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Last Dance for #oklaed?

April 20, 2017 1 comment

While we wait to see what will happen with state revenue and funding levels for public education, I’m going to take a little family break tonight and see my all-time favorite band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who begin their 40th anniversary tour tonight in Oklahoma City. In their honor, I thought it would be good to use a few classic songs to speculate on where we’ll end up in the next five weeks.

Breakdown (1976) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

It’s alright if you love me
It’s alright if you don’t
I ain’t afraid of you running away, honey
I get the feeling you won’t
There is no sense in pretending
Your eyes give you away
Something inside you is feeling like I do
We said all there is to say

Many of our teachers feel that this is the message Oklahoma has been sending them for years. Rather than continuing to pretend, they’re running away. It’s tragic.

You Wreck Me (1994) Wildflowers

Tonight we ride, right or wrong
Tonight we sail, on a radio song
Rescue me, should I go down
If I stay too long in trouble town
Oh, yeah, you wreck me, baby
You break me in two
But you move me, honey
Yes you do

I hope they open the show with this one, not that I’d be disappointed with any other choice I imagine. It’s a song about relationships that you just can’t break, even when they’re unhealthy. People  who re-elect the same politicians who created Oklahoma’s massive budget deficit in the first place would be a good example of this.

Free Fallin’ (1989) Full Moon Fever

She’s a good girl, loves her mama
Loves Jesus and America too
She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis
Loves horses and her boyfriend too

Sometimes when I listen to politicians, I feel like this must be their impression of teachers. Look at that list of things the good girl loves. I don’t know how he left off sweet tea.

When a US Senator tells a teacher not to worry about her pay because she’ll get her reward in heaven, I know I’m right to feel that way. I know that teachers should be demure an compliant and not worry about raising their kids on WIC and Sooner Care. Those will soon be gone anyway, right?

Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around (1981 – with Stevie Nicks) Bella Donna

Baby you could never look me in the eye
Yeah you buckle with the weight of the words
Stop draggin’ my,
Stop draggin’ my,
Stop draggin’ my heart around

Oh, they’ll look us in the eye and say whatever we want to hear. Still, they’re dragging us around.

Don’t Do Me Like That (1979) Damn the Torpedoes

Someone’s gonna tell you lies
Cut you down to size
Don’t do me like that
Don’t do me like that

The check is in the mail. My dog ate it. We were able to provide flat funding for education…

I Need to Know (1978) You’re Gonna Get It!

I need to know (i need to know)
I need to know (i need to know)
If you think you’re gonna leave
Then you better say so
I need to know (i need to know)
I need to know (i need to know)
Because I don’t know how long
I can hold on
And if your makin’ me wait
If you’re leadin’ me on
I need to know (i need to know)
I need to know (i need to know)

These lyrics capture how every superintendent and principal in the state feel about their teachers right now. Those in districts close to other states especially feel it. We also need to know what funding looks like. We’re trying to keep the people we want to keep so other districts don’t grab them while leaving enough slack in the budget for a wide range of scenarios. Actually, that’s better for the next song…

The Waiting (1981) Hard Promises

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part

We get another signal from the Legislature. We lose another teacher or principal. We think we might be able to bring back some of the things we cut last year. We can’t be certain. In a little more than a month, the government we’ve chosen will tell us where we stand.

So much can change in that month.

Funk #49 (1970) James Gang Rides Again

Jumpin’ up, fallin’ down
Don’t misunderstand me
You don’t think that I know your plan
What you try’n’-a hand me?

Since Joe Walsh is the opening act tonight, I thought I’d throw in one of his best songs. Plus it gives me a chance to remind teachers to take heart in that better plan that opponents of SQ 779 had in their pocket all along. Right? Right?

Walk Away (1971) Thirds

Ok, I couldn’t limit myself to one song by James Gang.

Takin’ my time, choosin’ my lines
Tryin’ to decide what to do
Looks like my stop, don’t wanna get off
Got myself hung up on you
Seems to me you don’t wanna talk about it
Seems to me you just turn your pretty head and walk away

In spite of the fact that I believe the Capitol has more people wanting to help public schools than hurt them, I struggle to get past the few who repeat nonsense. Just in the last two weeks, I’ve heard one legislator say that school districts have enough carryover to fund raises right now. Others believe that there is no teacher shortage. In short, we have people pretending to serve the public with no interest in facts. I try to hope. I really do.

Won’t Back Down (1989) Full Moon Fever

Well I know what’s right
I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
But I’ll stand my ground
And I won’t back down
(I won’t back down)
Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out
(I won’t back down)
Hey I will stand my ground
(I won’t back down)

Tom Petty describes this as his most personal song. Almost 20 years after Full Moon Fever, Johnny Cash recorded it and made it even more haunting.

With this song, I want to remind our Legislature that they can’t take the easy way out. I’ve heard several say that budget plans include some “51” and some “75” ideas. The first are revenue sources that they can authorize with a simple majority in each chamber. In total, these will just nibble around the edges of the state’s fundamental problems. The second group, which would be legitimate tax increases, will be harder to pass.

I hope the leaders supporting ideas from both columns stand their ground.

Heading for the Light (1988) Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1

Been close to the edge, hanging by my fingernails
I’ve rolled and I’ve tumbled through the roses and the thorns
And I couldn’t see the sign that warned me
I’m heading for the light

In 1988, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, and Roy Orbison formed a supergroup and recorded an amazing album. This song has a distinct George Harrison sound, but I’m including it anyway. Besides, most of the Wilburys performed on Full Moon Fever.

The Last DJ (2002) 

Well the top brass don’t like him talking so much,
And he won’t play what they say to play
And he don’t want to change what don’t need to change
There goes the last DJ
Who plays what he wants to play
And says what he wants to say, hey hey hey?
And there goes your freedom of choice
There goes the last human voice
There goes the last DJ

I think of this song every time I read a post on Blue Cereal Education or Curmudgication. Or every time someone reminds me to be nice to the people who may or may not help public education. Or every time think tank people call me a bully. 

The people you can silence probably aren’t worth hearing anyway.

Something Good Coming (2010) Mojo

I know so well the look on your face
And there’s somethin’ lucky about this place
There’s somethin’ good comin’
Just over the hill
Somethin’ good comin’
I know it will

At this point, I guess we just have to believe or not believe. Something good will come, or it won’t. Maybe we’ll get there this time. Maybe things will improve. Maybe.

For me, tonight, I’m going to live something I say to people: Find what feeds your soul and pursue it fiercely.

tp 40.png

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Blogger Challenge & The Heartbreakers

I’m over a week late getting to this, but fellow #oklaed blogger Blue Cereal Education issued a challenge a few days ago to write about content for a change:

Most of you are or have been classroom teachers – whether that classroom is actually in Oklahoma, in a traditional public school, or whatever. We talk policy a great deal – and rightly so. From time to time we’re inundated with pedagogy – which can be either helpful or a tad pompous depending on who’s doing the inundating. But it’s not all that common to use the wonders of the interwebs and edu-blogosphere to get all giddy sharing something content-related that gets us all tingly in our hoo-ha.

I don’t know about that last part. It must be Latin or something.

Lesson: Introduction to poetry, featuring Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty (solo, without the Heartbreakers actually)

In 1989, Tom Petty released his first solo album, Full Moon Fever. I already owned every Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers record (yes, record), so I had to buy this one too. Since then I would have to say that Free Fallin’ (which is a colloquialism rather than a nod to our current governor) has become my favorite song, conveniently located on my favorite album, and recorded by my favorite artist. In fact, Full Moon Fever is one of three Tom Petty (and/or the Heartbreakers) I keep framed on the wall of the home office.

photo

Early into my career teaching high school English, I came to realize that my favorite things weren’t always my students’ favorite things. And that was, as Stuart Smalley would have said, okay. One of the things I have always enjoyed was poetry. Among my favorites:

The thing with teaching sophomores is that you can’t just lead with Wordsworth:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Sordid boon? What’s that, Mr. Cobb? Plus, the next line contains the word bosom. There’s nothing wrong with the word, but you don’t start there when your audience is a bunch of teenagers. So I introduced poetry with song. I’m not the first to do this. I’m probably not even the first to do this with Free Fallin’.

I would start by showing them the lyrics. This was the late 90s and early 2000s, so most knew the song, but few could say they knew all the words.

If YouTube had been a thing back then, I would have made them watch the video. Even in 1999, then we would have had a good time with what people were wearing in 1989!

I would start by reading the lyrics without inflection. It was probably something of a Ben Stein or Steven Wright type performance.

She’s a good girl, loves her mama
Loves Jesus and America too
She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis
Loves horses and her boyfriend too

I’d get about that far and they’d stop me. Mr. Cobb, you’re doing it wrong. You need to read it with some emotion. I would continue, just as before.

It’s a long day living in Reseda
There’s a freeway runnin’ through the yard
And I’m a bad boy ’cause I don’t even miss her
I’m a bad boy for breakin’ her heart

And I’m free, [LONG PAUSE] free fallin’
Yeah I’m free,[LONG PAUSE] free fallin’

Again, they’d interrupt. You’re not really … [searching for words] … performing it. I’d ask, do you want to try it? Usually someone would. They’d read it with slightly more feeling than I had, and then we’d discuss the song, section by section. Through the few years I did this lesson, the conversation went about like this:

Me: Who is the speaker?

Students: Tom Petty

Me: No it’s not. That’s lesson one. The author is usually not the speaker.

Students: Well then who is it?

Me: Look at the lyrics. Who is narrating the song here?

Students: [after an uncomfortable silence] A bad boy?

Me: Yes, a bad boy. Maybe the song is autobiographical, but we don’t have enough evidence from this one song to assume that Tom Petty is a bad boy. So we know the speaker is a bad boy. Why is this? Why is he bad?

Students: [much faster this time] For breaking her heart!

Me: That’s right. For breaking her heart. But does that necessarily make you a bad boy? Sometimes, things don’t work out, right?

Students: But he doesn’t even miss her!

Me: No, he doesn’t. What do we know about her?

Students: [simply parroting the lyrics] She’s a good girl! She loves her mama! She likes horses!

Me: Okay, we have a list of reasons she’s a good girl. She loves a predictable set of things. Her mama. America. Horses. Jesus. Elvis. There’s nothing wrong with this list, is there?

Students: Not really.

That one student: Well, kind of.

Me: What do you mean?

That one student: It’s a predictable list of things. It’s boring.

Me: Fine, but does that mean she’s not a good girl, as the speaker has suggested?

That one student: No, but that doesn’t mean the speaker has to stay with her.

Me: Well of course not. So is he really a bad boy? I mean he doesn’t even miss her? What’s the deal with that?

That student with recent experience: Sometimes you just feel you’re better to rip the band-aid and move on.

That student who used to date the previous student: And sometimes you just don’t care about other people’s feelings.

That awkward moment: [silence. long, uncomfortable silence]

Me: [with vigor] Let’s look at the rest of the song.

All the vampires walkin’ through the valley
Move west down Ventura boulevard
And all the bad boys are standing in the shadows
All the good girls are home with broken hearts

And I’m free, free fallin’
Yeah I’m free, free fallin’
Free fallin’, now I’m free fallin’, now I’m
Free fallin’, now I’m free fallin’, now I’m

I want to glide down over Mulholland
I want to write her name in the sky
Gonna free fall out into nothin’
Gonna leave this world for a while

And I’m free, free fallin’
Yeah I’m free, free fallin’

Me: So, what does Tom Petty mean by vampires?

Students: Speaker.

Me: What?

Students: What does the speaker mean by vampires?

Me: Yeah, right. What does the speaker mean by vampires? Who are vampires? Why are they vampires?

Students: Because they just walk around with glazed-over looks on their faces.

Me: You’re thinking of zombies. Vampires are the blood-sucking ones.

Side note: I think I should get some credit/blame for re-igniting the vampire book craze. I’m sure that’s when it started.

Students: Where’s Ventura? And Mulholland?

Me: They’re in California. That’s a good point…do we necessarily need to know anything about these locations?

Students: Not really?

Me: Would it have mattered to you if the line had been, I want to glide down over El Reno?

Students: That would have been weird.

Me: Agreed.

Keep in mind that the above conversation is an amalgam of comments from several years of classes. In the end, opinions would vary as to whether or not the speaker was in fact a bad boy. Sometimes, students would even argue that the girl wasn’t actually all that good. There’s so much we really don’t know from the lyrics, and that’s part of the beauty of poetry. Writers can use language, with economy, and stimulate thought or tell a story. We discussed speaker, word choice, tone, and many other literary elements within the framework of this one song.

As a classroom teacher, I probably was never more effective than when my students were engaged with a work of literature that I could discuss passionately. From here, we moved to songs they brought to class to poetry of different eras chosen by me to poetry that they found from different anthologies that I made available for them. Now, with fairly universal access to the Internet, we would have an endless anthology from which to choose.

One year, at the end of the poetry unit, I had a boy walk up to me after class and say the words that should be on my tombstone someday.

Mr. Cobb, that didn’t totally suck.

That may be the single biggest compliment I ever received as a teacher. All of my former students are in their late 20s and early 30s now. I am friends with quite a few of them. More mention the song Free Fallin’ to me than anything else we ever did in my classroom. And that doesn’t suck at all.

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