Category: Theme Posts

Holiday Coverfolk: All Saints Day
(Saints in Song, from Augustine to Theresa)

November 1st, 2012 — 03:09 pm

Members of a New York Police Department tactical team rescue Haley Rombi, 3, in the Dongon Hills neighborhood of the Staten Island borough of New York, Oct. 30, 2012. (Michael Kirby Smith/The New York Times)

I try to avoid sharing two thematic posts in a row. But Halloween has come and gone with nary a fanfare in our town, making it All Saints Day – and though having grown up Jewish, I don’t really have a coherent sense of the role of the saint in the everyday life, I do know that if there is such a thing, many friends on the East Coast could use a few right now.

I remember our own saints, though they called themselves angels: those that opened their hearts and homes to the distraught and homeless when the tornado came through our town last year, and when the October snowstorm that followed brought its second round of darkness and disaster. And though the religion classes I took my freshman year in college are but a haze in the brain, I remember, too, that saints are humans, first: that the helping hand is canonized, and that God, if there is one, works through us.

And so we offer a quick mid-week tribute to the songs of the saints: that cry for heavenly assistance, and curse the absent savior; that praise the human instinct to assist or suffer. All find relevancy in a world where help is needed, and offered, and accepted gratefully. May those who need find solace, and hope, in the small kindnesses of others. May those who rise from our midst offer miracle enow.

Looking for your own path to sainthood? Cover Lay Down is a public service, connecting artists and fans for the betterment of both; we accept no ads, and pay for server and bandwidth out of our own meager pockets. Donate to Cover Lay Down any time in the month of November, and we’ll not only send you a link to download all 18 of the songs above in one convenient zip file, we’ll also re-gift 20% of that donation to the NEA Closing The Achievement Gaps Initiative, which supports local children and families by funding home visits and parent engagement programs.

Comment » | Theme Posts

Coming A Terrible Storm:
Storms As Metaphors, Covered In Folk

October 28th, 2012 — 09:30 am

I had something else planned for this weekend’s feature, but even as Massachusetts downgrades the danger, the “perfect storm” barreling towards the East Coast is clearly atop everyone’s minds, smothering election news in its wake, and leaving us resigned to yet another reminder that no matter how advanced our civilizations become, our lives are still lived on earth’s fragile lifeboat.

It’s a lesson that we’ve learned well, here in our tiny rural Massachusetts town. Last October, still reeling from the aftereffects of the massive tornado that slammed through our downtown area and left five percent of our town homeless, our ravaged community spent 8 days without power or heat in the aftereffects of the heavy Halloween blizzard. At the time, I sent my family north to stay with my in-laws, knowing that rural homes that depend on electric well pumps and furnace fans are no place for children in the cold darkness. But someone had to stay home and care for the cats. And so it was my lot to huddle under the blankets, and keep an eye on the weighted branches and downed power lines out my window, and dream – a lonely time, but a centering and humbling one, as well.

This time, we’re as ready as we can be. The basement is stocked with wood for the furnace; non-perishables spill over onto the countertops; out in the community, the laundromat and grocery store are jam packed with shoppers planning ahead for the possibility of powerlessness. And though there are concerns about time lost to the ages – of school days cancelled if the wires go down again – the well-practiced struggle for survival is more real, and more present, in a world where disaster-driven isolation and community dependency are increasingly the norm.

And here on the blog? Easy peasy. The natural disaster is a common metaphor in folk music; the human condition is easily represented through images of both helplessness and shelter. And so we seek out the songs that tell our stories in fire, flood, and famine, in landslide and earthquake, in shipwreck and snow, in dust storm and drought, and more. And out come the songs about storms, themselves.

Listen, as the storms and instabilities of our lives and communities are played out in song. Download ‘em quick, by zip file or as individual tracks below, before the wires go down. And then follow the links, as always, to purchase and celebrate, and help support the artists we tout, that they may continue to speak to our secret hearts in the darkness.

Can’t wait until the next feature? Like the Cover Lay Down Facebook page for streaming bonus tracks and coverfolk extras throughout the week!

2 comments » | Theme Posts

In Sweet Music Is Such Art:
Songs Inspired By Shakespeare, Covered In Folk

July 12th, 2012 — 12:51 pm

Teaching Romeo and Juliet to my inner-city ninth graders this past year was an uphill battle with multiple casualties, but I’m quite proud of how effective we found it to start outside the text, with a week-long exploration of pop and mass culture referents, the better to understand which elements of story and structure, character and cast we westerners are expected to retain into adulthood. Indeed, our very first day featured a side-by-side comparison of Taylor Swift’s Love Story and Dire Straits Romeo & Juliet – perhaps the two most currently recognizable songs in the canon based on the works of William Shakespeare, both of which we featured, covered in folk, a year ago today, in fact, in a feature that explored songs inspired by literature.

But Shakespeare is one of those things that sticks in the heart, and the ears. And so, when the offer to play a Shakespearean villain came along, I couldn’t say no, what with the language and trope of the Bard still echoing in my head from the end of Spring semester.

If blogging has become a bit erratic this summer, then, it’s because I’m spending my evenings and afternoons deep in the throes of blocking rehearsals and line-review for an upcoming in-the-park production of As You Like It, Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy of crossdressing and the limitations of courtly life. Treading the boards – okay, the lawn – is overwhelming, and our production is bare-bones, with each actor playing multiple roles, just as it would have been in Shakespeare’s own day, leaving us all struggling into the night to memorize lines, capture the essence of our various characters, and be ready for an audience after just a dozen rehearsals.

My cup runneth over: with iambs and courtly speech, bawd and Bard. And as my cup, so is my heart, and my ears. Of such a mindset is thematics born.

Happily, The Bard’s influence on all facets of our cultural conversation goes far beyond the story of two star-crossed lovers. From linguistic shards to touchstones of trauma and the human condition, this single playwright has functioned as muse and model for a myriad of songs from across the various genres, most especially the folk, rock, and alternative camps, which rest upon literate songsmithing. Masters of songcraft, From Elton John to Elvis Costello, from John Cale to Louden Wainwright III, from Rush to The Tragically Hip, have pulled their inspiration from the master of stagecraft.

And though not all have been covered yet – Cale and Costello’s separate treatments of Macbeth and his lady, especially, seem to have remained untouched by gentle tribute, as do Wainwright’s Prince Hal’s Dirge, and a plethora of songs which reference Lear’s daughter Cordelia – there is fertile ground enow in these works for a setlist of Shakespearean worth. As always, if you’ve got a track to add or recommend, we’d love to hear about it in the comments.

  • Tiffany Jo Allen: Love Story (orig. Taylor Swift)
    A post-millennial companion piece to Knopfler’s dark, brooding portrayal, Taylor Swift’s first-person portrayal of Juliet white-washes the innocent 13-year-old of the original, aging her into a somewhat less naive yet hyperfeminine empower-puff, reframing her in the common misunderstandings of post-feminist pop, happy ending and all. If you can get past the Karaoke covers, the YouTube kids are all over this one.
  • Mark Erelli: Ophelia (orig. The Band)
    Because Shakespeare’s most recognizable characters come with baggage, their names make excellent framing devices for narrative players of depth and substance. The Band’s Ophelia, for example – recorded by Mark Erelli in honor of Levon Helm’s recent passage – rings of the same unspoken mysteries which cloister her namesake.
  • Alice Ripley & Jesse Harris: Ariel (orig. October Project)
    Celtic-influenced new age band October Project made an excellent choice in soliciting award-winning musicians Alice Ripley and Jesse Harris to cover this song when they released their own album of covers in 2008. Though not as well known in the pantheon of American music, this wish-fulfillment retelling of the Tempest from the perspective of its most famous airy sprite – trapped, alone, and drowning in power – remains one of the band’s greatest creations.
  • Eric Lumiere: Sigh No More (orig. Mumford & Suns)
    Perhaps the newest of our thematic originals, this recent recasting of Sigh No More, Ladies, aka Hey Nonny Nonny, a song originally included in the text of Much Ado About Nothing, seems to echo of Claudio’s development throughout the play. Eric Lumiere’s cover starts thick with harmonies and acoustic strings, so we’ll make allowances for the way it turns to pretty pop as it reaches crescendo.
  • Chris Smither: Desolation Row (orig. Bob Dylan)
    Though Dylan’s lyrics are often cryptic, his references inevitably cover the gamut: the collage of cultural touchstones here includes both Romeo and Ophelia, ensnared together in disparate verses that reverse the typical placement of male and female in the balcony scene. And doesn’t Chris Smither wear their weary sorrow well?
  • David Scott Crawford: The King Must Die (orig. Elton John)
    Elton John references the kings and princes of multiple plays in his treatise on Shakespearean inevitability, from Julius Caesar to Macbeth and Hamlet. Again, nary a studio cover to be found, despite the song’s appearance on Sir John’s self-titled, Grammy nominated 1970 debut, but this solo YouTube take is suitably majestic.
  • Glen Phillips and Chris Thile: Exit Music (For A Film)
  • Maigin Blank: Exit Music (For A Film) (orig. Radiohead)
    Written for the closing credits of Baz Luhrman’s disastrous post-modern setting of the Romeo & Juliet story (but never used there, which keeps it pure), Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke claims the song was predominantly influenced by both the original text and Zeffirelli’s much more textually resonant film adaptation. Toad The Wet Sprocket lead singer Glen Phillips and Punch Brothers centerpiece Chris Thile bring slow angst to the song in concert; Maigin Blank‘s echoey harpsichord-driven home studio cover creeps forward quite appropriately.

[Download the entire 14 song set as a zip file!]

4 comments » | Theme Posts

School’s Out:
(Songs for Teachers, Students, and the Rest of Us)

June 10th, 2012 — 11:01 am

Another school year comes to a close on Wednesday, and although I’m planning on spending a few weeks earning extra cash for writing curriculum and attending in-house workshops here and there in the months ahead, for the most part, the end is near, the pace of my life about to shift to summer. By this time next week, I expect to be puttering around the yard, catching up on the long grass and wilderness that springs from order in the inevitable Spring; by July, I’ll be deep into rehearsals for a production of As You Like It, and scouring the camper in preparation for the usual round of summer music festivals. With a little luck, the ears will clear up a bit, and I’ll be able to get back on schedule for our usual twice-a-week entry schedule, too.

Those who follow us regularly may recall that we wrote about letting go of the despair which seems to inherently accompany inner-city teaching back in February, in a post called Making Peace With The Wild Things: A Prayer For My Students; since we’re sneaking this feature in among a heavy weekend of grading and family plans, I’ll let that previous entry speak for my heart now. But it’s worth noting: as we come to the last of the days that count for grading, after attendance woes and drop-outs, a wave of worst-case scenario classroom behavior that kept many of them from the work, and an endless series of frantic moments in which kids turned sullen and raw after coming to see that their skill level was just too low to understand the readings and the questions about them, just 15 of the 75 students still on my rosters are even eligible to pass, depending on their final exam and project performance.

In this context, it was especially poignant to have attended our local youth theater’s performance of School House Rock last night – a play which frames the beloved Saturday morning shorts of my childhood and yours as a sort of fever dream brought to a new teacher on the morning of her first day in the classroom. So much hope, sung so loud and proud by such bright children, and not a one of them failing their classes. Such a contrast to the kids just two towns and an uncrossable socioeconomic chasm apart, who swagger into my classroom with blocks of ice and fire on their shoulders, and will not put them down for anything, even as their burdens hide their talents, and burn away their futures.

A revived tribute, then, to songs of school, penned and sung by those who made it out alive, and cobbled from both older posts about teacher appreciation and more recent acquisitions to the ever-growing covers collection. May they contain all the hope and hopelessness I need to sustain myself for yet another year in the classroom, the hallways, and the teacher’s lounge. May we forever approach our students with humility, efficacy, and care. And may my own students come back with renewed vigor; and may they come back at all.

1 comment » | Theme Posts

Missing Mama: Songs for the Single Parent
(A soundtrack for love at a distance)

May 25th, 2012 — 06:02 am

We’re braving it alone this week, the wee one, the elderchild and me. And though this meant an especially sniffly, snuggly Monday night, happily, the four stages of grief have passed quickly in such intense, obvious circumstances, leaving us accepting, if not yet perfectly balanced in our adoption of the adapted dance that is life with Daddy.

If I’m nervous but grateful for the chance to try, it’s in no small part because my time with the kids is too often stolen from Mama’s world. From the moment we find ourselves on the other side of the uterine wall, anxiously waiting for the emergence of parenthood, daddies learn to live with a little distance: to always be outside, separated by the skin, our relationships retarded by gestation even as mama grows fat with the pending person we call our own. By the time we get to meet our special someone, she’s already been nine months communing with the one she calls Mama. And now she’s breastfeeding, which makes Mama needful in a way with which we cannot compete.

Being the breadwinner doubles the distance. The traditional model of Dad as half-projected partner and inevitable other bears true on the ground when you’re just not there for the daily rituals of to-and-fro. The relative ignorance I experience this week is a reinforcing symptom: in three days, I’ve learned that it’s not worth the buffet price if the kid is only going to eat white rice, that forgetting to bring homework to dance class can lead to sheepish note-writing, that an after-school stop at the local farmer’s market makes ice cream unavoidable.

The fact that we’re still all safe and sane is a testament to the fact that, in many ways, Mama is still here. The menus and memos she left for us on the fridge are a touchstone; the pre-portioned bags of chips and cookies in the cabinet allow the kids to pack their own lunch with little fuss. Having clothes and schedules laid out before us is a bulwark against the ADHD Dad, and the potential for ongoing anxiety that such combination contains.

But distance makes the moments that much more precious; without absence, we never truly appreciate presence. Having Mama on the other side of the phone is bittersweet, but we could not feel this sense of mutual pride if we were not trying to make it on our own. I’m not just learning how to manage the morning routine, I’m also learning to live through the jealousy, a lesson that will take me a lifetime, for sure.

But oh, what a gift a week can be; what a joy it is to close the gap that Mama fills, if only for a fleeting moment.

And so we offer a family-friendly tribute to the distances we travel, every moment, to capture and celebrate each others’ hearts: a love song soundtrack of commitment, for those who leave and return, every day and every hour, like swallows in our lives. It’s what I’ve been listening to, late at night when the kids are in bed, and the fragile world is still spinning around.

Renee & Jeremy: Yellow (orig. Coldplay) [via]

3 comments » | Kidfolk, Theme Posts

Mother’s Day Coverfolk
(On learning to love the self in the other)

May 13th, 2012 — 07:54 pm

I’ve written about my father several times here on Cover Lay Down, citing him as a friend and fellow folkfan whose companionship I cherish, especially now that I have children of my own. I’ve written about my wife, too, and my children, when the occasion warranted it. But other than a 2008 feature on Mothers of the Folkworld, we’ve skipped over Mother’s Day for four years running – leaving my own mother conspicuously absent from these virtual pages.

If I’ve avoided taking the time to parse the particulars of our often volatile relationship until now, it is because for most of my adult and adolescent life, I did not understand it. But though I cannot and should not claim to know anyone as well or better than I know myself, after years of therapy and soul-searching, I think I have come far enough to take an awkward step towards explicating my avoidance of the topic until now.

The things I have inherited from my mother run deeper and more complex. From her come ADHD tendencies and a high propensity for disorganization, a deep need for social and interpersonal connection, a teary sensitivity to the world. Though it is these same raw and specific qualities, I think, which allow me to experience such deep and profound joy and solace in the universe, the exposure to the emotive elements which results also leaves me in a particularly poor place to negotiate truces when I must.

Instead, these innate characteristics, and the confusion that they often cause within me, leave me wandering the earth with an innate feeling of fragility. And the knowledge that I contain such multitudes can lead to poor choices: a carelessness with words and action that often worsens when I let my guard down around those who I know too well; a snowblindness to other opinions that comes across as disrespect; a propensity to overreact to small things, and thus magnify my distress.

And if I have learned anything in my almost forty years, it is that where one person in such a situation can mitigate and manage the delicate self through care and community and introspection, people of this particular type are ill-equipped to support each other, or indeed to come to terms with each other.

The result is a particularly bittersweet relationship, and I know that my mother and I both regret that we have not yet been able to overcome that which we share to grow closer, and more respectful towards each other.

It’s hard to love in another what you struggle with in yourself – hard, too, to pair such characteristics across the table and expect clarity in understanding. Living with my mother is more often than not a tightrope walk of polite watchfulness in our relations. Even when we find ourselves in moments or months of balance, the voice in my head that cannot so easily trust is always working to push me back down the mountain to its base, where I must begin the Sisyphean struggle anew, for the sake of our family, and our families.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my mother. I admire how hard she worked to maintain a family in my childhood, when my father was working long and absent hours to give us the lifestyle he and she agreed was best for all of us. I appreciate the words of comfort and support she has offered me in my hours of need, even if I could not and would not hear them wholly in the moment. My parents’ divorce several years ago gave me a chance to see her for herself, and the opportunity to watch her grow and thrive as a person of faith and innate optimism. And the ways in which this – all of this – has illuminated my own sins and challenges, clearing the path for me to make peace with my own faults and failures, and through them, to make peace with her, is easily acknowledged, though it remains elusive in my grasp as a tool for relationship building.

I cannot claim to have finished my journey; if I am not yet ready to come out and say that my mother is my friend, it is because of that which I cannot yet love in myself. But although I am hardly a praying man, my mother’s urgings towards meditation have not gone unheeded; I know, and hope she sees, that on my own side of that proverbial table, I have been gathering strength for a peace between us, one that grows more urgent even as it grows closer every day of our lives. And I know, too, because she has shown me, that faith is not only possible, but a vital cornerstone to a life lived honestly, and well.

To my mother, then: to whom I owe not only life, but the abilities and lessons that let me feel and see such life as a joyous, wondrous miracle every day. For that, I love her deeply, if not yet so well. And with that love at my back I will work until my final breath to forge and solder the ties that bind us, until our relationship is something we can both cherish and celebrate together.

Download our Mother’s Day Mix as a zip file!

6 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Theme Posts

Vacation Coverfolk: Where We’re Going To
(Postcards from the past, songs from the present)

April 18th, 2012 — 12:55 pm

Sunday, April 15
Dear Reader,

Traditionally, when yours truly takes off for other climes, I leave behind a feature set or two of place-relevant coverage. But we’re off to San Juan in the morning for a long school break in the sun, with a spring in our step and an island-hopping itinerary on our mind. And unusually, there’s not much in the way of coverfolk from Puerto Rico to be found in the aether.

So here’s a few tracks about going places, pre-posted as a letter to the future for your midweek enjoyment. We’ll return in a week, shaking the sand from our shoes with a set of great new music from recent releases.

4 comments » | Theme Posts, Uncategorized, Vacation Coverfolk

Let My People Go: Songs of The Exodus
(Musical Metaphors of Power, Privilege, and Oppression)

April 7th, 2012 — 11:13 am

Before we were slaves in Egypt, we were Joseph’s brothers and their wives, working at the right hand of a seemingly benevolent pharaoh. But as more modern freedom movements have reminded us over and over again, trust in institutions is a trust misplaced, for power shared unilaterally is power that can be withheld. 400 years and a dozen generations, and we find ourselves both enslaved and feared for our potential power as usurpers.

And yet. Without Pharaoh’s breeding program, we would not have become a people. Without the pressure of death which brought Moses to the reeds and rushes, we would not have returned to Pharaoh’s right hand, where we could be heard. Without the madness, God would not have come to us, enflamed enough to convince a reluctant, stuttering prophet to raise his staff, and lead the people of Israel into the desert, and the great unknown of an uncertain future.

It took oppression and slavery to make a people of Israel; darkness is a forge unparalleled in our hearts. No wonder there is so much hope in the modern retellings of this story – hope, and compassion for those who continue to perpetuate the enslavement of others merely by choosing not to recognize their own privilege as a base condition for cultural imbalance. No wonder the figures of Moses, Pharaoh, Joseph, Joshua, and the Israelites have become metaphors for their own roles in the story – as flawed leader, scapegoat oppressor, untrusting and meek oppressed; as brave General, as prideful and arrogant prophet.

We tell their stories from every perspective, for they are all us. May we learn, once again, from their zeal, and their mistakes. May we continue to work for the day when all peoples can be free – from each other, and from their own fears.

Looking for more biblical songs? Head over to collaborative music blog Star Maker Machine, where we’re just finishing up a full week of themed posts on the subject!

1 comment » | Holiday Coverfolk, Theme Posts

On Making Time:
Temporal coverfolk, and a plea for support

March 11th, 2012 — 02:49 pm

As noted on our Donate page, here at Cover Lay Down we insist on remaining ad-free and non-profit – the better to focus our attention and your support on those artists we tout week in and week out, thus making it possible for them to keep their hands and voices in the game full-time, for the benefit of all.

But making and reinforcing connections between musicians and the community they serve isn’t free. The amount of bandwidth it takes to serve our growing readership runs well over a terabyte of data each month, and you just can’t get that sort of pipeline without paying for it. And having technical support at our fingertips means ensuring that the blog, and its coversongs, are here when you need them.

And so, a couple of times a year, we come to you, our beloved readers, asking for support to keep the music flowing.

Why now? Primarily, because the coffers are low. It costs about a hundred dollars a month to cover our costs, and right now, the account has just enough in it to take us into April. Without your gift, the clock runs out.

But in my mind, there’s also a strong parallel between the clock-change of Daylight Savings Time and the pacing of the paycheck-driven life. I’ll be thinking of it when I rise in the dark tomorrow to leave for work on time. And I’ll be pondering its manifestations as I dwell among the various stressors that keep us in tension with the time and attention we spend here on these pages.

And these days, I spend a lot of time thinking about money. It’s budget season in our schools, and with the Federal jobs bill gone dry, my role on our local school board has turned once again to our annual examination of how to make do with less. Contact negotiations continue in the inner-city school system where I teach, leaving me uncertain of what the future might bring, or even whether I might still have a job when the process is over. Taxes are coming due, causing us once again to sit at the kitchen counters of our memories and figure out just where our money goes, and whether we’ll need to get second jobs just to afford the basic, bare lifestyle we enjoy.

I did not join the school board to manage money, but I recognize that our yearly exploration of the district pocketbook is an important lens through which we reexamine our priorities on the ground. I did not join the teaching field to get rich, but the choice of weekends and summers off has its costs, to me and to my family.

Time, as they say, is money. And the way we ration and gather these precious resources is often less dissimilar than we’d like to admit. Our resources are always limited: to give and take an hour here, a dollar there, is to be deliberate about what we have to give, lending our hearts to that which we think serves ourselves and our communities most.

And so we come to you today with hat in hand, asking only that you take a moment out of your busy life to help out, and – in doing so – become a proud supporter of our mission.

If you’re a regular contributor, we encourage you to consider renewing your commitment, the better to perpetuate that which you take for granted.

If you haven’t donated before, we ask that you consider throwing a few dollars into the pot, the better to ensure that we’ll be here for months and years to come.

Give to Cover Lay Down, and help us sustain the words, the music, the artists and the community.

Because it’s time.

Cover Lay Down has been proudly serving artists and fans at the intersection of folk and coverage since 2007 thanks to the support of readers like you.

2 comments » | donate, Theme Posts

Making Peace With The Wild Things:
A Prayer For My Students

February 5th, 2012 — 07:09 pm

Student grades are due tomorrow, but we went to church anyway – we had to sing, and anyway, after two years of semi-regular practice as a Unitarian Universalist, I have come to a place in my life where I find peace and solace in shared practice which starts and ends with love and service, togetherness and open-ended truths, and a shared commitment to social justice.

Much of this is due to the particulars of our chosen worship setting. The UU church which we attend is in transition, with an interim minister who has my undying respect; wise, and gentle, with a knack for bringing new texts and ideas to the table, presenting them clearly and coherently, and then braiding them together to reveal the thing which we needed most of the world in that moment.

I experience her sermons as a kind of miracle of the mind, that binds my soul and body, and answers my unspoken need. Even when I am distracted by my own thoughts, her bright, intelligent prompting provides an avenue for me to come to myself with new eyes, and with a renewed determination to accept that which has been lurking in my heart and mind.

And in this case, a sermon on blessings and failures, and how we so often fail to allow ourselves to experience the joys and sadness they should bring us, has brought me back to my students.

The students I teach are ill-prepared for success. They are the product of a city that is stacked against them, a community that is in too much of a hurry to address the deep foundation issues which would support true progress, a system that is under too much pressure to make it look like things are working. They come to my ninth grade classroom with fifth grade reading skills, without the stamina to be learners for more than a few minutes per class day, with anger against me for enforcing the most basic rules, and an image of the classroom as a competitive space, where they win if they can overwhelm the lesson, or if they can sleep successfully, and thus avoid confronting their unpreparedness.

They also come, if indeed they come at all – one in five students is absent on a given day – with long histories of pitting themselves against the world, which make them almost unteachable for most of the semester, until and if we can delay the curriculum long enough to get into their hearts. Most of them are incapable of experiencing joy or sadness at all, let alone the empathy we assume is prerequisite for understanding a text. Instead, they experience only despair and bitterness, disappointment and pride – emotions they cannot acknowledge, to themselves or others, lest they appear weak, and lose the only game they know.

A few of them manage to survive and move forward, and a tiny, tiny percentage aim to thrive. But these are the minority: just 25% of students in the city where I teach even graduate from high school within four years, and it’s not hard to see why. Last week, a boy in one of my classes taunted a girl into attacking him; in the aftermath, his lack of ownership in instigating the fight was both frustrating and expected, but it was his comment that “It wasn’t a fight; she’s a girl” that reminded me just how unprepared these almost-men and almost-women are to accept even the basic conditions that we believe are necessary to help them move forward.

We do what we can for them, and sometimes more than we can afford, in an environment where each student gets just two minutes of my individual attention, if that, per day. In tiny slices of time we struggle to push our way in, to learn who they are as individuals, to identify the gaps between where they are and where the curriculum assumes they are, and construct a pathway for them that bridges their particular chasm.

But half a bridge is no better than none, and it may be worse, given that it contains so much false hope. In the end, it is our lot to hold them responsible for their actions, lest we become part of the machine that lies to them, and tells them that they are ready. It hurts to fail so many, but it would hurt more to pass them along without merit or ability, to undermine their next classes, to perpetuate the lie that a good heart, however buried and patinaed, is evidence of success.

And so many fail. Despite unanswered parent phone calls and teacher conferences full of hopelessness, long unattended after school sessions offered, a hundred new attempts at kind words and coaxing, over half of the 80 final grades I will enter into the database before the sun rises tomorrow are F’s. Of the remainder, another half are within the D range, marking their recipients as desperately unprepared academically but willing to struggle just enough to produce something that hints of promise, though probability says that not one of these 20-or-so students will pass sufficient classes this year to move on, leaving them stuck in the eternal-seeming limbo that is another ninth grade year.

Only four of my students from last term earned an A of any sort. Only six earned B’s. And of those, there are still one or two who only bothered and blossomed in my class, or perhaps one other – they liked me, but in a manner untranslatable to other teachers’ style.

How did we get from sermon to city? These things are related, somehow, though they are hard to untangle. But today, in church, as the minister read a section from Everything I Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, I was reminded that my students do not know what we taught them then, if indeed we taught them at all.

And although the time for sharing had passed, suddenly, in the middle of the sermon, I wanted to say a prayer for my students.

I wanted to light a candle for my beloved failures, curled up against the world so tightly that, like fists, all they can do is destroy.

I wanted to cry, and ask forgiveness; to say that I really did do everything there is to do, and let the feelings simply be, in the community I trust, even as I despair in the peace of my beloved wild things, who tear at me until the bell rings, and the clock runs out, and it is too late.

I wanted to, but I didn’t.

I offer it here, instead.

12 comments » | Theme Posts

« Previous Entries