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!
LOVE LETTER TO THE SAN FRANCISCO SCHOOL
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.