You Get Up
Take Me Anywhere
I was in a band many, many, MANY years ago. We considered ourselves “college alternative” – immersed in R.E.M., the Smiths, the Cure, and MTV’s 120 Minutes. We didn’t actually sound like ANY of them, which was both a glaring flaw and source of inner pride. Originality and Lack of Quality formed quite an edgy Venn Diagram back in the day.
I played guitar, sort of. I didn’t suck. I wrote a few songs and sang well enough for the genre. The smartest thing I did, however, was hook up with three truly talented individuals, then convince my parents to let me use their SUV for gigs, thus giving the band serious motivation to keep me around.
We played local dives for little or no money, occasionally branching out by driving long distances to play other town’s dives for little or no money – something we liked to call “progress.” We eventually managed to get ourselves booked at a trendy new venue in our area - an artsy place which drew a larger and more diverse crowd than our typical haunts. This was the big time, relatively speaking, and we were going to make the most of it.
We hung up flyers and called in favors and managed to pull a pretty decent crowd, most of whom had never actually heard us before (hence their willingness to come). We decided to open with a song featuring my limited guitar chops prominently. It started with a bluesy hook that was nevertheless alternative enough to protect our street cred. I was in my best black turtleneck and plugged into at least eight effects pedals, three of which I didn’t actually own. We were beatniks and rebels and didn’t care who knew it, baby.
I hit those first few notes, bending those strings like I meant it and strutting as if I’d actually done this before – which, I mean, I had... but not here. Not like this. And it was pretty awesome for about 12 seconds.
Then it all stopped.
See, we were on a 12-foot stage for the first time, giving me around 8 feet of strutting space to work with. It was wonderful after months of squeezing in behind Asteroids machines and pool tables, and we made full use of it in those opening moments – myself, my guitar... and the 6-foot cord connecting it to my amp.
It yanked out in mid-sneer just as the bass and hi-hats kicked in, making for an awkward fade-away and unpleasant electronic buzz. I jerked backwards ever so slightly, which – along with my tragicomic expression – thoroughly eliminated any last trace of cool.
The band handled it better than I did. Our drummer made all the right jokes while the bass player did exaggerated mime demonstrating where I could and couldn’t stand for the rest of the evening. They kept things moving while I scrambled to recover. Which I did, eventually.
After what felt like a decade or two, I was plugged back in and ready to go. I even managed to replay the intro – this time without so much strutting. I found myself connecting to the lyrics which had previously seemed so tame:
Take me anywhere, I don’t care. Take me anywhere, I don’t care. Take me anywhere – anywhere at all. Take me anywhere but here.
I didn’t feel particularly rock’n’roll for the rest of the night, but it was a decent show, overall. Things went south for a bit, but we got back up and played a little bit louder as a result. So goes rock’n’roll.
Crashing and Learning
I’d been teaching several years before I realized that one of the biggest differences in “kids these days” is their lack of traditional “cultural literacy.” They have their own stories and frames of reference, but they’re not the same as those you and I might assume. The church-goers don’t know Bible stories, the aspiring writers don’t know Shakespeare, and aside from a few of the biggies – the Three Little Pigs and maybe Cinderella – none of them know the same fairy tales and folklore we grew up with.
We were discussing First Bull Run – the first major battle of the Civil War. “Stonewall” Jackson earned his nickname by rallying Confederate troops attempting to flee and insisting they hold the line against the Union pursuit. I was having difficulty communicating the dynamics of the situation when I heard myself fall back on analogy – tapping into the power of allusion, if you will. Only it didn’t come out the way I intended.
It’s like that little boy who used his finger on the dike...
I promise you, I heard it when they heard it. Even if you know the story, my phrasing was atrocious. And they didn’t know the story. They had only the face value of my statement to work with, and honestly – that didn’t clarify the “Stonewall” Jackson situation AT ALL.
There was a horrible pause before I began scrambling to recover.
What I mean is, there’s that story... about the dam! The dam was going to break!
Um... the damn what, Mr. Blue?
This was a Pre-AP class, full of high school freshmen with large vocabularies and enough creativity to provide their own inappropriate responses to that one. It took a few minutes to reign it all in, during which I was wondering quite sincerely whether or not I was likely to be fired that very day.
Then again, that was a feeling I had 2 or 3 times a week, every week, for several years. You get used to it after a while.
There were times I spoke out of frustration, like during a “come-to-Jesus” meeting with my 3rd hour one morning. This was an advanced group who had all the tools necessary to be brilliant but tended to prefer smugness with a side of lethargy. I heard my tone shift into "genuinely annoyed" as I accused them (always a bad approach) of too many years of being mommy’s little angels who never had to push themselves in school before so now they just sat there satisfied with their own Pre-AP-ness and—
Once again, heard it when they heard it. And once again, the original intent of the conversation was lost forever.
Most of my REAL disasters were the result of efforts to be funny, or built rapport, or simply because if you talk to enough teenagers for enough years, you forget to treat every conversation like a potential lawsuit. You start to think of them as almost like real people and as a result, you sometimes resort to real talk. That may sound all relationship-building and warm-fuzzy, but it’s a disaster from a liability standpoint, as any school district’s attorney will remind you.
Still, when stuff happens, you recover and move one. Things go south here and there – sometimes a little and sometimes a lot – but you get back up and teach a little harder as a result. So goes public education.
You Get Up
My examples are trivial, of course, compared to real problems. Most of us have survived a biggie or two – divorce, disease, the death of loved ones (family, friends, or students), the loss of a job we really cared about. Maybe we manage it with grace, or maybe we just manage it, but one way or the other we crash, we burn, we suffer, we regret, then at some point we get up and keep going.
It’s not always noble. Sometimes it’s just the only thing we know how to do. To quote the late, great Cannonball Adderley,
Sometimes things don’t lay the way they’s a-posed to lay.
Mercy, mercy, mercy...
It’s a teacher thing, to be sure, but it’s also a parent thing... and a spouse thing... and a writer thing... and a salesman thing... and a pro-wrestler thing... and a mid-level management in charge of human resources and development but also the only one who ever brings donuts or cleans the coffee machine thing... and probably lots of other things as well.
It’s OK to feel cool from time to time, or smart, or pretty, or funny, or successful. Realize, however, that the Universe will restore balance from time to time – a supernatural “regression to the mean,” as it were. Sometimes we’re better off for it. Other times it just sucks and we want to die. Maybe you did it to yourself, or maybe it happens no matter what you do right to avoid it.
I realize this is not a particularly inspirational piece of writing. I can’t even assure you that it’s all for the best, or that you’ll never be given anything you can’t handle. Maybe you are a cotton-headed ninny muggins – or maybe you’re just... special.
What I can say is that it’s OK if you’ve screwed up. It’s OK if you still hurt and you’re still confused and you’re still not entirely certain why you leave your bed in the morning. It’s even OK if you have some anger things or other emotional issues you really need to deal with soon or you’ll just go doing it again – whatever “it” might be.
But we have to get up. You have to GET UP. Recover and move on. Somehow. Again. Hopefully we learn as we go, and maybe we get a little bit better here and there. Either way, though, it’s time to try again.
So goes rock’n’roll. So goes public education. So goes real life.
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