Just Go With Me on This for a Minute: Some Musical Musings

Dance has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. From preschool to high school it was ballet, in college jazz/tap/musical theatre, and after college hip-hop. Now the form dance takes most consistently in my life is through coaching cheer, and while coaching is a blast, I often miss being a dancer myself.  The ballet nostalgia was particularly high over the weekend when my mom and I saw Swan Lake in the movie theatre (Live streaming from Moscow courtesy of Fathom Events). Both dancers and orchestra alike were absolutely breathtaking, and the performance reminded me of a quote that one of my dance teachers shared with us one class: “Dance is what music looks like.” Ponder that for a moment. What a magical idea!

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One of my favorite moments in the performance was when they summoned the maestro out of the orchestra pit, and he joined the lead dancers in a curtain call. That moment was a beautiful acknowledgement that his conductors baton is actually magician’s wand, without which the dancing would just be a series of graceful jumps and thumping toe shoes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about music recently, and in particular the power behind it. If dance is a visual representation of the music, what is music itself? For one thing, music is an expression of those who compose and arrange it. When I think about composers whose music particularly inspires me, (Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Smetana, even modern composers like Andrew Lloyd Webber and John Williams), I’m amazed that they can sit down and somehow craft such powerful, soul-filled compositions by writing notes down on a blank score. Where does that come from? Langston Hughes coined the phrase “Heart Melodies”, and I think that answers the question on some level. A beautiful melody reflects a beautiful heart.

On deeper level, what if music (or Music) were a force bigger than any of us, and composers and musicians simply tap into that force to varying degrees of success? That would mean that composers would be conduits of that Beauty, dancers would be illustrators of that Beauty, and the Creator would be the cosmic Maestro. A bit of a fanciful idea, perhaps, but fun to explore nonetheless.

To wrap up these snow day musings, I leave you with the Hughes that I mentioned earlier:

Bring me your dreams
You dreamer
Bring me all your
Heart melodies
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too rough fingers
Of the world
-Langston Hughes

The Little Story that Grew

I’m excited to announce that the story I shared on Martin Luther King Day was picked up for publication this week by the First Day Press, a wonderful, peace-promoting publication devoted to “Arts, Culture, Faith and Practice”. You can find a link to the story here.

I also want to take a moment to say thank you. I’ve been blown away by the response that has met this story, and I can only hope that sharing this story will serve in some small way to further the message of love and kindness.

My Classroom Family Tree

I recently used the phrase, “Your intellectual grandfather” when I casually referenced one of my undergraduate professors to my junior English class one day. While the comment was off the cuff, I’ve given it some thought since. I like the idea that the passage of instruction has a generational quality to it. I’m aware that each day I stand before my own students, the voices, ideas and inspiration of certain key professors and teachers are echoing in my mind. When I sat in their classes, I don’t think I could possibly have known how much I would carry their influence throughout life.
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I remember my creative writing professor who entered the classroom each day like a firecracker of energy. Her toughness pushed me to produce nothing less than my best, all the while making me believe I was capable of more. She called me a “kickass writer”, even when she believed it more than I did. I remember sitting in her busy, tiny office discussing an idea, mulling over some character, or picking apart some plot flaw. She took an ambitionless freshman with the confidence of a mole-rat and made me believe I had something to offer.

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I remember my vaguely David Tennant-looking medieval literature professor, who inadvertently had several students theorizing that he was Dr. Who. Reading the Canterbury Tales in Middle English conjured some sort of magic in the classroom, and Geoffrey Chaucer became the gateway drug to Old English, Beowulf and several other classes with him. In each class, he pushed us to think more deeply than I had ever imagined possible, manipulating and guiding the class discussions, so that somehow the students did nearly all the talking, but he somehow magically had crafted a brilliant lecture by the end.

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I remember my grad school playwriting professor, who, as we sat around a wooden table in a barn annex overlooking the Vermont mountains, managed to repair the broken writer in me. In the four years since my brother had died, I had been unable to write. My inner critic dominated any voice that tried to put words on the page, and my ideas got drowned in numbness and years of stamped-down grief. The week of the anniversary of my brother’s death, he assigned us to write 25 pages of stream of consciousness. He didn’t freak out when I broke down in tears as I told him how terrified I was to be alone with my thoughts for 25 pages. Instead he told me I was safe, and that everyone in the room was carrying darkness with them. He was right. I wrote 25 pages of raw, previously unexpressed and festered thoughts.  Then I wrote a play. Then I wrote a novel. Then I was accepted to an MFA program and quit my job to teach part time and write. I am just on the beginning of this journey, but I owe so much to the kindness and encouragement of this man.
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These, and many more, are the intellectual grandparents of my ‘children’. Times one student or another has given me an unassigned short story to proof, told me about spotting Anglo-Saxon influences in The Hobbit, or asked me to look through the English department classes with her in search of prospective college programs, a part of me wishes that my old professors could see how their legacy is continuing on through the generations.

By the Content of their Character

Walking to the museum from the metro that blustery day, with my 11th grade scholars in tow, I never could have imagined the eye-opening lessons that a simple field trip would teach me.  I say “me”, and not “us”, because I learned that day something my male African-American students probably already knew all too well.

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This was a field trip I had envisioned since July. I had spent the summer in a grad school class on the topic of African-American depiction and expression in art and literature. After countless hours steeped in the colorful brushstrokes of one Great Migration-era artist in particular, I made a joyous discovery that some of his artwork would be exhibited at a museum within day-trip reach.

When two snow-day reschedules left us past the deadline to schedule a formal tour, the museum kindly agreed to let me take two smaller groups of students through myself.  I worked out a schedule with my co-chaperone, in which I would take the first group of six or so while he took the other kids to eat lunch. Then we would switch and he would take the second half of kids to lunch while I showed the rest of the kids around. I asked the students to request groups by their circle of friends. I hadn’t intended to segregate the groups, but because many of them were close friends from being basketball teammates, I ended up with all of the African-American young men in the first group, while the second group were largely Asian international students.

At the museum entrance, we divided up, and I gave the students some final reminders about proper decorum. Passing through the entrance felt like stepping into an inner sanctum and a hush of solemnity fell on our group. The sound of the students’ feet echoed louder in their lack of speaking. The eyes of the guards snapped toward us like magnets, and their posture stiffened as though on some state of heightened alert. As if I didn’t feel small enough surrounded by towering athletes, I felt the need to grow smaller, to shrink all of us. I couldn’t shake the feeling of intruding somewhere we weren’t supposed to be. In hushed tones I instructed the students to alight the stairs to find the exhibit. As soon as we mounted the second floor, though, more guards appeared, watching every step, every hushed whisper. We found the exhibit and gathered around the collection. A guard followed us in, so close he almost felt a part of our group. I hurriedly took pictures, asked the students some discussion questions, all the while eying the guard and visually patrolling my students to make sure all was in order. Our discussion was short, hushed and hesitant, as each one of us was visibly uncomfortable.

We moved on from room to room, but without fail a guard appeared, monitoring us closely, often joined shortly by a second guard. One exhibit in particular featured a room covered entirely of bees wax. Museum visitors were encouraged to stand in the center of the golden glow of the closet-sized room to get the full experience. One of the students, a tall African-American basketball star and a very bright student, stood in the middle and commenting about the smell and conjecturing about the purpose of the exhibit, and gently brushed his fingertip against the wall.

“Don’t touch that!” We all jumped as the guards voice rang out like a gunshot. The student’s eyes grew wide, and he crept out from the exhibit. The guard had been so close that my periphery assumed he was a student.  We sought refuge in a lower traffic wing of the museum, where at last we found a cheery guard who chatted with us, delighted in the quest for a Picasso, no doubt unaware she was a refreshingly bright light in the museum.
The time for the lunch-time swap arrived, and I braced myself for another foray into the guard’s icy stares. I bid adieu to the first group, and prepped the new group, which were comprised completely of Asian exchange students, with the exception of a biracial Asian/Caucasian-American student. The atmosphere that greeted us had warmed considerably as I entered with this group. Guards seemed disinterested at best, relaxed, some even pleasant. We made our way to the exhibit, and I conducted the same instructions, this time distracted. Wait, I thought, these guards are suspicious of teenagers, even threatened. But as we traveled through the museum at a more leisurely pace, the kids spread out with impunity, admiring paintings paintings unattended, posing for pictures and lounging on the benches.

That’s when the horrible reality I had been too naïve to spot previously crept slowly into my heart in a slow ache. These guards had no problem with teenagers. “Hey look!” I wanted to shout at the guards, as I passed through with the Asian/Caucasian group that they had already probably sized up as studious. “Teenagers! Threatening teenagers who will touch things and stand too close to the paintings–don’t you want to follow them around and stare at them intimidatingly too?” No. These kids were not tall, black young men.

As I followed my students around the museum absently, I pictured the first group, no doubt by now happily eating lunch somewhere. Being well-dressed and well-behaved had not been sufficient protection against suspicion.  If I had taken a Sharpie and written their impressive GPAs on their foreheads would that have made a difference? What about safety-pinning their report cards to their shirts so that the guards could see that they had nary a B between them in my class and had maintained, not just barely an A, but solid, high A’s? Would these gentlemen pose less of a threat if the guards could see the colleges who were already talking to them? Even if none of the athletes had picked up a basketball in their lives, they would have no problem getting into college, and probably even on an academic merit scholarship.  Or what if I had sent in video footage ahead of time of these young men in my class, actively engaged and leading in a class discussion, even helping students who were English language learners?  Would they pose less of a threat if I could somehow provide a magic window into their character and so that breadth of the goodness in each of their hearts were visible?

The next day in class the students working in groups, analyzing some postcards of prints I had picked up to continue the conversation. One of the African-American students began chuckling as he held up the postcard. “This looks like the guards at that museum yesterday!” His observation was met with the concurring laughter and nodding heads of his classmates. The image featured a group of black migrants, lined up to vote and an angry-looking white guard stood, arms folded menacingly front of the voting booth. That image had been painted in 1941.

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(Image source)