Breaking Up the Band

guitar tabWe were playing guitar, last night. My husband is a classically trained guitarist. I’m an untrained disaster. It’s a perfect combination. Sort of like The Monkees, who I loved growing up. One musician and a cute front man. I’m the cute front man. I can strum, play my three country-folk music chords, and if I see a chord I don’t like, I skip it…

“Oh, that’s a B-minor-seventh-diminished-trampled-tenth,” he’ll say. “Simple.” If a chord sounds too much like math, it’s out. There’s a reason I don’t teach math.

Actually, music is a great way of disguising math. I learned this when I was flunking out of music school. I’d lock myself in a practice room, which reminded me like a cross between an old phone booth and a padded room–with my borrowed clarinet–I wasn’t even good enough to own my own–and I’d play the same scales and arpeggios–wrong generally–over and over and over, changing key, adding one sharp here, one flat there–never really being able to solidly read the music, just listening and memorizing as I went. Eventually, I started feeling like I was in calculus class. And I left.

But not before they kicked me out.

I always loved guitar. It gave me creativity. I didn’t need to have great skill or read music. Half the famous pop musicians don’t. I can write songs. Simple ones that make fun of things. When Coach wouldn’t play me–I usually played left-bench or left-out, I wrote “The Benchwarmer’s Blues.” I wrote diddies about people annoying me, things that were wrong, social injustice. It felt good. I used to play a lot, but life got in the way. I wasn’t going to be famous anyway–YouTube hadn’t been invented.

I remember the first time I played with my now husband.

“It’s not written like that,” he said. We were playing John Denver. I love John Denver. I have all his records.

“Oh, I don’t care.” I strummed loudly and sang.

“Can’t you see that rest?” said Rusty, a little more emphatically.

“Yes. There’s no rest on the record.” I had three versions.

Argument.

“Music is joy! You are sucking away my joy!” I stomped away as only an artist can do. Except I am not an artist. I’m really pretty bad. Rusty is classically trained. He’s so good, in fact, that he got a scholarship to Prestigious Music School, except that no one in guidance told him about it, even knowing that he was signing Army papers before the “surprise reveal” at high school graduation.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 6.20.32 AMI picture him as one of my students, standing there, dumbfounded, knowing he would have had that choice–a full music scholarship to an amazing place. Maybe he would have chosen the Army, maybe not–but that choice was taken away due adults who didn’t have that vision for him. I picture him standing at graduation with a sinking feeling, knowing music scholarship was dead because his military papers had all been signed. Knowing that the adults in his life made judgments about him and never envisioned him reaching the stars.

I try never to be one of those adults when I teach. Education is about vision. It’s about knowing the full range of possibilities that each student has in front of him or her, and giving the skill set and mentorship to make that happen. It is individual. It’s not standard. Lately, standardization is taking over, giving me less time to be the visionary. Seems it’s more about testing, goals, and benchmarks than looking at that kid and saying, “Hey, you got a music scholarship. Go. Be great!”

When I get discouraged, I think of Rusty. I look at the student in front of me, and I say, “What’s your plan?” And we tweak that idea, adding on hefty layers of time-based action plan to the pile until it’s quite a lot of work, and the students says, “Wow. I never thought I could be that!” You can. That’s the entire point of education, not whether they passed tests or I got a great score on my teacher evaluation rubric. It’s creating vision. Relationships. Continuing the mentoring even after graduation, because that’s when the lessons ACTUALLY set in. “Do…great…things.” Don’t reach for the stars–own them.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 6.23.52 AMLast night we sat down and played some Creed and Ozzy. It was fun.

“You can’t play that like that–see, only two strums.”

“Where do you see that?” I said

“It’s right there.”

“Oh, I don’t care. I can’t read it anyway. I have it on my iTunes.”

Deja vous.

In case you’re wondering about the end of the story, Rusty turned out okay–visionary even. After an amazing military experience, he went on to be quite the entrepreneur, transforming fitness in the region, with iLoveKickboxing.com. Maybe they should have offered him a business scholarship instead. Turns out, he wouldn’t have needed it. He needed a vision, and to reach for–and own the stars. He’s done both. And if you asked him, he’d say it wasn’t school that prepared him–it was life and hard work, and having the best people around him, people who also had vision and the desire to own the stars. That’s the entire secret.

I’ll remind my students before graduation.

But today, I’m going to skip some chords and sing loudly, even if it doesn’t say that in the score.

[images: ccsf.edu and jasobrecht.com]

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4 thoughts on “Breaking Up the Band

  1. I do hope our public education system can transform itself to reflect the entrepeneurial spirit of our world, even while preparing kids for all those STEM skills and needs, and not quash the known and unknown dreams of so many in the process. Great post.

    • Thanks. We’re in a firestorm of reform here. I, myself, am struggling to process how one new set of metrics and rubrics can transform me from a highly qualified teacher to mostly likely mathematically ineffective. They didn’t pass the benchmarks I set up–too high randomly–on two simple tests… Many of the best teachers have exit strategies. There is a real crisis brewing–everything from grade inflation to pass these tests that count for very little–student disengagement, because all we do is test them (a teacher I know is making them breakfast today as a reward for retaking the tests and enduring them), and very little by way of inspiration… Stay tuned for more on this…

      • As a big supporter of public education, I admit it has at times been difficult to stay the course and not consider other options the last few years, and with a freshman and junior finishing up the school year in the next couple weeks, I hate to confess that I am glad we only have a few more years to stay committed to that public education philosophy — they will graduate from one of our public high schools, and they are doing well and fortunate to have a school with diverse opportunities and curriculum, and array of honors/AP courses for students needing the challenge as one of my sons particularly does. I fear things will really need to hit rock bottom before that true reform/overhaul can be done to reflect the realities of today’s world and today’s student — and the funding necessary to do it. I just know you are one of the “good ones” finding ways to creatively approach students’ learning needs and seeing the bigger picture, rather than just putting in your time and playing the game because it needs to be played. As you note, many of our bestest and brightest cannot hang in there, and worst yet, the shining stars we need to go into education will not. Strict seniority-based systems, lack of flexibility in finding places for talented adjuncts/specialty teachers (e.g. some advanced science courses at upper levels — just think what the right retired engineer with teaching skills could do!), onerous testing curriculum and standards, and that socioeconomic divide ever-widening which further inflames some of the primary factors which contribute to problems and learning differences in the classroom. I look forward to your periodic posts on this subject. (whew, long-winded on a Friday — apologies!)

      • Thanks… I think we can do better. I think that when we get a system, we need to be able to pivot and change direction. You can’t have a rigid system in something that’s supposed to be creative in nature–the best entrepreneurs in history were branded the worst students. Wonder if it’s true for teachers, too?

        I am a supporter of public education–it’s important to bring the tech in, to bring creativity back, and make people reach for the stars. I believe in edutainment–Dave Burgess’ “Teach Like a Pirate” does this well.

        I do think that we need to reconsider unintended consequences of reform. I fully support reforms where this is part of the process–sort of like “lean and agile” in startups, or looking at the numbers in my own business. Right now, there’s a lot of fear in the system, and no innovation ever succeeded in the midst of systemic fear. My goal: fix it. I’m a glass half full person. This has been a tough year. Not going to have another:)

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