Defenseless

Five years ago I was the music teacher the man with the budget ax came for.  He came for others in my district including a gifted conductor with a MA in Choral Conducting.  We were turned out of our positions, left to seek our way through to new paths in life.  Some of us went back to the classroom.  Some of us (like me) went away entirely.  It was quite something at the time, for me, because I had actually tears to shed for the loss of a position I wasn’t sure I wanted for two years.  The honest truth is that in my second year of teaching I almost quit entirely.  Burned by one district that tricked me into signing a contract for a 70% position they promised would become full-time (and which didn’t), I was handing over my salary to pay for childcare.

I left without any intention of returning to a classroom.  In the summer of 2007, one week before school was to start, I got a call from the district I grew up in.  Would I like to come in for an interview?  Today?  The long and short was that there was a position for choral and general music teacher which was full-time and had opened up very suddenly.  I went for the interview, contemplated working in a district my parents had worked in, considered the higher wages I’d be earning, and decided to go back to the classroom.

It was a bad year mostly because I felt, from the get go, that the school system as a whole was irreparably broken.  Nothing I’d seen since student teaching or my first year as a teacher into my second would convince me otherwise.  I saw ragged children walk in every day because there were no buses from the areas they lived, yet they were assigned to this school, and there were no parents (like mine) to drive them every morning.  I watched sixth-graders too proud to stand in the breakfast line learn by 8th grade that that breakfast and lunch the government were paying for was too precious to not take.  I saw children cowed by poverty and lives far harder than mine.

I cried most nights in my car on the way back to my home, a sheltered life that was so easy: all I had to do was show up and teach children about music…  Their griefs and pain were hard on me because I had no place to put the sense of the injustice in those young lives.  I also had little understanding of how my work should matter at all in a world like that.  And then little things started happening.  I had a student in my 8th grade general music class who looked like she was 15, and she was falling asleep nearly every day try as she might to stay awake.  I’d watch her head slip onto her arm every blessed afternoon, and she’d find herself waking at the end of class.  After the second week of school I pulled her into my classroom during her lunch (… subtle… real subtle… Okay a beginning teacher isn’t always a subtle creature) because I had the 8th grade lunch as my lunch time too, and I asked her why she was falling asleep every day.

She was horrified.  Maybe she’d thought I hadn’t noticed?!  And then she started explaining to me that she was alone every day after school with her two siblings: a 6-year-old and a two-year-old.  “I wait up every night until Mama gets home at 2 a.m. from Chicago because I can’t sleep with them babies in the house and it’s just me.  I’m so scared something will happen!”  It was the fact that it’s hard for me to cry in front of people that kept me from sobbing in frustration for this girl (to her face).  She was bearing (much as I had) heavy responsibilities at just 15, and her fear that something would happen to her two siblings was taking away her chances to rest.  Not done growing herself, needing an education to advance out of the poverty that was forcing her mother into the necessity of using her 15-year-old daughter as the only childcare for her other two children, this young woman was being deprived of those perquisites by the real needs of her body.

But out of that interview grew a relationship with a student… And I smile sitting here typing now because it was, as my father once said to me (on another subject entirely) “The first of many.”  I learned from that young woman that, in and of itself, music— and certainly general music— had no intrinsic value to many of my students.  What speaks to every student is the value they derive from the relationship to the teacher. My student and I connected, and though I couldn’t give her better sleep at night, just knowing she had someone that cared, someone who’d let her come into the dark, quiet auditorium every lunch time and nap and wake her in time for the next class, became the route to caring suddenly about a class she was forced to take.

General music was and still is the scheduling principal’s dumping ground.  Many “specials” teachers moan and cry that their classes are used as “dumping grounds” for those who chose classes that filled up on them and needed to be placed elsewhere in the schedule.  Next to no one chooses general music in 6-8 grade, though that proved to be an inaccurate statement by the end of my 4 years at that school.  I learned that I could shut my classroom doors, connect to my students, and through that connection, share my love of music with them: teach them the keys to one of humanity’s oldest technologies for connecting to the unspeakable realities of its experiences.

So it was that in the spring of 2011, I had tears to shed when the principal came for me.  I cared deeply and still care that I was being sacked to allow another teacher to remain full-time, and it broke me in ways I am still learning to grieve through.  For one thing, it put paid to the career path I had believed I would always follow.  But though I buried choral conducting in the five years past, I have not lost the abilities, not given up musicking, not given up teaching, and not given up learning.

All that said,  I no longer believe, as I used to, that music education, nor any of the arts, nor physical education belong in the same world as the academic subjects.  All my educator friends, all my musician friends, and any other readers, please don’t let your hair start on fire with that statement.  I have very reasoned ideas for this turn in my understanding, and I do understand the rationales guiding the housing of music, the arts, and physical education along with the regular school day.  It is this understanding which prompts the reversal for me.

Defending the Indefensible

It was a year ago when I spotted a share of the blog originally posted here entitled “Stop ‘Defending’ Music.”  Lots of my acquaintances and friends were sharing it and applauding it.  Some were not.  That’s not really the point.  I essentially agree with the author’s main points.  Being constantly on the defense for music is a sure sign that you’re on the losing side.  If you have to constantly apologize (in the classical sense) for your profession, then are you a musician or merely a musical apologist?  I wound up asking myself that in my five years as a music educator, and I couldn’t give myself a satisfactory answer except to shrug my shoulders and go back to my work… I think a lot of educators wind up in the same untenable positions mentally watching their curricular demands increase, but the depth decrease, the testing up every year and the results suddenly count towards their paychecks.  I think educators all over the US can relate to the feeling of being trapped between the many and varied needs of their students and the ticking clock that sends those children all too quickly from their care.

The Largest Problem is Housing

As long as music education, the visual arts, dance, physical education, drama etc. are housed in the same building as the core academic subjects then they will be viewed in the same way as the academic subjects… But different.  In middle and high school alike, these disciplines are subject to similar treatment as the academic world, the illusion that they could be given similar evaluation and guidelines, and yet be continually dispensable when that budgetary ax comes back around.

The arts are not academic subjects.  Neither is physical education.  Sport craft and art are very different cultures than academia, and this is the reason that in the Netherlands musicology is not housed in the conservatory, but the university.  One is the praxis, the other is the academic means through the praxis— not so much a different world as a different universe at times.  Do I believe, then, that musicology has no need of praxis?  No, but that’s not the topic.  The real question here is, whether continuing to house the academic disciplines (the original trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric) alongside the arts and physical education is the course of greatest wisdom?

In cultural musicology we discuss a concept called musicologica: music logic.  It is a means of breaking with traditional views of the world and its disciplinary compartmentalizations and reconfiguring these to understand the disciplines as logics of their own specific domains: various means of understanding/viewing the world.  Pure logic, mathematics is one world-view.  Music is another.  Language-logic (the Dutch have a phenomenal word for this Taalkunde or language skills) is its own domain as are all varieties of sport.  Different logical systems for encountering the world and its internal systems.  Housing the arts, which are dramatically different from the academic logics in a separate place would help preserve them from the idea that the ax means that any one discipline is less important than another.  In their own home, the arts are not “extras” in the school day, or dumping grounds affording the other teachers their prep periods, but a necessary component thereof.

In a perfect world, all children would have access to all these subjects.  If districts were to pool their resources together: all their experts, all their teachers, and their funding in a central program that serviced the city, then it would be possible to remove the musical, visual and physical arts from the academic buildings.  So all students, in elementary school would continue to all receive the mandatory education in music, visual arts, physical education, etc. In middle school and thereafter, however, I would house all those subjects separately in a large city-wide building(s).  A massive arts center, a massive sports center where children could go take courses in the second part of their day based entirely on two ideas: their choices and their ability level.  Separating the arts and physical education from the academic buildings would allow students greater freedom because it would spread the resources of the many specialists in the districts more evenly, freeing the schedules more to allow students to have courses truly of their choosing while at the same time permitting students across an entire district to participate together in ensembles/classes/sports (large and small)  at their ability level and not based upon their age.  This separation would, furthermore, allow coordination between ensembles, arts courses, and even post-secondary specialists far more easily because of the centrality of the courses.  Finally, moving the arts and physical education out of the academic buildings would allow a break down (to a certain extent, I’m not a complete cock-eyed optimist) of the traditional school rivalries that sometimes mar district cooperation at larger city-wide events.

So, in fine, I do actually believe in giving all children past the age of 11 access to a musical education, or an arts education, or drama, or physical education… But I do not believe in mandating it (completely separate post), and I do not believe that these things are at all effectively housed  alongside the academic subjects in a public education because the conjunction subjects the disciplines and the students too greatly to the foibles of slotting upwards of 300 children (in the high schools it can go as high as 550) into a smattering of classrooms within a very confined time-table.

How it Came to Look Like This

I understand, however, that such systems are not completely possible.  The larger sprawl of American cities would require more adequate busing routes (city or school) or safe bike lanes for children.  Further complicating the issue: American parents are not used to letting their children get home and from school, to and from various places completely unsupervised at the age of 11 whereas European and Japanese parents turn them loose into the streets at around 6 or 7.  Parents in other parts of the world trust their children to get where they need to go, to be responsible for their daily activities, and to return home safely.  Finally, the vastness of such buildings would be additional and heavy expenses on districts that are already financially crippled at present.

I will also close with the observation that it was on my graduation day as a music educator that my mother reminded me that she knew the American education system before it included specialists in music or art or physical education.  All of these subjects in elementary school were (up to a specific point in history) at the discretion and skill level of the particular teacher you had in your classroom.  When my mother and father first started teaching in the 1950s they were the sole teacher their students encountered in a day.  They were the person responsible for music time, for art time, for physical education, and for the academic subjects.  I think that the US has come a long way since those days, but I think we could go still further to create an equal space in every child’s life for access to all the arts (of any kind).

And I think mounting defenses of alternate world-views and access to those domains is a pointless exercise, or, put another way: defenseless.

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~ by Rebecca Erickson on August 21, 2016.

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