Here is my annual re-posting of one of the favorite articles I've ever written (and never published). Today was Wrong Words Day at my school and there were a couple of new kids this year that couldn't believe it was happening. "Really? In school?" You could see some lights going on "Something is very different about this place!" I wrote this in 2010, but the tenets are timeless—it holds up. Enjoy!
“Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg…”
It is time for the annual school holiday sing and I know what’s coming. Three notes of Jingle Bells and Batman will make his unwelcome appearance. Consonants and vowels will clash as some children sing the right words and others don’t, producing a musical mush intolerable to a sensitive music teacher’s ear. What to do?
Luckily, I’m prepared. I’ve been here before and I have a plan. I drop my voice to my “this is serious mode” mode and dramatically issue a warning:
“I know what you’re thinking. But let me be very clear. If so much as one child out of the hundred gathered here today sings or mouths or even thinks the wrong words to this song, all of you will be punished. I think you know what I’m talking about. (Dramatic pause here) Yes, Wrong Words Day will be cancelled!!!”
A hush falls over the room and as we begin dashing over the snow in a one-horse open sleigh, I look at certain children—I know who they are and so do you—struggle mightily to keep from blurting out what their heart’s desire longs for more than anything. This is the ultimate lesson in delayed gratification. If they can beat back their impulses and somehow keep the words from leaping out their throats, they will be richly rewarded—Wrong Words Day will finally arrive.
Let’s face it. Singing naughty words to certain songs is a natural force of childhood as inevitable as candy. If you are trained, as I have been, to meet children at their level, to lead them to who they might become by starting with who they are, you must come to grips with this conundrum. To forbid it is pointless— it merely creates the type of student who behaves in front of the teacher and goes crazy when the teacher leaves the room. To encourage it is worse. Kids learn that nothing is sacred, everything is fair game for ridicule and adults stuck at a seven-year old mentality are cool. To ignore it is to fail your obligation to your discipline— as noted, two texts to the same melody is musical murder. How we as adults react to the impulse to sing the wrong words—forbidding, encouraging or ignoring—will give it a particular sort of power. The question that faces us is “How much weight does it deserve?”
Enter Wrong Words Day. The concept is simple. Neither entirely forbidding them nor overly encouraging them, we put children’s mischievous impulses into an appropriate container. For one madcap singing time, we give kids the chance to sing out to their heart’s content, “Set the old man’s beard on fire” right in front of their teachers—and not get in trouble! “Amazing!” the kids are thinking, “Here they are, those same teachers who daily remind me to raise my hand, not run in the hall, share my markers and play fair, and I get to sing ‘Deck the halls with poison ivy’— and some of them are smiling! This is as good as it gets!”
You may be wondering, “Why would a morally upstanding music teacher such as myself, someone responsible for teaching children to behave properly in a civil society, create such an event?” And the best answer is, “Come see for yourself. “ For if you would be so fortunate as to witness this spectacle and take off your judgmental glasses for a moment to truly watch the children, you would see them grinning from ear to ear as they shout out those deliciously sinful words “We three kings from Orient are. Tried to smoke a rubber cigar…” “Shalom chaverim, shalom chaverim..let’s eat raw oats, let’s eat raw oats…” “ He sings a love song, as we walk along, walking around in women’s underwear.” You would see kids being 100% kids as they’re given a 20-minute pardon from the hard work of stretching towards adulthood.
And then—please note—after this feast of bawdy irreverence, you would then hear them sing the right words to the same songs in lovely light singing voices with an equally appropriate reverent quiet. I might even suggest that the depth of that reverence is in proportion to the height of the irreverence. Since both impulses reside equally in all our breasts, it won’t do to simply try to choose one over the other. Instead, we should recognize both, learn the value of each and figure out where to place them.
Ancient ritual, modern psychology and the children’s instincts suggest that acting out darker impulses in fantasy play, ritual and art is a healthy way to deal with them and helps children (and adults!) not have to act them out in real life. Our job teaching children is not to wag our fingers at them with stern lectures, but to give them plenty of opportunities to try out different roles, behaviors and thoughts in safe containers. That can mean leaving them alone to play— not feeding their fantasies with killer video games and Barbie scenarios, but letting their own imagination roam freely in the kind of fantasy play—house, guns, doctor—that children need to sort things out. It can mean reviving a genuine arts curriculum in schools so that children can personify a quirky part of themselves as a character in a story or put their strange visions into a painting or work through their powerlessness being the king or queen in the school play. It can mean creating events like Wrong Words Day or Come to School in Pajamas Day. It can mean acting out the story of the 12 Mischievous Icelandic Trolls, with the kids themselves brainstorming all the bad things they can think to do. Paraphrasing Blake’s “You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough,” kids will learn more about what’s good by acting out what’s bad (in play, art or ritual) than by memorizing the Ten Commandments.
Not that such moral codes don’t have their place. From Buddha’s Eightfold Path to Mohammed’s Five Precepts to the Confucian Analects to Miss Manners, cultures and religions of all times and places have understood that society requires agreed-upon conventions and standards of behavior to operate smoothly. But most have also recognized that our efforts to behave properly and follow the path of moral rectitude take their toll on the psyche. Simply put, our attempts to be constantly good are dangerous when we ignore our irrepressible desire to be bad. We all want to eat the whole carton of ice cream sometimes or skip work and go fishing or tell the minister he’s a pompous old bore instead of thanking him for the lovely sermon.
Recognizing these desires, many cultures have built-in release valves that give us an opportunity to let some air out as we expand towards our higher nature. For many, this comes in the form of humor. Humor is the pin that can pop the balloon of over-inflated moral purity and save us from a devastating explosion down the line. Virtually every major religion has a figure who functions as the fool or trickster or clown. Hindus have stories about Krishna as a mischievous boy, Muslims have the tales of that fool, Mullah Nasrudin, Eastern European Jews a cycle of Chelm stories, Buddhists have a big jolly Laughing Buddha and various Native peoples worldwide have their trickster stories with Coyote, Raven or Anansi the Spider. Even the Catholic Church once celebrated the Feast of Fools where everything was turned upside down for a few days in the New Year— in the church itself, the town drunk might be crowned the Pope, old shoes burned instead of incense, lewd songs sung, and sausages eaten at the altar. I imagine that there was a different quality to the genuine reverence when the normal Mass resumed.
We seem to have lost touch with that sense of humor folded within civil conduct and spiritual reverence. Without official sanction from our religious or cultural institutions— be they school, church or Congress— sacred and secular, light and dark, good and evil, are pulled apart and seen in opposition to each other. The ancient Greeks seemed to understand that our need to cause trouble and get into trouble was connected with our divine urges and thus invested their gods with all sorts of human foibles. But now, we are back in the world of two colors only— the Fundamentalist mentality that preaches moral virtue (and inevitably practices something quite different) and the Hedonist mentality that preaches fulfilling every whim and desire. The conversation between our sacred and secular selves has become a shouting match with both sides losing.
So I return to my job as a music teacher with a charge much deeper than sharing a few cute songs and making sure that kids recognize quarter notes. With the demise of official fools and tricksters, inspired ritual and soul-serving mythology, it is art that has kept the conversation going between the Heaven and Hell of the human psyche. (Think of Bosch’s painting, Blake’s poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Coltrane’s probing saxophone on his album Ascension. ) My job is to pass on the tools of art so that children can explore the heights and depths of their minds and hearts. For though we may need some degree of moral codes to guide us, we first need to experience the full range of who we are. Art gives us experiences in images, motions, sounds and stories that lay out the complexity of desire and erase the conventional lines between saint and sinner.
Children, so close to the root of life, are a strange mix of extravagant desire and wondrous imagination, narcissistic indulgence and selfless giving, thoughtless cruelty and tender caring. They equally have the Spirit’s thirst for light, clarity and order and the Soul’s need for the dark, the strange, the extraordinary. If we are to be effective teachers, we must come to grips with all sides of the child’s nature (which, after all, is our own), leading our students towards civil conduct and spiritual progress while still recognizing and finding forms for the soul’s darkest needs.
And a good place to start is Wrong Words Day.
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