Sitting in a t-shirt beside a fire in early October, Sam (is a dog) curled up at my feet, Bettye LaVette singing an acoustic blues version of “Choices” by George Jones and the sky is full of stars. I’ve got Trader Joes chocolate-covered peanut-butter-filled pretzels and a diet Coke. Life is, to quote Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.
Except I bought a harmonica and I can’t play it. And perhaps never will. Let me explain.
Back when I was in education, I needed to get recertified every three years. With four different certifications, this could add up to a lot of classroom time, outside work and writing. Could. Seventeen years ago, I found a way around it. Donning my Mr. Serious face, I went to the head of the Staff Development Committee and declared I needed to learn more about technology, as it was becoming fundamental for a man certified as a principal, elementary educator, reading specialist and secondary English teacher. The chair, even more seriously, agreed with me. Tightening my lips to ever-so-slightly out-serious him, I said I wanted to take a multi-disciplinary approach to recertification. (I’m sure education is now much more rational and evidence-based, but at the time the field was enslaved by buzzwords—“multi-disciplinary” was one of those phrases that dripped out of mouths without any critical review or even definition. Full disclosure: because I didn’t want to offend current educators, I said the field today was “evidence-based,” which I think is still in the top 10 of school buzzwords. If I’m wrong, please insert “trauma-informed” in its place. But I digress.) He was delighted, intrigued and salivating. He didn’t know what I meant, but if it was multi-disciplinary, he was ready to sign off on it.
“What I propose,” I said, then paused, “is to write and record a compact disc of original songs using nothing but a computer. These songs will be available for free download, and will demonstrate my ability to synthesize learning from a variety of areas.”
Here, the chairman was stuck. On the one hand, who’d ever heard of a principal or teacher getting recertified by writing and singing songs? On the other, how could he show his face at staff development conferences if he turned down a multi-disciplinary proposal. Here, I pushed him over the edge.
“I don’t play any instruments and I’ve never written a song, making me a tabula rasa. I will have demonstrated the learning process by teaching myself every single bit of what I need to know. This will be the strongest evidence possible of my teaching prowess.”
“Approved,” he said, although not firmly. “Tentatively approved based on completion of the proposal.”
I spent the next few months learning about audio software, writing songs, recording vocals and writing album notes. The one thing I didn’t do was learn an instrument. I’d bought a harmonica a few years before, assuming music would flow out once I put I in my mouth. All I got were individual notes separated by pauses, like the tones on a phone if you’re not sure of the number you’re calling. I practiced one song over and over and over, yet could never get the Stephen Foster classic, “Hard Times Come Again No More” to sound like a song. Instead of a bag of music, I created individually-wrapped notes.
I made sound collages to introduce each song, then sang them a capella. Each song had a tune, if that word can be applied broadly, but there was no music. I ultimately completed the album, The Sound of One Mind Snapping: Spirituals from the Zen Baptist Tradition, with its breakout song, “Out-of-Town Tuna Fish.” (Here “breakout” can be defined as a song my daughters enjoyed hearing me sing in the car, primarily, I think, because I rhymed tuberculosis with doses of skin disease.) Also, I got recertified. Without sitting in a room. Or writing an introspective paper. Or learning to play the harmonica.
Which sits in my lap, awaiting better lips than mine.