Today is the first day of Hanukkah and isn’t it extraordinary that in some tiny corner of the planet a few thousand years ago, oil lasting longer than expected to keep a flame burning generated an annual festivity still celebrated today! And in another corner not too far from the first one at a different time, a child was born in a manger and look what after-effect that had!
So it seems like we humans are hungry for miracles. But isn’t every day enough? Isn’t every birth an unfathomable miracle? The fact that the rains come down and the plants grow and the various organs in the body somehow work together and that the mail is delivered?
In addition to the Maccabees and the Nativity, Buddha’s Enlightenment Day comes on December 8th and Rumi’s Wedding Night on December 17th and let’s not forget the Solstice. So in a month heavy with the miraculous, I’ll start the blogpost journey to the New Year with the foreword to my new book, a little piece I wrote celebrating the miracle of teaching as long as I have without a hint of burn-out. My oil was not predicted to last this long and yet it has and no sign yet that my flame is flickering and sputtering and soon to go out. The more important point I try to get at here is that such a miracle is available to all if by practice, temperament and luck, they find work that feeds them from some underground spring. Well, read on and you’ll see what I mean.
It’s Friday morning, the end of a long week teaching music to children at The San Francisco School. I’m up around 6:30, out the door by 7:30, ready to teach my first class of 6th graders at 8:15. At 9:00, sixteen 8th graders enter the room ready to play some jazz on the Orff instruments, at 10:00, a second group. A short 10-minute break and in come the 5-year-olds, ready to gallop, jump, twirl around the room, practice partner clap plays, frolic through a play-party dance. 30 minutes later, the next group of 5-year-olds enter with a “Yee-haw!” for more of the same.
Now it’s lunch, the teachers gathered in the kitchen with that convivial TGIF feeling and then off to sing with 100 elementary students.. A short break and in comes the full 4th grade class playing xylophones or body percussion or recorder or dancing and most often, a blend of “all of the above.” From there I go to sing with the 80 preschoolers with their teachers, one of my personal favorites times of the week.
Almost done, but not quite. Now it’s carpool duty, checking off the names of kids as they get picked up and reminding them to “have a nice weekend.” Now it’s 3:30 and my day at school is officially over. I tidy up the classroom from the week’s work and then drive to the Jewish Home of the Aged where for one glorious hour, I play piano and sing with folks from 83 to 103 years old. At 5:00, I begin the drive home with the weekend ahead of me.
Am I exhausted? Strangely, no. In fact, I feel wholly energized and filled with the satisfaction of a full week of work well done. And though I’m happy to sit at home watching a video or reading a book or go out to dinner or go out to a movie, it often happens that the next day, I’m giving a workshop at SF Jazz to kids or doing a training for music teachers or meeting with my colleagues about next week’s classes. On an average of once-a-month, I might fly out on Friday night to go anywhere in the country to give a workshop and return on Sunday.
I am 67 years old. I have been doing all this for 44 years at one school. The classes are physically demanding, moving with the kids, sitting on the floor with the kids, getting up off of the floor with the kids (the most challenging!), releasing the tsunami of kid energy and directing and shaping it so it’s coherent rather than chaotic. I’m at the center of the storm, no sitting at my desk while the kids quietly work on a worksheet. And then, of course, all the emotions kids bring to class, interpersonal issues, attention deficits. And switching between 8th grade energy and 5-year old energy within a 10-minute span. It’s hard, demanding work—physically, emotionally, intellectually. You must be wholly present, ready to respond to the thousand and one surprises that will come up in any given class.
And yet I repeat. When I wake up in the morning on Friday, I look forward to it all with the same enthusiasm—indeed more—as I did 44 years ago. When I drive home from the Jewish Home, I’m glowing with happy energy. How can this be?
Children: What is it that keeps us fresh and perpetually alive? I believe the sense of the unknown, of mystery, of surprise, of readiness to be astounded and in a constant sense of wonder, is one thing that helps us get up in the morning eager to greet the day. As we age, we will settle more and more deeply into routines, some of them life-giving like a good jazz groove and some as calcifying and deadly dull and habitual as the relentless disco beat in the dentist’s office. As we grow into our adult mind, what we gain in knowledge, skill and understanding we sometimes lose in curiosity, wonder and openness. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the experts, few.” said Zen master Suzuki Roshi, reminding us to keep the child’s mind by our side as we meet our responsibilities with our adult mind.
And no better way to feed that possibility than to be around people who live it every day—children. If you admire that energy and love children because of their delightful freshness, their perpetual beginner’s mind, then you will be energized being around them. Watching a 4-year old with eyes closed singing Free at Last with such passion, a group of 3rd graders making up motions to old happy jazz songs while singing, a roomful of 5th graders joyfully dancing, a class of 8th graders playing a killer jazz piece with inspired solos— one cannot help but be drawn into their orbit and be infected by their enthusiasm and energy. And yes, it can also be exhausting—let’s be honest here—and there are times you need to just be around adults who aren’t constantly moving. But for me, the children repay the energy I put out as a teacher with the energy they give back to me.
Music: Music, like children, bring us into a world of mystery and surprise and wonder, carries us below the belt of certainty, dull facts and heavy nouns and sends us flowing down the verb-alive river of adventure, the happiness of lazily floating mixed with the thrill of running the rapids. Music, along with poetry, is the only human faculty that lights up all the areas of the brain. It trains the body, stimulates the senses, opens the heart, cultivates the mind , awakens the imagination and feeds the soul. It uses all of us, engages all of us, and gives pleasure to us, heart, mind, body and soul. The simple act of listening to music can do much of this, but playing it oneself, alone or in ensemble with others, constantly refreshes and energizes us. It’s a significant part of the mystery of my Friday energy.
Teaching: Teaching is part intuition, part intellect and part physical practice. It is a mix of art, science and craft. Craft is another word for “efficiency.” When we first begin to practice a certain physical skill, the prime problem we have is wasted motion. We expend much more energy than we need to and our work is slow and clumsy. Witness the factory worker at the assembly line, the person learning how to make handmade tortillas, the beginning recorder player lifting the fingers way too high and pressing much too hard. The mastery of their craft that comes from practice mostly amounts to more efficient motion and that in turn saves energy.
The same is true of mental skills. The brain searching for familiar patterns is working hard to connect the needed axons and dendrites. Once there is enough repetition to suggest that this is important for survival and will be needed, the brain lays down a coating called the myelin sheath to pave the road for the impulse to travel more smoothly, quickly and efficiently.
When I began teaching at The San Francisco School in 1975 as a 24-year old teacher, I was swept up in the romance of starting off on a grand journey. But I also suffered greatly from my lack of experience, my constant failures, my problems shaping the energy of the group (what is commonly called “classroom management”), my lack of understanding of how to respond to the things that came up and so on.
The one driving thread that guaranteed improvement in all these areas was the sense that it was entirely up to me to create the classes of my dreams. I couldn’t step aside from that responsibility by blaming the kids, their diet, their families, the culture, the weather, etc. Every night, I faced the same question—“How can I do this better?” and gradually answers revealed themselves. I gathered these ideas into little lists to help me remember and spoke about them in the adult workshops that I began to lead (as early as 1976). None of them are formulaic, systematic, paint-by-number answers that guarantee perfect classes, none can be slickly and neatly packaged and sold as the “next greatest thing!” All are simply common sense ideas born from those long years of experience and tested by the reaction of the kids in my classes. At the end of the day, your kids will always be your best teachers, the ones who will signal clearly—if you attend to them and know how to read their behavior—when you’re on the right track. Your constant failure, followed by that question over and over again. “How can I do this better?” will teach you all you need to know.
A few thousand years back, there was a miracle that is still celebrated today—oil that should have lasted one day burned for eight days. I’ve heard warnings that teachers can burn-out as early as five years into their teaching. The fact that my flame is still burning bright eight times that length may seem miraculous— but if we love children, our craft and the art of teaching, such miracles are available for all.