Monday, April 11, 2022

Not Just a Job: Part 2— Whatever It Takes

It was the Fall of 1975 when I began teaching in a community whose unspoken motto was— and I believe, still is— “It’s not just a job,” whose unspoken work ethic was “whatever it takes.” From the school’s beginnings back in 1966, teachers and parents got together joined by a common purpose: “There must be a better way to do this. And we’re going to find it.” That’s what echoed down the years, as we rolled up our sleeves and set to work, building this extraordinary place physically, philosophically and culturally, brick by brick, class by class, work day by work day, put together with spit and polish.


I’m here to testify, to bear witness to what that meant  when I joined the school and continued to mean in all the years to follow.  Terry, the head of school,  getting home at midnight from Board Meetings, always the last to leave the all-day Work Day hauling the last load to the dumpster. Pamela, the first grade teacher, coming in every Sunday to prepare her week. Art teacher (and my wife) Karen hanging the art on the walls, loading it up to go to the Youth Arts Festival, spreading it out all around our house twice a year for report cards, taking time with each piece of art and refusing the stock phrases that today’s computers generate. The Elementary Staff taking down the India bedspreads and moving the bookshelves before we had walls to open the space for the Holiday plays and then staying afterwards to put together Dave Holsenbach’s stage. The weekly meetings gathering around the parent-built peanut-shape table dreaming together of the next needed step— Shall we teach Spanish? Hire a P.E. teacher? Put together a grant for a sprung wood floor in the music room? Yes, we should. And we did.


No labor of Hercules could surpass the needed preparations for the annual camping trip at the end of the year. Arranging the bus, renting and driving the van, filling up the propane tanks, shopping for 60 kids and 15 adults for five days, packing the yellow trunk and getting Terry’s big bell— and then the actual  camping with 3rd- 5th graders  for five days amidst rain, snow, rattlesnakes, escaped convicts, bears and homesick 3rd graders. Oh, and then returning the van, unpacking the trunk, washing the dishes. Just in time for the closing ceremonies, graduation and report cards.


Then in December, the music department’s search for a theater to rent, arranging, picking up, packing the U-haul filled with instruments and props, driving it to the theater, unloading, finding parking, setting up the stage, rehearsing the kids, writing the program, printing the program, performing and as the applause died down, re-packing and driving the van back, unloading, returning the van, folding the costumes. Oh, and did I mention that for many years there were two different shows — elementary Holiday plays and Middle School Revels—at two different places within two weeks of each other? Then the Spring Concert in May with the same hauling and rehearsing and unpacking and as soon as it was over, a week of recording in the music room and then 3-days in John Blakeley’s Duncan St. Studio mastering the tape/CD and then the liner notes, duplication, packaging, trying to sell to parents on the last day of carpool so we could break even. 26 times that happened!


And so it continued with the entire “not just a job” staff arranging the field trips, science fairs, literary teas, MLK ceremonies, samba contests, mud-pie assembling and a thousand other things that journeyed far beyond the parameters of any job description. It was hard, hard work, it was sometimes utterly insane—and it was glorious. That’s what made it fun, that’s what made it memorable, that’s what moved us forward to the next steps that were a bit more efficient and less strenuous— you never found James, Sofia and I complaining that we weren’t loading the U-haul instead of moving the instruments over into the next room. 

The efficiency didn’t replace the “whatever it takes” energy, but simply allowed us to focus that more on the kids and more on our craft. But a word of warning. When efficiency creeps toward the bottom line and we pay other organizations to do things, work only to the limit of the literal job description, the spirit sags, the comradery diminishes, the multi-colored vision loses its luster. Without at least some of those moments of over-the-top dedication, the whole grand and glorious circus just becomes a job. 


A school defined by the teachers and administrators “whatever it takes” can-do spirit, founded on great love for children and great respect for and understanding of their dignity and delight at each stage of development is not just a school, not just a place, but a sacred space. Indeed, this building used to be a church and the  music room used to be the chapel and the miracles I witnessed there confirm that— the kids who learned to skip or surprised themselves with an exquisite glockenspiel solo or acted out Tina Turner Teaching Tai Chi to Turtles in the Stations game or danced Bow Belinda, the Banana Peel dance, the Grapevine Rada Pere, the Ghananian Bo-bo-bo or rehearsed their “And don’t call me Shirley” line in the play or played the Orff instruments together, from Pease Porridge Hot to Mango Walk to Vivaldi to Jumpin’ at the Woodside and a thousand more pieces or played the Old King Glory game or—well, how much time do we have? The roof-raising spirit of daily group singing, the extraordinary calvacade of guest artists that included Milt Jackson, Bobby McFerrin, Stefon Harris, Herlin Riley, Linda Tillery, Keith Terry, Andy Narell, Eddie Marshall, music groups from Venezuela, Bulgaria, India, Azerbhaijan, Aztec dancers, Tibetan monks, Baka pygmies, Gee’s Bend quilters/ singers. The gatherings we had in times of crisis—the Iraq war, 9-11, the 2016 election— and the copious tears shed. The early celebrations of Intery Mintery Halloween, samba contests, cookie jars, MLK ceremonies, graduation ceremonies alive with joy and laughter and tenderness. The three workshops I gave each year for Bay Area Orff teachers took place in that room with its own history of sublime moments, group communions, extraordinary music, personal breakthroughs and even romances that blossomed into marriages (one of which I officiated!). All of that vibrating sanctified energy inside that room, stored in the walls. If that’s not a sacred space, I don’t know what is.


Thanks to parent Samantha Campbell, there is now a plaque above the doorway to that room that reads “The Doug Goodkin Music Room.” I cannot imagine a greater honor or a more important place to claim as part of my legacy. 


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