Thursday, April 30, 2015

Cruel School

“No children should ever have to feel like their teachers don’t like them—even if they don’t!”     (From an interview with a hiring committee at my school.)

I love this. I was in a discussion group yesterday dreaming about a “magic wand” change each of us would like to make in the world. Mine was to re-organize all of education with one purpose only— to help children feel known, wanted, valued, important, to bless them with earned praise when they come up with an interesting idea or make a breakthrough or do something with particular finesse and the whole force of their character. What a difference that would make! A world of children growing into adults who feel that they belong, that they are needed, that they are worthy of notice from adults. How could such children habitually harm others if they themselves felt loved and appreciated?

I also love the last part of the sentence—“even if they don’t!” That gives a reality check to the fantasy of unconditional love for all, the brute truth that some chemistries don’t mix well, some qualities of kids (and adults!) we will find annoying, unpleasant or downright maddening. Yes, we can and must address those things that muddy the class flow, bother classmates, disrupt the harmony. But it’s always a good idea—though not easy— to separate behavior from people. “I don’t like what you just did” is quite different from “I don’t like you!” and teachers should mind the difference.

I just finished a remarkable book titled A House in Bali by Colin McPhee. The author was a composer who went to Bali in the 1930’s and was one of the first to transcribe and record Balinese music and make it more known in the West. In one chapter, he talks about a boy who he was helping learn to read and write and his alarm when the boy wanted to go the local school (p. 178 for those interested). He writes:

I dreaded the schools and the Indonesian teachers, with their hatred for the past and their determination to stamp out all traces of native culture. I had often looked in a doorway, drawn by the droning chant of lessons which were suddenly broken into from time to time by shrill cries of fury from the teacher. …with his switch.

Physical punishment was something new for the pupils, for at home they were rarely chastised. They grew up in freedom, seldom giving any trouble, for at the age of four a boy was already a ‘small man,’ with a fine sense of his own responsibility in herding ducks or taking the great water buffaloes to the stream each day for their bath. At home the children would mimic the teacher with that peculiar gift of the Balinese for cutting satire. They would have the family in fits of laughter as they reproduced the sharp, dry, perpetually furious voice, the quick raps of his ruler against the side of the desk, and the way he was descent like the wrath of Shiva, striking here and there and breathing hard in his excitement (with) his shameless exhibition of rage, this frantic exposure of the frantic inner self…

This scene, straight out of Dickens, is all too prevalent in schools worldwide, still today (though hopefully less than in 1938). Graced with a different narrative of child-raising at home— a combination of useful work and permission to run free and fly kites and such—the kids could see this imported Western model of schooling for the weird thing it is, wrathful teachers losing any sense of dignity and equanimity and exposing their own eroded spirit. And as for any hope that the teacher “likes” the children, well, hard to feel that with furious voice, rapping ruler or twitching switch in hand. The only lesson learned at that school is cruelty. 

My colleagues, we’re a long way from switch in hand, but still there are many verbal and gestural ways to draw blood from innocent and not-so-innocent young people. We would all do well to pause and ask ourselves, “Does each one of my students feel that I like him or her? If not, why not? “ And if you’re really brave, you can even ask them! Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ukelele Tears

An 8th grade singer and a ukulele. That’s all it takes to moisten this music teacher’s eyes. Today one of my students stayed after class to try out one of our jazz tunes and three measures into it, my heart was already stirred. We’d been banging out the melody on xylophones all class and it was fine— we will move from banging to coaxing beautiful tones from wood and metal— but when all is said and done, there simply is nothing more powerful than the human voice to pluck all the strings of emotion. I’ve been to concerts with complex synthesizers and looping machines and special effects and it all comes from the impulse to express what mere words cannot. But Jean Ritchie singing an old family song acapella always strikes deeper and truer.

Of course, it needn’t be either/or, but in this world of fascination with machines, it’s good to remember the timeless power of the human voice.

And the ukulele.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Family Reunion

I celebrated what would have been my Mom’s 94th birthday having dinner with my sister. She brought a photo of Mom from a few years ago and ah, there was that beatific smile I remember. We put it on the table and she joined us for a lovely meal. After dinner, we walked to our cars as the fog swirled in and in my sister said,

“You know, in their own weird way, Mom and Dad did a pretty good job. Here we are, both of us about as happy as one can reasonably expect people to be, with lovely children and grandchildren coming up. By any psychological standards, Dad was neurotic and repressed, Mom a certified bi-polar, but at the end of the day, they knew us and loved us and were proud of us and let us be precisely who we needed to be. And in their own weird way, they loved each other too. Go figure.”

I got in the car, put on a Blossom Dearie album I associate with visiting my Dad in his last months and let the tears come forth. It’s been a while since I’ve felt this sweet grief and it felt just right for the occasion. I drove along Crissy Field to the Golden Gate Bridge to the Legion of Honor to the Cliff House and through Golden Gate Park to my house, me and Blossom and Mom and Dad and sis and images from the long arc of our lives together. The wet fog on the windshield, the wet drops on my cheek, we were all there together again and wasn’t that fine. I could hear my mother say, “Oh, my darling” and pinch my cheek and my father say, “Thanks for visiting, son” and hug me goodbye.

Yes, they’re always with us, we say about the dearly departed and it’s true. But to wholly feel them is not easy. The right music, permission for the tears to flow and putting the world aside to open the floodgates of memory, it all helps.  

Happy birthday, Mom. Dad, glad you could join us. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Permission to Rant

The demise of the world as we know it will not come from nuclear war or terrorism or cataclysmic natural upheavals. It will come from those tiny plastic water bottles that hold a few ounces of water. I can’t think of a single reason to promote the making, selling and buying of these insults to our fragile ecology, and yet they keep showing up everywhere.

I ranted to the elementary kids on Earth Day about them and told them how at our very school, there was once a Middle School Dance with two boxes of these tiny water bottles that held a mere 4 to 6 ounces of water. Kids would open them, take a few sips, not even finish them and throw them away. And where were these bottles? Right below the drinking fountain!!

The other night I went to a high school production of the musical Urinetown. The theme was—drought! And political resistance to bad decisions around it. The liner notes raved about how enlightened these high school kids became about the issues of water, sustainability, shared resources and such. It was an uplifting thought until I went to the lobby at intermission and there they were— a box of these tiny plastic water bottles!! Hello?!!!! Feeling the irony here?

And then the next day went to SF Jazz to give a jazz workshop for kids and right by the piano? Five tiny water bottles for the band. Are they following me around? Has someone discovered my pet peeve and tracked all my movements?

I told the kids that when bad decisions like this are made, there are five possible solutions:

1)   The company making them sees that it’s irresponsible and stops. (Ha!!)

2)   The stores selling them consult their conscience and refuse to stock them. (Ha!)

3)   People individually decide not to buy them. Getting better. If enough do it and there’s no profits for stores or manufacturers, then things can change. Organized boycotts carry this individual choice into collective action and that helps as well.

4)   Politicians can outlaw them. (It happened locally in Concord, Mass.)

5) All of us can become better informed. This tidbit from the Ban the Bottle website: 

It takes 17 million barrels of oil per year to make all the plastic water bottles used in the U.S. alone. That’s enough oil to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year.” In 2007, Americans consumed over 50 billion single serve bottles of water.

This just might become my personal cause. I hereby pledge that any meeting or workshop of public event that I attend that serves these tiny water bottles will be obliged to listen to me rant and rave for 10 minutes non-stop— or at least until I need to refresh my voice by drinking an entire water bottle. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Thirteen Steps to Happiness

1.     Satisfying rehearsal of a lovely Thai xylophone piece with 6th grade.

2.     8th grader describes the form of one of our pieces with remarkable detail. Class goes on to play Take Five after a three-month hiatus—perfectly!

3.     Next 8th group includes two students trying out the trumpet parts of Miles’ So What solo I transcribed last night and sound fantastic! Lots of adventurous risks in other pieces and most of them sounding great.

4.     Two five-year old groups rotating instrumental parts for The Three Billy Goats Gruff.  Kids improvising the music of “peaceful grass-chewing” on glockenspiel sound so musical and hearing the logical end of their improvisations.

5.     One kid who has found music class challenging plays the big Billy Goat Gruff’s “trip-trap” on the big bass bars. Has trouble keeping a steady rhythm and we decide that the goat has a hurt leg and is limping. It works!

6.     Teaching Tom Lehrer’s song Pollution for Earth Week at Singing Time. Kids are cracking up while also raising consciousness.

7.     Then singing The Water Is Wide and the high note on the word “boat” sends chills down my spine and I show the kids my teardrop.

8.     Interview a candidate for a job at the school who is so eloquent and articulate that I’m jotting notes down like mad. Helps me see that maybe someday I might be an okay teacher, but lots of work ahead.

9.     I pack instruments into the car for a Family Jazz workshop tomorrow at the SF Jazz Center. So happy to have the opportunity to do this work.

10. I go to the Jewish Home for the Aged after two months away and see my dear friends.Nobody passed away while I was gone and after some lively catching-up conversation, had the usual joyful singing fest around the piano. Songs that began with W and then T. Ended with a beautiful rendition of That Old Black Magic.

11. Got a hint from someone that my daughter Talia was hired for a permanent position at The San Francisco School teaching 5th grade. (This possibility that she wouldn’t get the job kept me up in the middle of the night all week. Well, that plus jet lag.)
12. Driving home, felt like the last drop of jet lag dissolved.

13. I walked up the thirteen steps to my front door (the inspiration for the title)
     hoping my wife had some news about my daughter’s job. Opened the door and……

       SHE GOT IT!!!!!!

Sometimes our deepest hopes are realized. Sometimes not. Ultimately, we probably need to be grateful for both scenarios, but sure is a lot easier in the first case! I am one happy man.