Sunday, May 31, 2020

Breaking the Silence

Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Laquan McDonald. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd.

Do you recognize these names? These are the names of our fellow American citizens murdered by the police we pay to protect American citizens. The worst consequence for the murderers is getting fired from their jobs or given a hand slap. Not one has been tried or convicted for knowingly and willfully killing another human being. 

There is another long, long list of those fellow human beings murdered the same way whose names didn’t make it to the news because our culture refused to recognize that black lives mattered (more than 100 unarmed black people were killed by police in 2015 alone!). Then another long list of those murdered by people acquitted by their good ole boy juries (Emmett Till one of thousands, perhaps millions counting the slave trade), those who were lynched, those shot down trying to escape to freedom.  And then another list of millions paid nothing to do the work that made America rich and powerful, sold and owned like property, fed and treated like animals (not the pampered Park Avenue types). Does this make you proud to be an American? Is this what you’re nostalgic about when you say “make America great again?”

Then there’s another long, long list of extraordinary human beings who accomplished things in the fields of the arts, social justice, sports, science and beyond that brought practical benefits, inspiration, entertainment, comfort and beauty to folks not only in America, but around the world, the kind of people that certainly make me proud to be an American. Black American citizens who uplifted and defined so much of American culture. But like Miles Davis getting beat up and arrested by a policeman outside the jazz club because he refused to “move on” (he was on a break between sets and was just having a smoke before going back in to play), these extraordinary Americans and their families and friends and neighbors lived (and still do) in a reign of terror where they not only have to fear for violence from hate-infested fellow citizens, but from the very police whose job it is to protect them. 

My silence around these matters in these blogs is not consent. I simply don’t have any new light to shed on these matters except to join the millions of fellow decent Americans who say, “Stop. Black lives matter, not a single white person would accept this treatment of fellow white citizens and we are hundreds of years overdue to stop the chain of politically and culturally sanctioned racism. Just stop.”

And so now the people are speaking out in the language most Americans understand—the destruction of property.This whole thing began with the treatment of fellow humans as property, so the “conversation” has moved to this level. Of course, I don’t philosophically agree with this method of discourse, but the consent of so many years of silence, the frustration that these police murders keep happening again and again and again and again with nothing changing certainly makes it understandable. But naturally, for those who think it’s in their interest, either economically or psychologically ( I have  to feel superior to someone without effort), this will just add fuel to the division and change nothing. My tiny micro-drop of contribution is to speak out from my micro-field of music education to tell people about the Nicholas Brothers and Big Mama Thornton and Art Tatum, the thousands of stories not told to our children, to enlarge their understanding of how racism works and hurts us all. And at the same time, uplift them with the inspiring stories of these fellow Americans.

It’s not nearly enough, but what if every single concerned and awake citizen vowed to do the same in whatever field they’re in? Starting with the children. Whatever subject you’re teaching, you could tell the story of Jesse Owens, Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Johnson (one of the four mathematicians in Hidden Figures), Dr. Charles Drew, Hazel Scott, Pearl Primus, Medgar Evans, etc. etc. and yet again, etc. Not only the inspirational stories of their triumphs, but an analysis of the social forces that perpetuated the attempt to shut them down and condoned the possibility of police or others murdering them. 

I can testify that it works. My 8thgraders were so clear that they get it and equally clear that none of it is okay with them. We both have drawn the line and said, “This is where ignorance is no longer an excuse. This is where the purposefully-fostered hatred and division stops.” Multiply that times every teacher in every school, add in the capacity to grieve for what we’ve done, add the understanding that we have the courage and capacity to be agents of change and that’s where things might start to move far beyond burning a building. But let me be clear—I’m not wholly condemning the building-burners, I’m condemning those who refused the call to draw the needed lines. 

Okay, my fellow Americans, shall we get to work? And while we’re it, let’s throw in the shutting down the power of the NRA and increasing the power of the ERA and stop cheering for the black players  of the NBA unless we’re willing to speak out for an inclusive humanity and against injustice. On behalf of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and the hundreds and thousands of others, let’s get to work. 

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Simmering on the Stove

           "We are more closely connected to the invisible than to the visible." -Novalis

Again, my perhaps unfounded faith in a world that has purpose, meaning, shape, design, invisible forces present and willing to reveal it all to those who pay attention, comes from things like this: Last night, I awoke from a dream that reminded me of the exact activity I needed to complete my online workshop today and tie all the threads together. I was fine with my workshop plan and didn’t even know that I needed more, but the world that speaks in dreams and daydream and signals from the surrounding world was telling me otherwise. 

And that’s what makes my life feel so rich, that sense of multiple projects going on that are incubating below the surface, multiple pots simmering on the stove and the ding of timers that tell me which one to look in to see if the soup is done. All of it  beyond any conscious control, schedule or prediction. It talks to me in my dreams and I awake knowing just what is needed. Again, not only in the dreams of sleep, but in the words that pop into my head to give a blogpost title and then invite me to sit down and write it out. 

And interesting that for me, these messages from beyond/below/around, are almost always words or ideas rather than tones and rhythms. I’ve long suspected that I’m not truly a musician, which is a bit odd since I’ve made music my entire life, worked at improving technical skills, theoretical understanding, expressive potential and built an entire career around teaching music! Actually, I think that’s one of my powerful allies in teaching music, knowing how to communicate effective music-making to those who are not one of the elect few who hears and perceives and speaks the world through musical tones. I’ve been around those people, who are always singing to themselves and drumming on their legs and hearing things inside that they bring outside in their jazz solos or composed pieces. Wagner famously said that he composed music like a cow gives milk and Mozart was famous for feeling he was merely taking dictation for the music running through his head. Such people often make impatient music teachers, because they can’t understand that others don’t hear those same things inside. Like me. But there’s still a place for them at the banquet table of music.

It doesn’t matter what’s running through your head—for some, mathematical equations, some images, some dance choreographies and so on. Of course, we should pay attention to the particular nature of those rivers running through us to decide which to follow, to understand which of our multiple intelligences have found their home in us and request our presence and our work to bring them forward. What matters is to listen to them, to trust them, to commit to bringing them out into the physical world. And may I add, only if they bring something useful, beautiful, connective to the world. I suspect mass murderers and such also hear voices, but I do NOT recommend that they follow them!

Alongside the certainty that there are invisible angels guiding one’s purpose (as my recent dream confirmed), there is also the affirmation of serendipity, things that seem to randomly appear just at the right moment to give yet more weight to the feeling that the world, in spite of the chaos around us, makes sense. While I was organizing these thoughts around the “simmering on the stove” image, that sense of the underground coming above ground, an 8th grader turned in a poem for an assignment. She was doing a report on Miles Davis and in addition to telling his biography, had to react to his music in some kind of project form. She chose to write a poem while listening to Blue in Green and note how it relates to these thoughts above. 

                  I drift beneath the surface
                    Slowly getting deeper and deeper,
                  Colder and colder and then,
                 Suddenly being pulled up by reality.

                       I can taste the music.
                     My heart hums along to the rhythm.
                    My mind sings the harmony
                   And my soul does a dance.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Open the Floodgates

Having just praised the benefits of ordering one’s world, organizing your things, your thoughts, putting your feelings into some coherent container, now I suggest the opposite. Open yourself to the possibility of opening the floodgates of deep joy and sorrow, unbearable grief and inexpressible happiness and let it flow.

I’ve often recommended Camus’s “Live close to tears,” but that’s so tame compared to body-shaking weeping. It might be a necessary first step, tiptoeing toward some hidden heartache that you’d really rather not wake up, but at no appointed schedule, that anguish—or ecstatic bliss—leaps out and takes you over. Your body shudders from head to toe, you heave up deep sobs and you look bad. This is not something you want anyone to witness, unless they’re deep down into it with you.

And that’s what happened to me today. I’ve been wrestling with finding some proper way to close out my life at a place that never was just a school to me, but a crystalized version of the vision I’ve carried my whole life (and I have the journal entries to prove it!). Things were lined up for the final cadence with the usual farewell ceremonies, but all of that was thrown under the bus by a little bug. “Oh well, something will happen in the Fall” didn’t quite make the grade, so I organized my own little ceremony with the alums I’m singing with online (see Retirement Speech) and that helped a little. But the emotion I expected to come from my little talk was more a trickle than the enormous wave it deserved. 

So today, I decided to put together a little slide show drawing from one I put together for the school’s 50thAnniversary 4 years ago. I just happened to notice that a lot of the photos from that collection happened to be of the people who were attending this alum sing. So I made a new folder and thought a song might go well with it and settled on Judy Collin’s version of In My Life. As I clicked through the photos with the song playing, many of them old black and white photos that carry a certain mythological dimension, the tsunami arrived. I wept and I wept and then I wept some more. 

And that is precisely what I needed to do. It was the proper response to the unfathomable gratitude that I got to live the life I led at the school with these ordinary and extraordinary human beings and likewise the proper acknowledgement of loss, of mourning for something that is now gone. Not just because I’m leaving, but to be honest, because the whole nature of the school is tainted by the world outside that insists on rules and procedures and protocols and legal constraints with no place for intuition, faith, imagination, nuance. Each one by itself makes sense, but the combined effect of it all is to choke that simple faith that grew the school I have known and loved—feeling our way through the dark with bold risk, spectacular failures, heartfelt forgiveness. I’ve been denying that this is so because inside each classroom, the magic ingredients are still there to create the world as it should be. But the thorns are growing around the castle and some of the beauty is being bewitched into sleep. 

And now, instead of talking about fixing it, the convulsive sobs of grief and gratitude said precisely what needs to be said. Which is there is nothing to be done. Just feel it. Wholly. Fully. Don’t hold back. Let it come. And damn, didn’t that feel good!

So that’s my report. I can’t program anyone else (or myself) to grieve, can’t mandate it, can’t charge people money for my seminar. All I can do is say that living close to tears is much better than banishing your sorrows to the basement and putting on a happy face. But letting the wave of sorrow and joy wash over your whole body—even if once a month, or once a year, or heck, once a lifetime!— is an enormous step to the healing—personal, political, cultural—that we desperately need. Try it.

The Blessings of Order

“Order is the only possibility of rest.”  —Wendell Berry

I often think of Wendell Berry when I’m cleaning my desk—my actual desk or my virtual desktop. There is a satisfaction in the filed papers, pens in a row, folders on the screen neatly arranged against the backdrop of a summer vacation photo, that nothing else can bring. The mind that has been trying to hold too many disparate things at once, that has felt as jumbled as the loose scraps of paper and the screen-filled files, now can rest as ease by putting them all in their place, getting all those scattered soldiers marching in formation. Or better yet, those random dancers unified in a sequenced choreography.

The physical schedule that had a clear and known rhythm—Tuesday was 8th, 8th, 5’s, 5’s, lunch, singing, etc.—and was made tangible by kids entering the music classroom has now been replaced by links and passwords while sitting at my desk. The preschool, elementary and middle school classes all have their own portals and entry procedures, which makes it yet more challenging. It finally settled into some sort of recognizable rhythm, but now it’s the last two weeks of school and all sorts of special meetings and ceremonies have entered the mix. On top of that is arranging the summer courses moved to online, keeping track of the ones I’m already teaching and when, etc. Without the “wheres,” it indeed is harder to keep track of.

The juggling balls in the air have reached a critical mass and it’s time to line them all up in a place where I can see and remember them, get them out of my head and onto some easily findable to-do list, calendar, schedule that I remember to check. I am grateful to have more to do than invent from scratch each day a way of ordering nothing I have to do, but I’m at the edge of the amount of commitments I can handle. But as Wendell Berry suggests, it’s less about the quantity of things and more about ordering them into coherence.

Lest he be misunderstood, let me say that Mr. Berry was talking about something much larger than cleaning your desk. I believe he was reminding us that the apparent chaos of the universe is actual an exquisite, complex and innate order that we are often incapable of seeing and appreciating. That we need to align our human order with the natural order. Here is the rest of the quote, from his book What Are People For?

Order is the only possibility of rest. The made order must seek the given order, and find its place in it. The field must remember the forest, the town must remember the field, so that the wheel of life will turn, and the dying be met by the newborn.

And with that in mind, off I go to clean my desk. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Faith and Patience

Those title virtues might well be the most important qualities for a teacher to cultivate. There is a child at my school who is a bit of a compulsive side-talker. (I’m sure there’s a syndrome with a name for this—like Turrets without the swear words). I especially noticed this in the five years of elementary Singing Time, when it was a rare moment indeed when he was actually with the group singing a song.

Now he’s about to graduate 8thgrade. I’ve had a good year with him, but the side-talking often persisted. I remember one class when I was talking and he was and I said in a lighthearted tone, “There’s two of us talking right now and only one should be. Who?” One minute later, he was talking again. “Didn’t we just have this conversation? Come on, step up to the protocol here!” Still lighthearted. Guess what happened 30 seconds later? Still, in an affectionate and lighthearted but clear way, I called the student’s name and said, “Will you just SHUT  UP!!!” Well, that got everyone’s attention and in this twisted litigious culture, the kids picked up on it and apparently someone reported it and a higher-up reprimanded me with no interest in the context or the tone. Well, that’s another blog post entry in itself. 

But back to my 8thgrader. I never lost faith in this student as a valuable human being and though my patience was often mightily tried, it paid off in the end. For in the last project about a jazz musician, he wrote a wonderful essay about Frank Sinatra, someone who (apparently) he loves to listen to. It was quite late and I was wondering if he would leave school with this work incomplete, so not only was I happy he did it, but I genuinely enjoyed his paper. And so I wrote to him:

You did it! Not only completed the assignment, but I really loved what you wrote, showing your understanding of the complexity of human beings, their failings and their triumphs. And at the end of the day, for artists, it's their artistic accomplishment that lasts and gives people hope, comfort and beauty. And you're right about that voice. It was a gift from the gods and he not only accepted it and used it, but worked hard to use it as expressively as he could and worked hard to get it to the public—1400 recordings! That's extraordinary!

Good work and whatever field you end up in, I hope you'll carry Frank's inspiration to work hard, persevere and bring beauty to the world. (And yes, you can skip the womanizer part!)

Finally, whoever would have thought that that young boy who so often wasn't singing in Singing Time would pick a singer as his inspiration! :-)

Wishing you all the best in the future that awaits you,


Monday, May 25, 2020

End Times: Part II

The next advice to my friend is to tell a story to his daughter from Michael Meade’s book: Why The World Doesn’t End. Perfect title for her question, no?

Written in 2012 (which now feel like the Golden Years), Meade writes: 

To be alive at this time means to be in a  mythical condition that includes being faced with all the massive problems and impossible tasks that currently plague the modern world. It is an extraordinary time as both nature and culture need all the healing and creative attention that people are capable of giving. There is an increasing sense that time is running out and whatever can be done must happen immediately. 

Yet old mythological ideas suggest another way of seeing the situation. When time is running out, when no one can find time anymore, it is not simply time that is missing but the touch of the eternal…

In a time of many endings, it is important to have a sense for lasting things, a narrative feel for life, and a reverence for the unseen. In the end, or near it, the real issue is not simply the future of humanity, but the presence of eternity.”

Take a moment to ponder those wise words. While asking ourselves the necessary question “What can we do?”, don’t forget to include “How shall we be?”

The book's central story tells of an old woman in a cave who is weaving a beautiful garment. The only time she interrupts her work is to occasionally go to the back of the cave to stir a soup that has been bubbling there a long time. Each time she goes back, a black dog grabs hold of a thread of the beautiful weaving and begins pulling it until it completely unravels. When the woman returns to the weaving, she finds it in chaos strewn about the floor. She then sits down to weave again, not trying to duplicate the former garment, but to re-imagine it and try to make it yet more beautiful. Of course, when she goes to stir the soup again, the dog unravels it and the whole drama starts again—an endless cycle of creation and destruction. And so the world will never end, just perpetually be re-imagined and re-woven by the collective imagination of each and every one of us. The black dog takes many forms—plagues, wars, big cultural shifts. And now it feels like a pack of dogs—nuclear annihilation, overpopulation, climate change, toddlers as Presidents, the corona virus. 

But the story suggests that the weaving will go on. No one knows what the garment will look like—it is awaiting our patient work and aesthetic imagination. And of course, we’re devastated to see the threads strewn in chaos on the floor. But it does no one any good to just say “Bad dog!!” No choice put to pick them up and start making the world anew. 

I think a seven-year old can understand that. 

End Times: Part 1

A friend’s 7-year old daughter recently asked him: 

“Daddy, is the world coming to an end?” 

One of those questions that stops you in your tracks and you know that Siri is not going to help you here. He posted it on Facebook and everyone offered their advice, which made for a stimulating exchange. My two cents is 1.9 cents too long for Facebook so I’ll put it here.

My own thoughts (if one can ever be said to have one’s own thoughts separate from everything people say around you, in conversation, poems, books, etc.) is first and foremost, the obvious. “We don’t know.” Well, I do suspect that the world itself will continue, but whether the dominant species is cockroaches or humans is another question. 

My second sense is that this is a conversation between God (shorthand for some underlying spiritual presence that gives meaning to the whole mystery of life and can be glimpsed in moments of clear vision and sublime attention) and humans, that flawed species given the gift of choice and most squandering it and making consistently bad decisions. If you shrug your shoulders in face of the facts and naively say “God will provide,” you’ve missed it. Likewise, if you confine yourself to the literal facts of science and have no sense of the grander mythological/ spiritual dimension, you also are too narrow in your thinking.  Consider this joke:

A deeply religious man lived in a house by a river. One day, a storm came, the river overflowed and the house was flooded. The man climbed on to the roof of the house and a neighbor came by in a boat and said, “Climb aboard.”

“No, I’ll stay here,” said the man. “God will provide.”

The waters kept rising and the man climbed up to the top of his chimney. Another boat came by. “Jump aboard!” 

“No, I’ll stay here,” said the man. “God will provide.”

Now the water was rising to the man’s waist. A helicopter swooped down. “Quick!” said the pilot. “Climb aboard!!”

“No, I’ll stay here,” said the man. “God will provide.”

The water continued to rise and the men was swept off the chimney and he drowned. Up in heaven, he went up to God and said, “Hey, I thought you were supposed to take care of me!”

God answered: “I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more do you want?!”

In short, there may indeed be a grander sweep to our human drama that wants us to survive and thrive and if we can touch that feeling—again, through attention, through an open heart, through the capacity to still feel wonder and feel part of something beautiful and mysterious— it can bring us the kind of faith and comfort we long for in these difficult times. But at the same time, it’s not a story handed down to us that we either believe or reject, it’s a story that we are co-participating in, writing in every action and decision we make. The future is not a finished script awaiting us. We are writing it in each moment of the present time. It’s an ongoing work-in-progress and God has sent us the boats and helicopters of intelligent thought, caring hearts and prodigious imagination to do our part.

Stay tuned for Part Two.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Beware the Postcard

Remember seeing some postcards of idyllic beaches or mountain lakes or the grandeur of Yosemite Falls? You sigh wistfully wishing yourself there, sipping your gin and tonic in the vacation of your dreams. And then, fate willing, you find yourself in the exact spot where that picture postcard was taken. And then—too late—you realize you’ve been duped.

The pristine postcard beach didn’t communicate the fact that it’s 105 degrees and humid and the beach is jam packed with tourists like you, except they’re playing loud bad music on the blanket two feet away from you. And there are shark-warning signs and biting flies. The tranquil postcard lake neglected to mention the swarms of mosquitoes, the jet skiers and that the sun in the photo has been hidden by five straight days of rain. Yosemite Falls is magnificent, but you forgot that you’d be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for three hours to get there and by then, you’re so exhausted that you snap a quick photo and head for the overpriced park hotel. 

And so a few days ago, I had the romantic notion that it would be lovely to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, thinking it would be a nice change of pace from my neighborhood walks and Golden Gate Park bike rides. I looked forward to the inviting expanses of the water on both sides, the view of the city, the fresh ocean breeze. I was ready to enter into the picture postcard of that symbol of my beloved city, tall, majestic, inviting. And then, once again, I realized that I had been duped.

Because though the views are indeed lovely and the waters shimmering and the boats and skylines picturesque, I forgot about one thing. The traffic! As you’re walking across, you realize that you’re four feet away from a steady stream of cars hurtling by at 60 miles an hour. Pretty much like walking on a freeway. The assault of the sound of traffic is anything but relaxing. Then, of course, the bikers are whizzing by you so you have to be constantly on the alert and while for some weird reason I like that the rail is low, I can’t help but think of the people who have jumped off, two of whom I knew. 

So after walking to the first tower, I turned around and decided to walk to Fort Point down below instead. And that was indeed refreshing. 

So the moral of the story? Beware the Postcard! Remember everything it doesn’t show.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Retirement Speech

It has arrived. The day I’ve wondered about, dreamed about for so long, has finally come.
After 45 years teaching music at The San Francisco School, today is my retirement party. 100’s of the thousand-plus alums and their families have come back to school to celebrate, 100’s of the thousand-plus Bay Area music teachers I’ve trained are joining in the festivities, another couple of hundred current school families are gathering. There will be an alum Singing Time in the music room, an outdoor Samba dance party, barbecue socializing and reuniting, alum musicians and my own band playing, testimonies from folks who didn’t mind me too much and my own farewell speech. My daughter, her husband and grandkids have come down from Portland, my sister, husband and nephews from Sebastopol, my Men’s Group will join in and more. It will be a glorious day. 


Well, maybe some version will happen in the Fall or next Winter or even next year at this time or maybe nothing will happen and I’d be less than honest if I didn’t acknowledge that I’m heartbroken. That my attempt to not only Teach Like It’s Music (title of my latest book) but live like it’s music has me caring about the cadence toward the satisfying ending of the grand Symphonic work. Instead, all the instruments go out of tune, the musicians leave the stage, the audience exits before the final notes. 

So… in honor of the scheduled day of my retirement now postponed indefinitely, I decided to give a retirement speech (written three months ago) to the alums I’ve been singing with online every Thursday night. I made a special effort to invite old teachers also to join and the first 15 minutes was spend in a Zoom-festive delight as folks who lived a large part of a memorable time together were all gathered again in those little gridded squares. We are all so happy simply to see each other. We sang a few songs and I gave my speech and though it was around 60 people instead of 600, they were exactly the right people to share these thoughts with, as many of them were in my talk! 

Though it’s filled with many personal “you had to be there” references, hopefully some of the spirit of what we managed to create and sustain at this unique and marvelous school will come through. And though all of this is a bit long for a Blog post, hey, it only happens once every 45 years! Enjoy!


Show me a photo from 1976, 1989, 2007 or yesterday and chances are I can name most, if not all, of the kids (and teachers) in it. And then proceed to tell you some stories about them. This one fell off the stool during a recording session in the music room, that one yelled at a teacher in the school play when said teacher stepped on her line, that one noticed a gun in the bushes as we walked out for a fire drill—and so on. 

And precisely why do I remember so many kids? And the answer is simple—I loved them.. It might not have always been obvious to them, some of them perhaps never knew it, but I’m telling you now— I cared for you so much. I loved who you were, I loved who I thought you might become, I loved who you did become (from what I see on Facebook and other sources), I love who you might yet become. It was easy to love you because we had so much fun together. Of course, not always. But even when I didn’t love your behavior or you didn’t love mine, I knew that often something deeper was going on, that the ways that we fell short was a message from the Soul and deeply connected to the ways that we rose up. 

And so I grew to love you, each and every one. When every news story gave me reason to despair that human beings were worthy of their promise—and never so much as these last four years!—I never gave up hope because I saw the hope in your bright eyes, saw the little victories as you struggled through both the flowered fields and the murky swamp of a human incarnation.  Some of you had trouble with subjects, trouble with friends, trouble with teachers, trouble with families—just like we all have and all do, the whole catastrophe. But because you were young and you were children and because this school tried to welcome you and nurture you and care for you, I always felt the spark of possibility that  we—all of us—could be the people that the world deserves and help create the world that people deserve. 

And I wasn’t alone in that commitment to care for you, to see you, to find out who you were and what you’re put on this earth to do and say. If an alum from 20 years ago walks through the gate, Laura will certainly greet him or her with “Hey, remember that poem you wrote?” and then reach with one hand without looking into her (gasp!) paperfile and pull it out!  No Merlin magic can beat that! And if the subject of generosity comes up, Maggie will certainly tell you the story of Heather giving the basketball to the person on the opposing team because it seemed like “she really wanted it.”

But it’s not just Maggie and Laura. In fact, it is every teacher who helped grow this school up.. It’s stillevery teacher who is teaching today. Every single one of these teachers—every single one— loves their students in both general and particular ways. I don’t think this question is in every job interview, but if not, it should be: “How much do you love your students? How do you know? How do you show it? “

You see how education has got it wrong. We think a system is going to save us. We’ve been through them all— Math Our Way, Great Books, Cooperative Learning, Reggio-Emilia, Project Zero, Design Thinking, Responsive Classroom, STEAM, even Orff Schulwerk (in my mind, though most far-reaching of the lot!)! Some offered a few useful things, but hey, they’re just cars designed to transport us. They all need a powerful engine and that powerful engine is love. Without it, we ain’t goin’ nowhere.  

Love is the starting and ending point but in-between is something else. It’s called “work.” These teachers who I’ve shared this path with are—again, with exception—hard, hard workers. From the beginning, there was Pamela spending Sundays in her classroom preparing for the week and 50 years later, there’s Talia and Molly and others following her model. And please take note—this work, the particular genius of each teacher, cannot be captured in a system. (see list above). Teachers have driven to school in all sorts of cars—Kathy Kearney’s Yellow Zonker, Jim Thurston’s VW van, Terry Edeli’s old Chevy, Karen’s and my Saab with the seat in the back facing outwards. (Cars with great character, I might add. Now teachers go to the parking lot and pause to wonder, “Hmm. Which Prius is mine?”)

But no matter. They’re just cars. What mattered was how we drove. Attentive to the flow of traffic, knowing when it was time for the green light with a particular student, when the student was flashing orange, when a STOP sign or a red light was in order. How to signal when changing lanes, when to pass, how to react when someone cuts you off (remembering their deep humanitarian promise). When to fill the tank, when to change the oil, when to finally get to the car wash. And our commitment to keep driving even when the traffic is jammed or the streets are flooding or our car is almost out of gas.

So when the new teachers ask to see the contract outlining their duties and responsibilities and rate of pay, honestly it should just say, “Whatever it takes.” That’s the motto that had Terry leading Board meetings that sometimes ended at midnight. That had James and I outside Temple Emmanuel in the rain at midnight with a bicycle and a backpack trying to fit in the last xylophone after the Spring concert to get it to my house.  That had Karen gathering up and delivering all that artwork to the DeYoung Museum for the Youth Arts Festival. That had us shopping for food for 60 kids at Calaveras and filling up Coleman stoves and renting buses and vans and laminating menus and packing the yellow trunk and practicing pitching tents in the last week of school while finishing report cards—and then cleaning it all up at the end after 5 or 6 days of camping. That had Sofia figuring out how their 6thgraders could make an online Radio Show just this past month. Whatever it takes.

There’s more!! After we’ve driven the car with great awareness and dedication and love for the passengers, it’s time to get out and romp in the fields. After all, if the whole thing isn’t fun, what’s the point? Life is too short!!! Just speaking for myself, it was a crime of major proportions that I got paid for walking around with the kids balancing cups of water on our heads, squeezing rubber chickens, swinging partners and showing our motions Johnny Brown, marching around with Old King Glory going nowhere. Where else can you make a career out of playing The Cookie Jar game, creating big dramas out of Intery Mintery nonsense words, sing silly and serious songs every day of the school year, play drums and bells and dance in the Samba Contest, make Mud Pies after school and torture kids with stillness on the last day and top it all of with a —gasp! impossible to imagine now!—Hug line?!

I look back down the long arc of years and feel the love and enjoy the harvest of the hard work, but mostly I marvel at how much damn fun it all was!!! And part of the fun was the people I shared it with. When  I say school was home and family, I’m not just speaking metaphorically. My wife Karen and I taught here together for 41 out of my 45 years. 41 years!  My two children Kerala and Talia were our students here, each for eleven years. I taught my nephew Ian until 4thgrade and my nephew Kyle until 1stgrade before they moved to Sebastopol. Our neighbors, the Dekovics, sent their daughter Ariel, best friend of Kerala, to us for the full 11 years and Barry was the Board chair. Our upstairs neighbors Ken and Carol had their kids here for a while, my neighbor Sally Haskell shouted across the back yards one day and said, “Hey, I just got a job at your school!” My family went to Bali with Terry Edeli’s family and Marie Bergstedt and one of the first graduating 8thgraders, Laralyn Bergestedt as well. The Edelis and Weiners (another school family) were our companions on some fifteen years of December snow trips and Spring Calistoga trips. I’ve met in a Men’s Group for 30 years and no surprise that 7 out of the 9 men were school parents. James and Sofia became my partners-in-crime, not only sharing the glories of music at school, but taking our work far out into the world, side-by-side in Spain, Salzburg, Ghana, Brazil, Thailand and some 20 other countries, some 25 glorious years as the Three Musketeers of the Orff world. And then to top it off, my daughter Talia came to teach here. 
For six years, Talia, Karen and I were colleagues at this school. ¾ ths of the family teaching together! That’s just not normal! Sometimes the three of us drove together, like in the old days, and as we got out of the car, kids passing by would yell “TALIA !!! TALIA!!” and then “Oh, hi, Karen and Doug.” That’s the moment when you think, “Maybe it’s time to retire.” So Karen did and four years later, here I am, and Talia just finished her 10thyear. Not likely I’ll be at her 45thyear retirement party, so I’m wishing her congratulations now. 

Then there’s the long list of the teachers that I passed day after day in the halls with an irreplaceable affection for the magic we’ve spun together. We sang together, danced together, ate lunches in Patty’s (and later Patty and Jane’s) kitchen, marched on the streets together in protest, wept together after some elections, rejoiced together after others. And mostly, we  worked  together creating the place of our dreams. Yes, and sharing the nightmares as well. Patty once commented that it was tempting to talk about the good ole days at school, but we have to remember we hated each other! Yes, sometimes we did, but hate is just the other side of the coin of love and we had both and we always knew that we were on the same side of a glorious vision. When we say we’re like family, we have to remember what families are really like, all the rivalries and misunderstandings and petty squabbling alongside the feeling that these people know us better than anyone and are there for us when we need it most.

So some parting advice to the SF School. As everyone is trying to squeeze into some mold of “normal,” my parting message is “resist!!” Do what you need to do to keep the school open, but don’t lean too far toward the rules of the world outside our hallowed gates. The things that we did that are memorable would today have most of us arrested for even thinkingabout them! But hey, that’s what made it so worthwhile! I’m talking about teachers skinny-dipping at the Feather Falls camping trip, those Calaveras camping trips with escaped convicts, rattlesnakes, bears and snow, 100 kids holding actual lit candles (until Janet Calhoun’s hair caught fire) in our Winter Holiday sing, 2ndgraders carving pumpkins in class with real knives, eating dinner in a Salzburg beer hall—yes, beer hall!—with the Middle School Orff performing group and entertaining the dining crowd with our flash-mob Table Rhythms and singing  South African songs. I’m remembering me hiding on the roof playing Sardines with the kids and them coming up the ladder and running around while a meeting with the Herbst Foundation was going on in the Music Room below. Shall I go on? This is the stuff that makes life interesting and gives you stories for your grandchildren. No grandkid wants to hear the story about how their grandma walked properly in the halls and raised her hand and always got all the answers right in math class. I’m not advocating for reckless danger or outrageous behavior just because, but hey, couldn’t we just loosen up a bit and keep the door open to adventure? I hope so.

And let’s be real. Amidst the fun was also the disappointments, injustices, sense of being purposefully misunderstood, outright betrayals. I’ve been put on probation for a year, threatened with dismissal and suspended twice, the second one this past January. There is work to be done for social justice within our little paradise, some working checks and balances and grievance procedures. While outraged at the misuse of power in the world outside our gates, we need to look more closely at what’s happening inside our gates. 

But that’s just part of the deal in any gathering of flawed human beings —and of course, I’m including myself. What was extraordinary is that rare sense of mostly being wholly seen and known, certainty that this is where I belonged, there was never any question that this was the place I had  to be. This was the place that allowed me to experiment from day one to my last class, that trusted me to do my best work and supported me with the necessary conditions, that stayed open to any suggestion that made kids yet happier and teachers yet more committed and the community yet more connected. It was the place I was born to live my life in and in the end, always delivered what I needed to go the furthest edge of my craft. There is no gratitude high and deep enough to properly thank the school and all who have passed through it for that immeasurable gift. 

And so. To all of you here and all of you who have been here and all of you yet to come here, thanks for it all.  I love the lives we’ve lived together. The school will go on just fine without me, I’ll go on fine without the school, but damn, wasn’t it glorious? 

Yes it was.  Yes it was. 

Friday, May 22, 2020

Daylight Coming

Another day dawns and this one with bright sun and no wind. Hoping to make the good choice of getting out to walk in the morning instead of waiting for the afternoon. 

Yesterday was the weekly alum sing and continuing my practice of writing new words to old songs, came up with this version of Day-O. (Do you younger people know about Harry Belafonte and his recordings of calypso music?) Sing it out loud and enjoy!

Day o, ees it day-o?
Daylight comin’,  me no want to stay home.   (2x)

Work all day in the online class
Daylight comin’, me no want to stay home.
I need to go out and lay in the grass
Daylight comin’, me no want to stay home. (Continue response after each line)

Got to go for a walk, get off of me butt.
I’m 10 weeks overdue for a haircut.

Come Mr. Tallyman, tally all me money.
The stock market fallin’ and that ain’t funny.

We’re not riding Muni or riding on BART.
We’re wearing our masks, staying 6 feet apart. 

6 weeks, 7 weeks, 8 weeks, more!
When we gonna finally open the door?

Some states opening, results are gruesome.
Thank goodness we have Gavin Newsom. 

Mother Nature sent us all to our room.
But we can still sing together on Zoom.

Day o, ees it day-o?
Daylight comin’, me no want to stay home. (2x)

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Off the Beaten Path

A good friend in the generation just above me (not many of those!) recently told me a story about a AAA tow-truck driver who rescued her and how the practical conversation shifted to some intriguing stories about his life. She saw him as a gentle soul looking for his own way to contribute to the world, but not finding himself in any of the mainstream paths often set before us. She remembered I had had an unconventional college experience at Antioch College and thought I might offer him some words. Here’s what I came up with:

Dear Nathan,

I heard part of your interesting story from _____________ who you recently helped out and she thought it might be interesting for you to hear something about my college experience. I went to Antioch College between 1969 and 1973 and it was just the right place for me at just the right time. Also an interesting time in our country, when everything was being questioned and new questions being asked and new visions being spun. And though the world didn’t quite respond as we hoped, still any advances that have happened in the areas of civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, ecological awareness, progressive education, diet and physical health and so much more can be traced back to that time. If it’s possible for a gay African-American woman who teaches yoga at schools and grows her own vegetables to be not only accepted, but valued by her community, the roots of that can be traced back to that time. 

But besides affirming and filling out my instincts about social justice, spiritual seeking, community health and well-being, it simply was an exciting and fun place to be. And put some lifelong practices— Zen meditation, jazz piano, Orff Schulwerk music teaching, travel and cultural curiosity, poetry and beyond—into place. Here are some of the fun—and funny—highlights: 

• In my first semester, the college rented a bus to transport students to the Vietnam War protest in Washington DC in the Fall of 1969.

• My first P.E. class was canoeing.

• The "final exam" of my Man and Nature class was backpacking/ camping in the Adirondacks for 4 nights, with neither the teacher nor the students with much previous experience.

• The three months of study at school alternated with three months working somewhere out in the world. This was a perfect balance between ivory tower sheltered study and out-in-the-real-world experience. My jobs included: 
     A Summerhill free school in rural Maine. 
     An alternative public high school in the Hartford, Connecticut old railroad station.
     An upscale private elementary school in New York City
     A Quaker Boarding Middle School in the mountains of North Carolina where I almost single-handedly rented an old school bus and with three other teachers, "toured" the South for two weeks with 16 Middle School kids performing as a jug band. Went all the way to Miami and back sleeping in church basements, homestays at free schools, community centers, campgrounds. Unthinkable nowadays!!
     For one of these job periods, I got credit for hitchhiking to California and back and camping by myself in various California National Parks.

• I fulfilled my science credit requirement wine-tasting in France as I traveled with the college choir singing two 15th century masses in the famous cathedrals. 

Hardly your conventional college experience! And it set the tone for the life that followed, always an ongoing independent learner studying things like Bulgarian Bagpipe, West African xylophone, Balinese gamelan in kitchens, hotel rooms, under trees, on verandahs, went to Zen meditation retreats in an old boy scout retreat in the mountains, studied music teaching in school gymnasiums with a barefoot teacher, etc.   Never got a teacher's certificate or a Masters or a Doctorate but have managed to contribute to my field based on  an ongoing eclectic study. 

So Nathan, follow your star and don't worry about the conventional freeway paths laid out by the mainstream, complete with tollbooths and too much traffic. The most interesting places in the world are off the beaten path.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020


Here’s a curious fact about our new world. Everything that was topsy is now turvy and what is turvy is now topsy. 

Take masks. Who could have imagined that a walk through the park on a Spring day with everyone masked would not only feel normal, but welcomed? Up until 10 weeks ago, a masked person meant:

1)   A thief or terrorist trying to hide their identity while causing great harm in the world.

2)   A women made to hide her fully-blossomed self by collective macho bullies riding their high horse of male privilege.

3)   A whistle blower made to shut-up by people in power afraid of the truth. 

So what was once used to maintain unearned privilege and power, to hide so one can cause harm, to shut people down and make them smaller, is now used to protect each other from life-threatening germs. Today wearing a mask is an act of kindness and consideration. The topsy is now turvy.

Then there’s computers. Screens that once were distractions, barriers between direct intimate connection, seductions into sensation and addiction, that promoted dysfunctional chat-room interactions with no eye-contact or consequences for hate-speech and flaming, that encouraged us to write meaningless jabber to strangers when we don’t even know our neighbor’s names, 
are now the primary means of staying connected with our fellow human beings. How different this sheltering would be without Zoom. (Though perhaps schools would become socially-distanced neighborhood gatherings where everyone becomes teacher/student/ colleague, sharing their knowledge and their pleasure in getting to share their knowledge). 

I remember once passing the old Crissy Field in San Francisco and watching enormous bulldozers at work. Usually, such machines would destroy natural habitat to build an ugly unnecessary shopping center with a Walmart. Now they were breaking up the asphalt of an old military airplane runway to restore the land to a wetlands and call back the birds. Power in service of life, the reversal of the usual norms. 

So if a mask can suddenly become an act of community protection, a glowing screen a means of keeping our communities protected, a bulldozer a way to invite birds back into the human community, then we may have learned finally about what is important and consider what was previously unimaginable. Things like music rising to a new status in schools as important—and perhaps more so—as math scores. Of scientists side-by-side with poets so the facts about what we need to physically survive are married to how we are to spiritually weather the storms. Of the health of the community finally put far above corporate greed and profit in all decisions made in Congress. Of understanding that resilience and flexible thinking and imagination are the faculties that education needs to nurture far above the bean-counting of right answers on meaningless tests. Of the clumsiness of turvy-topsy restored to the more musical topsy-turvy as the masks come off, the screens are given rest and the gloves of long-distance learning removed as we embrace once more in unmediated connection and communion. 

And the term “topsy-turvy?” Comes from the carnival rides where people are turned upside down—the top becomes the bottom. (Turvy from “terve” which means to overturn). It also means a state of utter confusion. But in that upside down state, one sees the world from a new perspective and returns to rightside-up with expanded vision and renewed appreciation. 

Let us hope.