelous museum. What a pleasure to see lots of young and old black folks having a great time surrounded by displays of Satchmo, Duke, Ella, Count, Bird and other great American heros. The museum itself was put together nicely, with well-chosen recording examples and one particularly intriguing section where you could hear the variations a drummer might make, from the basic swing groove to fills to paraphrasing the melody to full-fledged drum solo. Then the same idea in melody as a saxophone plays the tune straight, with embellishments, with new improvised melodies and harmony as a pianist moves from basic chords to more exotic voicings and reharmonizations. Well-done! Right next door was the Baseball Museum commemorating the African-American contribution to that other great American pastime. You could feel the thrill of authentic culture and community, past and present, so markedly different from a trip to Walmart.
And so I am aiming for the day when a 3rd grader might write: “I am a lover of God and Art Tatum.” Who, according to Fats Waller, were one and the same.