“I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later.”Miles Davis
It was 1987. I was awakened during the middle of the night by the sounds of tambourines, drums, and syncopated wailings from the park at the intersection of King Circle Drive and Norwood Avenue in Swainsboro, Georgia. Those sounds were a mixture of African rhythms and Southern blues with an overlay of guttural shouts from a preacher pleading that the congregates praise God in their shouting. At times I’d hear over twenty-five consecutive bars of “Hallelujah! Praise him!” If you’ve never experienced the sound and feel of a Holiness Revival in a tent in the American South, you have yet to witness something that, for an eight-year-old, was both terrifying and fascinating. These revival camps intended to bring about instantaneous conversions and resurrection of the spirit. During those late-night revivals, I experienced an instantaneous conversion from sleep to alertness and rose from my bed on the third song. I’d begin peeling back the blanket and shuffling across the hardwood floors to the window to get a glimpse of what I was hearing. Outside my window, I could see a large white tent with a soft yellow glow of lamps inside casting shadows of people jumping up and down against the sides of the tent.
America is undergoing its own awakening and revival that is both terrifying and fascinating. The country is begrudgingly awakening to an awareness of the deep crevices in our democracy that have been salient in the lives of Black people for decades if not centuries in this country. Political disenfranchisement and police brutality are not new issues for us. We’ve shouted, wailed, sang, and marched in hopes that there would be an instantaneous conversion of our communities, schools, and society. Could it have taken the shuttering of our schools and an incompetent presidency to bring us to the point of looking out the window to see what’s happening? When this started in the Spring of 2020, it felt as though the education profession was virtually lost, left to find its way with no guidance from the top levels of the educational bureaucracy. We did not look to Betsy Devos for direction because her lack of concern for public education had already been proven. We are a profession that is present, but unseen and unacknowledged, like the invisible man in Ralph Ellison’s 1947 novel of the same name. Written one year before the birth of my parents, the novel depicts the world into which they were being born where Black bodies were present, but not readily seen. Little has changed. He writes, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Incrementally, that refusal to see the education profession ended when schools no longer served their perhaps tertiary purpose of housing children away from the home.
Generational forces are pulling on schools like constellations creating certain energy with which they are forced to contend. Underfunding of schools in the areas of technology and class sizes is a nationwide issue. Adequately staffing schools with enough administrators and support staff to deliver effective professional development and to manage the endless flow of paperwork needed to run a school is a concern that needs attention from the federal level. It is in these finite moments that leaders both find and define themselves like jazz musicians singing their versions of a standard like Brooks Bowman’s “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”. The familiar becomes unfamiliar with an approach that is uniquely Sinatra, Ella, or Armstrong. Though the words on the page are identical, the way it is delivered is where the magic lies.
East of the Sun and West of the Moon
Mrs. Moon has always been an involved and supportive member of our school community. She was a few years into her retirement, but still very active in our school community. She could be found volunteering, helping with our school garden, and leading fundraising initiatives in the lobby of our school. The entire Moon family was beloved by our school’s faculty and staff. Last Fall, we encountered a bit of a rift as Mrs. Moon had a granddaughter entering 5th grade. She was insistent that her granddaughter be placed in Mr. Day’s homeroom class. He was a widely popular and gregarious teacher whose passion for teaching was evident to families. Classes had already been constructed and I was strictly against the ‘teacher shopping’ practice many families engaged in each year at many schools, campaigning for their child to be placed in a certain classroom. Complicating matters was the frequent back and forth of guardianship in some households, making it difficult to determine exactly who was in the position to make educational decisions from month to month. I tried to explain to Mrs. Moon that even though Mr. Day was not her granddaughter’s homeroom teacher that she’d still have Mr. Day for instruction during the school day.
“Mrs. Moon, we’ve already placed her in a class, and while it’s not Mr. Day’s class, I can assure you that she’ll have a wonderful experience this year.”
Displeased with my response, she replied, “I’m gonna just have to do what I have to do.”
I wondered what the phrase meant in this context. Clarity came the next day when I was informed that she was contemplating withdrawing all three children from the school because I wouldn’t grant her request to place this one child in a certain classroom. She kept them out of school for a week, but suddenly they reappeared, and the withdrawal was never fully completed. Honestly, I was glad she had a change of heart. These were great scholars, and this was a family that had been with us for years. I wanted to see them stay, but not at the cost of compromising the integrity of how we place scholars in classes. The educator is an artist, and his practice is his portrait. The job of the artist as an educator is not to create what the public wants to hear, see, or read. The job of the artist as an educator is to create what he is compelled to create that aligns with who he is and what the moment calls for one to create. Once one begins to compromise the integrity of the work, they compromise larger aspects of the profession.
This year, like many of our scholars, the Moons are in a living room on their devices, engaging in virtual learning. Mrs. Moon is holding court as the teacher on special assignment in a satellite campus, trouble-shooting IT issues and connecting with teachers at different grade levels and different schools. She is a grandmother and honorary teacher, trying to ensure that each of her grandchildren gets the best educational experience they can in a virtual setting. It’s not what she wanted. It’s not what we wanted. It is what we’ve been presented within an unprecedented global pandemic. It is disjointed and unnatural. It is mechanical and aseptic. It is a school experience being offered in a virtual way.
Playing As We’ve Never Played Before
The story of the Moon family is a case study of what is happening on a large scale in our schools today. One wonders where the parents are as the grandparents essentially raise a second generation in an age where school looks fundamentally different from anything we’ve ever experienced before. The Baby Boomers, born between the 1940s and the 1960s, have been dealt an unfair hand in their retirement years by Generation X. Left with their grandchildren to raise, many of them are the regular attendees at our school events, parent conferences, or PTA meetings. During the pandemic, it has been the combined impact of the lack of technology and technical aptitude that has exacerbated the digital divide and the subsequent achievement gap for inner-city youth. In more tragic instances, children are left to raise themselves or one another as the parents leave them home alone so they can work during this pandemic.
On February 18, 1969, in CBS’s 30th Street Studio, Miles Davis sat in a studio with a set of musicians and began recording his album “In a Silent Way”. This album and the title song were a shift from his previous work in that it marked his move to electric instrumentation. It was a point where he was integrating more technology into his recordings. As the details of the title track were being worked out, Miles was trying to describe how he wanted John McLaughlin to lead into the piece on the guitar. He told him to “play like he didn’t know how to play”. What we hear is a slow, deliberate, hesitant style of play that pulls the listener into the tune with anticipation for what the other musicians will add to the tune. It is unorthodox. It is counter-intuitive given the sound we have come to know as Miles on previous albums. Miles has taught us, with his horn and with his style of leadership, that we must always leave room for changing lanes. In doing so, we leave those that work with us room to grow and improvise. Boxing people in with sheet music can be restrictive and stifling. Change always makes us uncomfortable. It is inevitable and necessary. The album “In a Silent Way” broke barriers. Rolling Stone described it as “the kind of album that gives you faith in the future of music.”
Perhaps this moment is just what needed to happen to bring our attention to the many needed changes in the field of public education. Veterans and early career teachers are all being forced to teach as they’ve never taught before, giving us a more hopeful future if we continue to listen to the notes being played.