I’ve never hunted in my life. Never stalked or shot an animal. But I am a hunter of words, of inspired phrases that capture the essence of what I need at any given moment. My weapon of choice is a Niji pen, my sack to carry home my prey a piece of paper, any size. I stalk through the world in a forest of words waiting for the ones I’m hungry for to appear. When I bring them down, I take them home, skin them, dress them and cook them to bring to the table of an article or blog and the feast begins.
And so yesterday I attended a Forum on Music Education sponsored by Cal Arts at Zellerbach. The impetus was the presence of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra and the remarkable work of José Antonio Abreu, the man in Venezuala who began teaching music to 11 kids in a garage and 37 years later, has touched some 400,000 children, most of who were “youth at risk.” Now known as El Sistema and spreading rapidly worldwide, his work has been applauded from all corners of education, art and social work. More on this in the next few postings.
Regretfully, I missed Abreu’s appearance at the Forum the day before, but during the combination of presentations and break-out discussions yesterday, my Niji was scribbling away furiously, as if I had surprised a herd of edible animals at the waterhole. In describing some nine qualities that characterized El Sistema and that could be translated into other ways of working and thinking, one little phrase caught my ear:
Abreu’s outrageous ambition was to create social change through music, a sweeping vision that he has largely realized. Though of course, progress in one outrageous ambition simply means opening the door to the next. You never wholly arrive and that’s what keeps it outrageous. If you dream small enough to accomplish every corner of your hopes, then you have sold yourself short. I think of Rilke’s lines:
“When we win, it’s with small things and the winning itself makes us small.”
“I pity the man whose passions are so small that he can control them.”
I began my teaching life with a similar outrageous ambition— music teaching to transform culture, schools, children’s lives and teacher’s lives. Where Abreu traveled a mile, I nudged forward an inch, but no matter— it’s all the same game. I loved hearing these two words together to affirm my own hopes and dreams. Both words are ambivalent and that makes them yet more enticing.
“Outrageous” as defined by Merriam-Webster online can mean:
1) Exceeding the limits of what is usual
2) Not conventional or matter-of-fact: fantastic
That well describes my involvement withThe San Francisco School and Orff Schulwerk, both growing in the turbulent ‘60’s out of discontent with “business-as-usual,” both requiring thought and dreaming beyond the conventional or casual matter-of-fact, both aiming for fantastic, as in, “How was the concert?” “Fantastic!”
But “outrageous” is a two-edged sword, its alternate definitions as follows:
1) having no regard for morality, going beyond all standards of what is right.
2) Violent or unrestrained in temperament or behavior
Like the outrage I feel when people blindly block my outrageous ambitions with small-minded, self-protecting, agenda-pushing, top-down decisions. But that’s not the side of the word that Abreu had in mind— or me either.
Then “ambition.” In Latin, the ambit was the border or circumference of the known. Thus, ambition is to walk the full measure of the circumference and even peer over the wall. It carries its shadow side— an ambitious person hungry for power doesn’t often earn our admiration. But when we speak of an ambitious project, we admire its high goals and the courage of its visionaries to take risks. Ambition is equally the fuel for both selfish greed and power and selfless service to social justice. Donald Trump and Martin Luther King both carried a hefty measure of ambition, but for markedly different ends.
Outrageous ambition has the power to open doors few people even notice, never mind consider opening. And what has driven me mad in the current climate of litigation is the way administrators immediately chain an outrageous ambition to an insurance broker or lawyer, shooting it down before it has even flapped its wings, tethering it to a short leash that kills its spirit. Let it fly!! Don’t limit it with your own fears, your “that will never work” cynicism, the “yes, but…” arguments. It will soon find out its own limits.
In fact, story after story yesterday of remarkable achievements all affirmed that the larger the dream, the deeper the commitment of the dreamer. After the initial rush of the vision came the details of the funding, all of which could have brought it crashing down. But with patience, perseverance and an unswerving faith in the rightness of the dream, remarkable things finally happened.
So my friends, dream and re-dream you own outrageous ambitions and don’t apologize.
Dream big, start small and keep your eye on the prize.