Start Spreadin’ the News


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”





19 responses to “Start Spreadin’ the News”

  1. furiousBall Avatar

    I want a kantele now

  2. Jazz Avatar

    I'd like to go to the language magnet school please.

    Oh yeah, right. Won't exist.

  3. Becky Cazares Avatar
    Becky Cazares

    When I was a kid, magnets were for picking up weird stuff off the ground and impressing younger cousins with the amount of sewing pins that could be stuck together all at once. But "music appreciation" was a significant part of kindergarten through 3rd grade thanks to Miss Alice and her insistence that we learn to appreciate the classics such as Vivaldi and Grieg and learn to plunk simple tunes on the upright piano. Of course this was the 1960s in a three-classroom reservation school with no govt funding at all so the idea of banning music to emphasize test-taking skills would never have occurred to any of the four excellent teachers, two of whom were my dad and my uncle. Such a rich education I got! And how impossible to replicate today, if I had a young 'un to attempt to educate proper. Sigh…

  4. Erin Avatar

    Run for public office Jocelyn. Please. I will vote for you!

  5. Logophile Avatar

    You want I should call this guy I know?
    Gimme some names, little lady.
    We'll learn 'em (that is my second online Wind in the Willows reference in the last couple days, wonder what that is about?).

    Not that this is helpful in your situation, but this is why I homeschool. I deeply empathize with your frustration.

  6. alwaysinthebackrow Avatar

    Standardized testing is really not designed for the children, but to appease the public for "accountability" of teachers. A good Music teacher-like your son's-is worth her weight in gold. And no standardized test could weigh it. Tests have shown that music increases test scores. What are they thinking?

  7. Jenn @ Juggling Life Avatar
    Jenn @ Juggling Life

    It's a travesty for sure.

  8. Pam Avatar

    Already happened here in South Australia Joce. Can't speak for other states. First is was our country schools instrumental teachers who were cut back. Then music in schools generally. In this state we have three music focused high schools, where it is necessary to audition to get accepted into the program.The National focus is on literacy and numeracy testing in Years 3 and 5, results of which go on a national schools website,accessable to all.Most teachers are against struggling schools and their communities,often those whose focus is based on English as a second language , being "named and shamed" in such a public forum,in comparison to their often wealthier counterparts who enjoy a great deal of Government funding, which many feel could be better directed. At one stage in my teaching career I was employed as a co-ordinator in our school, of a national campaign to mop up the fall-out of the underachieving students. It equated to 12 minutes a week per child, just so the Government could say they had provided funding to address those they (as skilled teachers we knew them anyway) identified with literacy and numeracy difficulties in the test that year. The Teacher's Union tried to boycott the administration of these latest tests last week,but to no avail. Sounds like your family is having a wonderful time by the way,(meant to say that earlier in the comment, rather than at the end of a whinge!!)

  9. Ellie Avatar

    You're absolutely right, we should keep dumbing down… Ensuring that anyone who achieves will have had to clamber up out of the pit we condemned them too. Fun, hey?

  10. secret agent woman Avatar
    secret agent woman

    The fine arts have been getting short shrift around here for a while. Makes me a little queasy abou our future.

  11. Shania Avatar

    Isn't it amazing how these decisions are always made before we even know about the discussion? This is why I make my husband sell his plasma to send Silas to private school. A lady showed up last week with a didgeridoo. Not something you see every day.

  12. Jeni Avatar

    Frankly, judging by the conversation with Paco and yourself and his identification of various pieces of music, I'd say he's a darned quick learner even if he gets all tired out and "slumpy" in the music and chorus classes. And I think too all this fuss and muss about the "No Child Left Behind" is leaving more and more kids left behind in the long run -like after they manage to get out of school, having graduated mainly just knowing the texts and tests they'd been spoon-fed but not knowing much of anything then about other little things -problem-solving, common sense among lots of other things. Yeah, call me old-fashioned but the education provided to me in the little school, in the little village where I grew up had done me well -provided a good solid base that 32 years after I graduated though I remembered next to nothing about chemistry except what H20 and NaCl stood for and I still couldn't do an algebra problem on paper but I could figure it out in my head and I tested high enough on the English skills to qualify to test then for the English honors program. My basics came from teachers who had taught the generation before me in many instances, and many of them didn't know English before they started school but they learned it as they worked through their lessons in 1st, 2nd and 3rd grades with no separate classes to teach them the language their peers already knew. And a lot of those folks went on to do some pretty darned good things with that basic teaching too! Music and art are excellent forms for children to learn so many other things in life that are necessities and why schools love to clip them out first is beyond my perceptive skills completely!

  13. geewits Avatar

    And here I thought there was a big movement to bring music INTO schools, not take it OUT. That's really dreadful.

  14. Deborah Avatar

    Well you won't get any arguments from me. As a former music teacher, mother of a flutist, a guitarist/drummer and a listener-of-rap-and-assorted-electronica I do firmly believe that music is a wonderfully enriching experience. Moreover, I do not know what else on earth I would have done with myself for the 15 or so years that I taught piano – possibly giving a lot of Tupperware parties.

    It's an intangible, unfortunately, unlike math and English and physics and all those other things you can study that have immediate and practical applications in the world and are more easily quantifiable by state standards. It is a great pity that these programs have a hard time surviving (it's the same story up here i.e. in Canada which is where I am and why I've been so lazy i.e. busy and not been blogging) but the good thing is that music is out there all around us. Parents can pick up the slack, as they have been doing already for some time, and turn on the classical music station, go to those concerts and music-fests or even enroll their children in those expensive music lessons. Sigh. The thing is, music is also all about math and humanity and joy and I'm certain it's every bit as useful for staving off Alzheimer's as learning a second language. And indeed, it is a second language.

    All right, I've spouted off enough here. Time for your kudos.
    When I saw that you had a new post, I grinned, poured myself a fresh cup of coffee, hunkered down on my stool at the kitchen island and leaned into your story.
    And loved it. You take the most ordinary everyday occurrences and with that glitter glue of yours, make magic stuff out of them. All the while staying true to the rigour of your English literature background, with wonderfully well-formed structure, compelling arguments and, where it not for the lack of funding, a truly satisfying conclusion.
    And funny. Every time I read you, it sounds so EASY that I think I should be able to do it too. You pull me in and carry me along and it feels like the words pour from my own brain.
    All right, that's enough for now. I have to get some work done and MAYBE even post something of my own today. And thanks to reading this, I will be better able to dose it with a little humour (although perhaps I could work on improving my English).

  15. Green Girl in Wisconsin Avatar
    Green Girl in Wisconsin

    I cannot imagine such a thing–a school without the arts. SHAME!
    That music teacher sounds divine.

  16. lime Avatar

    i should not have read this just before trying to go to bed. the utter stupidity and counter productivity of this bureaucratic caca makes my blood pressure spike and makes me want to stand on a desk and spew forth profanities aimed at the administrative dickwads ramming this decision through. the high school i graduated from is ready to axe the foreign language dept. which was once far superior to that of the university i attended. our children's school axed the elementary writing curriculum and a host of exciting and inspiring thematic units. all the local schools are laying teachers off (but nary an administrator) even though we are 1 of 6 GROWING counties in the whole freaking state.

    this crap infuriates me. i think it calls for some angry punk rock or thrash metal in protest….or heck, call in pete seger.

  17. chelle Avatar

    so sad … really what kids are want to go to school when all the fun classes are gone? I really believe it needs to be a balance of hard core academics and the good stuff, like music, art, phys ed … without the balance it is all work and no play. Yuck.

  18. Pearl Avatar

    I'm so sorry to hear about the cuts. THe Boy and I lived in Wisconsin Rapids, WI, a nasty little area where my son, who is quite bright, was engaged to "tutor" his fellow students who only spoke Hmong. I was not pleased.

    There's a two-year music school in Minneapolis called Perpich Center for the Arts, should the kids pick up any of the arts and show promise. The boy went there (it's only 11th and 12th) and it's a boarding school for those from outstate.

    Just so's ya know. 🙂


  19. Patois Avatar

    I think I told you our school has a one-year reprieve. People are trying to come up with some type of new identity to keep it afloat. It's so damn disheartening to lose the good things in cases of such short-sightedness.

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