A few weeks ago, my husband and daughter went on a three-day field trip with her 4th grade, leaving Paco and me rattling around the house with nothing but matches and beer to amuse ourselves.
Nominally the adult, and in an effort to avoid situations requiring bail money, I decided to label our time together as Paco and Mamma’s Glitter-Filled Days of Splashy Fun. Mostly, this meant I squeezed a line of glitter glue onto his arm and then threw him into the bathtub. Otherwise, he just went off to school while I graded rough drafts of research papers. However, one night we did go out to Paco’s Choice of Dining Establishment (But It May Not Be Fast Food; Sorry, Kid). He chose a pub-like local restaurant called Sir Benedict’s, a place he loves for its bottles of Orange Cream soda pop and its Toasty Cheese (quick recipe: get hunk of French bread; slice it up; melt cheddar cheese on top; add pickle to plate for garnish). He also likes that Sir Ben’s has an “open” piano where anyone can sit down and play. On the night of our Toasty Cheese visit, a bug-eyed “my piano skills might be the only thing between me and a life on the streets” grandpa type was noodling away on the ivories. As Paco and I stood in line contemplating the merits of Orange Cream soda over root beer, the Piano Man launched into a catchy tune. Never one to pass up a teachable moment, especially in the rare instances when I actually know something, I bent down and whispered into my first-grader’s ear, “This song is called ‘The Entertainer.’”
Without missing a beat, he whispered back, “Yea, Mom, I know. Mrs. H plays it for us in music class. It’s by a guy named Scott Joplin. At first I couldn’t remember his name, so I almost told you it was by Vivaldi, but then I remembered that she’s been playing us the part of ‘The Four Seasons’ called ‘Spring, and that’s Vivaldi, so I realized that I was wrong. Then I thought for a minute and remembered Scott Joplin.”
Considering sputtering, I instead expressed my amazement with a follow-up question, “Mrs. H rocks. Don’t you guys get to try out some cool instruments in music class, too, like that one Finnish thing?”
“It’s called a kantele, Mom, and it’s kind of like a lap harp. Yea, we all get to take turns playing on those. That stuff is fun, but I don’t really like music class. There are too many rules: ‘Stand up straight!’ ‘Shoulders back!’ My shoulders get kind of slumpy feeling after not too long. It’s like that in choir class, too. Music and choir make me tired.”
“Aw, honey, you’re a kid who says walking to the sink to fill up his drinking glass makes his ‘widdo wegs tiwed,’ so I can’t take your complaints too seriously. You are, and bless you for this, not a high energy child. It’s a blessing, in truth–what with the way the fatigue in your legs is always holding you back from things like going into your closet to find clean clothes–that you have a rich inner life, something that allows you to move not at all yet still access its intricacies. I mean, the fact that you can be a Pokemon trainer, roaming the many regions of Japan in search of your next Venosaur or Charizard, without ever getting off the bed, well, that ease has really contributed to the success of your training career, hasn’t it?”
Understanding full well the level of crap I was tossing at him, and being a worthy companion, Paco gave me a wry grin before announcing, “Gee, Mom, all this standing in line waiting to place our order has made my legs tired. How about I go find us a table while you get my Toasty Cheese? That Piano Man is done playing Scott Joplin. Now he’s playing a song called ‘My Way.’ I know it because it was in that one movie with the penguins.”
As I stood at the cash register, watching the owner swipe my card again and again–and again (due to high use, its magnetic stripe is getting sketchy), I took a moment to feel–again–a mixture of sadness and anger and disappointment. You see, when my daughter was 18 months old, we put her on a waiting list for the music magnet school in town, wanting her, and then Paco, to experience elementary school as a time when music would be infused into the overall curriculum. And even though the music offerings have been pared down each year that our kids have attended that school, they’ve still gotten more music education and experiences than they would anywhere else in the city. As Paco demonstrated at Sir Ben’s that night, it has proven an enriching option.
Now, starting next year, all of the “magnet” (read: focused enrichment) schools in our district are being de-magnetized. The rhetoric coming out of the district office explains that magnet schools are being abandoned in favor of “closing the achievement gap.” Once the rhetoric is made honest, that simply means: “We still have kids who, due to the complications that can come with race, ethnicity, language, and economic status, aren’t turning in slamming scores on the standardized tests, and so now we’re going to cut the music (or, in other magnet schools, the science or language) enrichment classes and focus more on getting those scores to where they need to be, lest the government cut our funding even further.”
As a citizen, as a taxpayer, as a parent, as a nominal adult, my response to this could go on for trillions of ranty words. In short, though, I would merely point out that, in an ideal world, district officials would have interviewed 50 Cent, Louis Armstrong, Shania Twain, Jerry Lee Louis, Billie Holiday, Seal, Loretta Lynn, Ray Charles, Ritchie Valens, Edith Piaf, Ice Cube, Fiona Apple, M.I.A., Bruce Springsteen, Henry Rollins…
…and noted, “Life didn’t set you up for success. Yet you found a way to overcome that gap. You tapped into something that pulled you out of and above the track set for you at birth.” Then, I wish they had asked, “Could we use your story as we compile a heap of evidence to shove at the highers-up? What they don’t seem to comprehend–but what seems essential for them to comprehend–is that music not only transforms lives; not only enhances all other learning; not only removes the barriers of race, ethnicity, and class; not only provides a common language for all of humanity; we also want them to see that it can save lives…which, compared to ‘closing an achievement gap,’ is profoundly more important.”
However, the decision was made before anyone even knew the discussion was underway. Snap. Done.
My musings ended abruptly when a tray of melted cheese and creamy soda slid towards me, swooshing across the counter. Tucking my credit card back into my wallet, I grabbed the tray, turned, and stopped to savor the sight of Paco tapping his hands on the table, in perfect time, as he tried to mouth the words to “New York, New York.”
When I reached the table, he looked up and told me excitedly, “This one’s by Frank Sinatra, just like the penguin song was. Mrs. H told us in music class one time!”
Just as a point of interest, here’s what I was listening to as I wrote this post:
Dan Wilson, singing “All Kinds of Beautiful”