Friday, March 16, 2012

“The True Teacher is Guided by Feelings of Great Love”- A Personal Reflection on Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball

Anybody who knows me well sometimes finds themselves wondering how I ended up as their friend. I can be egotistical, competitive, arrogant and at times startlingly insensitive. I have good traits too, but the less savory ones are always there ready to rise up at the most inconvenient times.

But amidst all this emotional baggage, flowing from injuries endured and injuries inflicted, I have one character trait that remains startlingly pure and that is my love of teaching. This is not something I possess alone, it is a trait that many teachers have, but I am not sure that most people understand it operates so I want to give an example based on an experience many people have- listening to a new album by their favorite recording artist or singer

Yesterday was such a moment for me. I had two hours to kill between a meeting in the South Bronx and my grand daughter’s track practice so I started listening to Bruce Springsteen’s New Album, “Wrecking Ball.” Given my love of Bruce’s music, which went back to “Born to Run” in the mid 70’s and the powerful connection I already had through the first song on the album
“We Take Care of Our Own” which was regularly played on the radio, this promised to be an almost religious experience for me. And I wasn’t disappointed, The first two songs, “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Easy Money” had me in a state of righteous rage about those whose reckless speculation had destroyed the jobs, and jeopardized the homes and savings of millions of Americans and that cathartic self-rightousness” continued into the third song ” Shackled and Drawn” until I heard the following lines
“Gambling man rolls the dice
Working man pays the bill
It’s still fat and easy up on Bankers hill
Up on Bankers Hill, The Party’s Going Strong
Down Here Below We’re Shackled and Drawn”

All of I sudden, I stopped thinking about my own emotions and started thinking about my Worker in American Life class which had spent half of a recent class listening to Woodie Guthrie songs from the Great Depression, one of which, “I Ain’t Got No Home” contains the following lines

“Gambling man is rich,
While the working man is poor
I ain’t got no home
In this land anymore”

And I started imagining” how would I teach this album” because it embodied so many themes we were talking about in the course, themes which Springsteen had embedded into his music in the past, but which now emerged with even greater clarity now that we were in the midst of an Economic Crisis whose causes were startlingly similar to those which triggered the Great Depression.

The next song, “Shackled and Drawn,” which had even more Guthriesque images, only intensified my determination to play this album in class Consider these lines:

“The Banker Man Grows Fat
Working Man Grows Thin
It’s All Happened Before And It’ll Happen Again
It’s Happen Again, Yeah They’ll Bet Your Life
I’m A Jack of All Trades
Darling We’ll Be All Right”

I now had a priceless opportunity to do what every history teacher dreams of- bring the past to life with images that connect to present realities that touch a chord with your students. Woodie Guthrie, through this album, would be as real as if he were walking along the highways or the streets of our big cities today

But it is not just the Depression that Springsteen was invoking. It was also de-inustrialization, disinvestment and globalization which left many neighborhoods of the nation’s great industrial cities look as though they had suffered aerial bombardment. That theme, which we were going to cover in depth in the second half of the course, was evoked with rage and irony in the fifth song in the album “Death to My Hometown”. Consider these lines

“They destroyed Our Families, Factories
And they took our Homes
They Left Our Bodies on the Plains
The Vultures Picked Our Bones”
. . . .
Send the Robber Barons Straight to Hell
The Greedy Thieves Who Came Around
And Ate the Flesh of Everything They Found
Whose Crimes Have Gone Unpunished Now
Who Walk the Streets as Free Men Now.”

To say this was a teaching moment would be an understatement. I had come across something which was going to bring the whole epic journey of American workers from the late 19th Century to the present with startling clarity, and an indignation rooted in the fear that those who did most to build this country would be the one’s most asked to sacrifice when the nation fell on hard times. My students were already beginning to get this, to start to identify with the workers, slaves and immigrants from which all of them were descended, but to have Bruce Springsteen anoint this journey with dignity and beauty, I knew, would touch them more than any lecture I could give. Consider this paen to workingclass heroism and sacrifice “We Are Alive”

We Are Alive
And Though Our Bodies Lie
Alone Here In the Dark
Our Spirits Rise
To Carry the Fire and Light the Spark
To Stand Shoulder and Shoulder And Heart to Heart

A Voice Cried I was Killed in Maryland in 1877
When the Railroad Workers Made Their Stand
I Was Killed in 1963
One Sunday Morning in Birmingham
I Died Last Year Crossing the Southern Desert
My Children Left Behind in San Pablo
We’ll They’ve Left Our Bodies Here to Rot
Oh Please Let Them Know

Have you ever heard a more powerful call for the restoration of historic memory, so that the sacrifices of working people who tried to make better lives for themselves and their families would not go unrecognized? I haven’t. It made me like teaching my course was a sacred obligation.

But it was the final song, American Land, which moved me most of all. This haunting tale with sounds drawn from traditional Irish folk music, was the closest thing to a Paul Robeson speech on the multiracial, multicultural roots of the American working class I had ever hear in song. It not only was a priceless evocation of a message I was trying to get across in my class, it was that message carved in a poetic form that would echo through the ages and provide a moral compass for all those prepared to see what the nation looked like from the perspective of those who built it

The McNicholses, The Polaskis, The Smiths Zerellis Too
The Blacks, The Irishy, Italians, the Germans and the Jews
They Came Across The Water A Thousand Miles from Below
With Nothing in Their Bellies But the Fire Down Below

They Died Building the Railroads
They Worked To Bones and Skin
They Died in Fields and Factories
Names Scattered to the Wind
They Died to Get Here A Hundred Years Ago
They’re Still Dyin’ Now
The Hands That Build the Country
We’re Always Trying to Keep Out”

There is my lesson. A teacher’s dream. Poetic images put to music that evoke events great and small, that bring the lives of those who worked in shadows to life, and invest them with dignity and stature. I can’t wait till the class after the Midterm when I can share this music with my students and learn how they make sense of what Springsteen does in this album.

But I am not that unusual in this regard. Because that is what teachers do- they dream about how to make everything they come across, 24 hours a day, relevant to their students. If you crush those dreams, you take the soul, and the love, out of the nation’s classrooms.

1 comment:

Diane said...

I've been reading your blog all along, I simply don't have the words. I just wanted you to know that I'm fond ... I enjoyed reading this post. I've learned a lot from it.
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