Having just finished Garrison Keillor's memoir That Time of Year, I was struck by so many parallels in our very different lives. And so I decided to write him a letter. Not knowing his address, I'll just place it here. If you know him, feel free to pass it on!
Dear Mr. Keillor,
It seems that all good writers are saying the same thing— “You are not alone.”
That general truth sometimes is an astounding particular truth. Having just spent 19 hours with you listening to your Audible memoir, I’m struck by so many parallels in our very different lives. No reason that you should care, but if you want to brew a cup of tea and read on, you might find it interesting to see so many points of intersection between our separate stories. As follows:
• In 1975, one year after you began your radio show, I started a music program in a progressive school in San Francisco. Based on the Orff approach to music education, I taught kids from three years old to eighth grade.
• You stumbled into a mythical world that captured the imagination of millions, I stumbled into an emerging school culture where “all the women were smart, the men good-looking and the children above average.” We helped shape the hearts and minds of thousands of children and in my parallel work training teachers to make kids happy through music, indirectly touched a few hundred thousand kids.
• You had a helluva good time with a small group of people doing good work far beyond their job contract simply because it's satisfying and fun to do good work. The teachers I started out with did exactly the same. The head of school was the 2nd grade teacher who shrugged his shoulders and said, “Sure, why not?” when a group of parents suggested he take over that job. He was always “Terry” to us and sat with us around the peanut-shaped table that a parent made as we considered where the next brick in our world-as-we-wanted-to-see-it building project should be laid. And like the Roman architects of old, we stood under the arches we constructed when the scaffolding was pulled away. If it fell on our heads, it was our fault and it was back to the drawing board. Nobody looking over our shoulder, no National Standards to uphold, no triplicate lesson plans to turn in, just good teachers with good sense who loved what they did.
• You sang songs without any formal training as a singer and got to sing duets with some remarkable musicians. I sang songs without any formal training with 100 remarkable musicians—the elementary school children— every day for 20 minutes. Every day! The full tapestry of America’s rich folkloric cloth, from the train songs to the frolic tunes to the cowboy songs to the sea chanteys to the hero ballads. And then the marvelous “happy songs” from the 30’s—Side by Side, Sunnyside of the Street, High Hopes, Pick Yourself Up—alongside other greats from the Great American Songbook. And songs from each and every continent in some fifteen different languages. You’d walk into the audience and create an instant community with Home on the Range, I did the same each and every day with children. Now I have a monthly Zoom sing with alums who are in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and even 50’s singing the old repertoire, now with their kids on their lap or by their side.
• You told stories that created pin-drop listening without a piece of paper in your hand. Though not as artfully, I did the same at select Singing Times, at the school ceremonies, around the campfire on the school camping trips. And then every year, we brought stories to life in plays based on the old fairy tales/ folk tales/ myths with original scripts that I wrote, kids playing music on Orff instruments, singing, dancing and of course, acting. And always humor. No play got through without the Shirley joke in it at least once.
• Like Cole Porter effortlessly moving between a poetic “purple night in Spain” and “cellophane,” you kept high and low culture dancing together and it worked brilliantly. I did the same, creating a cycle of ceremonies that included:
- Welcoming kids on the first day of school with Bulgarian bagpipes, water-pouring ceremonies, Balinese gong-ringing.
- A ritual Halloween performance based on Intery Mintery. a nonsense nursery rhyme.
- The annual St. George & the Dragon Mummer’s play with a Dragon, Giant, Fool and that quack Doctor John Brown who has been to “Italy, Spittaly, France and Spain.”
- A serious Martin Luther King Ceremony with the roof raised as kids join together to sing We Shall Overcome,combined with the story (true) of how just hours before he was murdered, Dr. King had a pillow fight with his colleagues.
- The Cookie Jar Contest. Quarter-finals/ semi-finals/ and finals to see who can win this rhythmic kid’s game. Winner gets a cookie jar of cookies and if they beat me, I take them out for an ice cream sundae. (Happened once in four decades).
- The Samba Contest. 1st– 5thgraders create dance routines while Middle Schoolers play scintillating Brazilian rhythms.
- Mud Pie dessert on the last day of school—ice cream, oreos, chocolate sauce and the ritual earning of the Mud Pie. One minute of complete stillness and silence from the kids while I make fart sounds and such to try to make them laugh. If they do, they lose their Mud Pie. (Though we always secretly restore it.)
- After the final arms-locked singing of Side By Side, the teachers line up outside for a Hug Line and the kids go through hugging each one as they head off into summer.
(Will it be restored after the Pandemic? We shall see.)
In short, you felt the grand pleasure of taking things seriously with a relaxed touch, of hitting some moments of profundity amidst the jokes, made more powerful because of the jokes. Working with kids, both in my formal music classes and in these school celebrations, I knew it had to be fun, it had to be playful, it had to make kids giggle—and it did. And also brought some deep serious moments that will echo down their ages.
• You kept at it for 40 years. I did the same for 45. (Just retired last June). If it’s worth doing, it’s worth hanging in for the long haul— and we both did.
Interesting? Hold on, there’s more!
• Times changed, as they do, and inside of your show and inside of my classroom at the turn of the century, we were luckily able to go on our merry way. But outside, the lawyers were circling, the corporate culture was sending in spies, the fear-mongers were knocking on the door and the rule-followers had their books open taking notes. Our head retired in 2008, administration populated like rabbits from 3 to 25, the pronouns “them” and “us” replaced “we.” Risk committees were formed, decision-making hierarchies that felt like giant pinball machines replaced talking around the peanut table, the ball bouncing down the chain of command triggering the flashing lights and bells and whistles, a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. What a kid might feel if you looked at them funny was a three-hour meeting with a team of therapists. The school that publicly admired Martin Luther King suspended me twice and put me on probation for a year for the crime of speaking truth to power and many (though not all) of my once-courageous colleagues fell strangely silent.
Your chapter CEO had me jumping up and down in the car while I was listening! I’m not famous enough to get the big sharks circling, but I related 100% to the darkness of feeling that an issue that could have been handled with fingernail scissors was attacked with a chain saw. Like you, I struggled with that Shakespearean betrayal and had to find my own way out, which I did—though without the help of a black woman priest (such a lovely story you told there). But finally I can talk about it without my voice raising and it does help to know that others have suffered the same— and yet more so. (Having reached a greater height, you fell to a greater depth and shame, shame, shame on all those people who sat by and just watched without offering a hand. Or turned their heads away).
• And a bonus connection: Fred Newman came to our school twice, once to work with the kids and once to give a workshop to local music teachers. Such a stellar human being!
So there you have it. A New Jersey kid Jewish by blood, Unitarian by upbringing, Zen Buddhist by choice grows up and moves to California and gets paid for singing, dancing, playing music with children and somehow feels connected to a Minnesotan raised by the Brethren who also gets paid for storytelling and singing. Both have the incredible good fortune of building a life around a strange set of skills that have no obvious slot in the marketplace, get to travel around the country (and the world—I’ve given Orff teacher courses in some 48 countries) and hang out with people—kids and adults— who maintain our mutual faith in goodness in spite of all the media evidence to the contrary. You help restore the childlike wonder of grown-ups listening to a story like they’re kids and I get to work with the kids themselves and as you say, “nothing you ever do with children is wasted.”
There’s my evidence for the court in the case of “We are not alone.” Of course, the big difference besides the glorious magnitude of your success and the modest scale of my own, is that I listened off and on to your show for decades, have read just about all of your books (particularly loved Homegrown Democrat), love your three poetry collections and your written introduction in each, have seen you live in San Francisco some 10 or more times, both with the show and without. You haven’t read any of my nine books or taken an Orff workshop with me—but hey, if I give one in Minnesota in the next few years, I’ll invite you. Like you, at almost 70 years old, I feel like my best is yet to come. May it be true for us both!
In great appreciation and gratitude,
Doug Goodkin: Music teacher