Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Why I Love 8th Graders

After 5 weeks away, my homecoming at my school was— well, let’s just say there were no brass bands and ticker tape parades. Two teachers passed me in the hall talking to each other and didn’t notice me to say hi, one in the lunch room said with a puzzled look “Hmm. Have I seen you recently?” and when I came into the staff meeting, business proceeded as usual without a moment’s pause to say, “Hey, welcome back, Doug.” When the 5-year olds came in and I asked if anything was different (as in, “You’re our teacher again!”), the answers were something like “Did you move that chair?”

I’m not exactly insulted. I think it’s partly that I’m such an indelible part of the furniture of school that it was as if a chair had been moved and then put back in. And it’s healthy that the community is so far beyond any one person that life goes on for kids and teachers alike—out of sight, out of mind. Still though, in my world, I always take the initiative to mark welcomes and goodbyes, even if only 5 weeks away, in at least some small way.

And so do my colleagues James and Sofia, who wrote a nice “Welcome Back, Doug” on the board. That felt good. When the 8th graders came in, some saw it, echoed the greeting and then a few wrote additional comments on the board. How sweet was that?!

We shared some deep things about our time away—their Social Justice Field Trip to Alabama and Memphis and the power of seeing the hotel where Martin Luther King was murdered, my Holocaust Tours in Berlin standing on the site above the bunker where Hitler committed suicide. We are doing exactly the work I talked about in yesterday’s blog, doing our part to heal trauma with knowledge, listening and caring. And music to tie it all together.

So after our sharing, I reminded them about the Spring Concert coming up and said, “Let’s see what you remember from our six pieces.” Now unlike other music programs that would say, “Get out your music (ie, printed notated scores) and we’ll go to Bar 54,” this meant remembering every note learned by ear, remembering which instrument played on each piece (they always switch), remembering the form and order and being prepared to improvise solos at a moment’s notice. It had been some six weeks since they played these pieces and Boom!, off they went, each group knocking off three with such clarity, musicality and impressive memory.

They were so happy to be playing jazz again. To be fair, they also were very happy to do a composition project with my colleague James related to scenes from Shakespeare in classic Orff-Schulwerk elemental style. There’s no “roll over Beethoven” attitude when it comes to music. But I always feel that jazz played by Americans carries something extra. As Gershwin said so many years ago, “Jazz is the result of the energy stored up in America.” The triumph and the shame, the joy and the pain, the happiness and the sorrow, the yesterday and tomorrow, all of it mixed into each phrase and redeeming it like the lotus blooming in the swamp. The kids feel it.

It was a fabulous way to re-enter school and I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say I was moved by their words on the board. The music alone was enough, but it never hurts to throw in a few words of welcoming. Thanks, 8th grade. I love you guys!!!

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