Sunday, September 3, 2017

Heads Up!

If I’m out in the park playing Frisbee (which I should do but don’t!) and the disc goes off course and veers towards a group of people having a peaceful picnic, chances are I’ll yell, “Heads up!” Which could go bad, as they look up and get hit right in the face! But the expression is another way to say, “Watch out! Be alert! Pay attention!” agreed with me and defined the expression thus:

…this phrase alludes to holding one's head up high and concentrating on what one is doing. (It can also be used as) an advance warning; for example, 'The boss was coming. Jim gave us a heads up to get on with some work'

That sense of holding one's head up and being alert and energetic is also expressed in this item from Collier's Illustrated Weekly, 1914:
"Heads up, you guys"... We ain't licked yet."
Well, you get the idea. And the idea is to be alert, to be alive, to pay attention to what’s important, to be aware of danger or impending trouble. Maybe this is why A on the report card is a good thing, symbolizing alertness, aliveness, attention, awareness.
And yet. Every day more and more of us join the walking dead, the people walking through the world with their heads down looking at their phone. They are attending to the things they know, the people they know, the sites they like to visit and all of that is fine as far as it goes. But I suggest it goes too far. The increasing number of hours spent heads down robs the world of attention, makes everyone look and feel the same, reinforces the loop of one’s own closed circle and brings us closer to the edge of collective narcissism.
I’ve already complained about my school’s casual decision to exchange the paper check-list at carpool for the screened corporate program i-Pad version. Yes, heads are down to check off the name on paper, but it is fast and feels different and looks different and allows for a more personal connection with each kid, even if it be a fleeting “goodbye.”
Then last night, another casualty was added to the list as I went to the monthly Sea Chantey Sing at the Hyde Street Pier, an event I’ve attended some 10 times or so in the past couple of years. I'm always warmed by a gathering that is as close to a West African celebration as American white folks can get—well, minus the dance and drums. People of all ages, all backgrounds, singing call and response songs, anyone invited to lead one, all while sitting on a boat docked at a San Francisco pier. It’s fun and festive and some of the singers are great and all are invited to join with good spirit and that room gets charged quickly with the energy of acoustic acapella music.
And now? Still pretty good, but over 50% of the people leading the songs were reading them from their i-Phone. Heads-down. Believe me, it’s not the same. They don’t feel and know and live the song the same way when they depend on written words and they can’t lead the song and connect with the community in the same way when they’re staring down at the screen. Aaarrggh!!! One of them started singing a song that actually didn’t belong, a Minnesota woodsman song called The Frozen Logger. She with her phone and me singing along by memory all eleven verses. Did anyone notice?
Of course, this didn’t start with phones. It began when literacy shifted the experience of knowing songs and poems and stories and dances directly in the body and voice, embedded in the folds of the brain’s memory to depending on books to store knowledge. People relied on “paper music” instead of just playing and improvising, on written poems instead of recited poems, on song-sheets at the Hootenanny. My mission as a teacher is to return to the old oral ways while still enjoying the many benefits of literacy, be it reading Debussy, Dickens or the Bob Dylan songbook. And personally, I’ve made it a goal to know some 200 songs to sing with kids, some 300 jazz tunes to play at the Jewish Home on the piano, some 20 stories I could tell around a campfire, some 35 poems I can recite at the drop of a hat (well, the latter two with a little practice kick-starting the memory). It gives me a special kind of power as a teacher and a person and one I value greatly. And of course, it’s available to anyone who is willing to make the effort and sees the benefit of doing so.
So heads up, people! Curtail your heads-down time, use all those minutes and hours to recite Yeats or Shakespeare or Langston Hughes, to learn all the words to 30 songs you could sing trekking in Nepal, to play music on an instrument with just you, your fingers, your breath and your imagination.
If you do, I’ll give you an A on your report card. And remember what it stands for. Or look it up on this blog on your phone.

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