I Do Miss Making A Difference… (Part One)

On the bass about to play along with some of my students during a school assembly… (2007)

In order for me to even begin addressing this part of my life properly, I have to flash all the way back to the summer of 2005 to a spot in Washington D.C. called Cada Vez. I was invited to Common’s listening party for Be, which I thought was dope because at the time I wanted to hear what he had to say about this new and upcoming album that was supposed to “bring old Common back” or “bring hip hop back” or whateverthehell…. I can’t remember which one it was supposed to do, but you know how that silliness goes with music. Anyway, I ended up meeting more than a few D.C. kats there, including Raheem DeVaughn and an emcee who I was already very familiar with as I listened to his music while in college… Asheru. We met and immediately landed on the same page after we started conversing about music, in general – then, for whatever reason he asked me out of the clear blue sky, “Man, you ever thought about teaching?” I probably took an awkward pause as the thought of teaching had never entered my mind…. like at ALL. EVER. In LIFE. I think I responded with… “Naaaaaaaaaaah maaaaan…” or “Ehhhhhh, I’m good on that.”  …Or something similar as I had friends who were teachers and NONE of the stories they used to share with me from the classroom were positive. We exchanged information anyway and said that we would keep in touch, particularly since I was planning to move east anyway.

…Fast forward to April of 2006. I had been in Maryland for only two months and was working sales at a gym in Gaithersburg, MD and hating every last minute of it. I quickly got connected with a kat named Omar Hunter who was looking for a keyboardist to play at this weekly joint he had over in NE D.C., a spot called Roses Dream. I soon found out that Omar was tight with Asheru… As a matter of fact, O had just started teaching at the school Asheru was Director of Arts and Education at… AND the two of them were in a group called The ELs – pretty small world. Once the dots were connected on how everyone was affiliated, the two of them damn near started a “Free Zo! (from his wack ass gym job)” campaign to get me working at the school. At that point, I wasn’t caring about the fact that I had zero teaching experience whatsoever. I also could have cared less about the fact that this Level 5 Special Education school was basically the step between a daily educational setting and a correctional facility for most of the kids who were attending – I just wanted OUT of that damn gym. Finally in June, Asheru set up an interview for me at the school… I suited up, went in and got the job, no problem. I would have LIKED to have thought that it was my “accomplished musician with a few credits under my belt” credentials that earned me the teaching position…………………… But uhhhh…. It was pretty much the fact that I knew Asheru. So it goes, so it goes… Regardless, I was all set up to start at the top of the summer semester which began July 5, 2006. One of the craziest things was, I’ve never really been nervous performing in front of large crowds of people before, but I’d have to say I was a bit nervous having to try and teach classes and hold the attention of 5-10 kids (per class) whom I’ve never met or seen before… Oh, did I mention that they were all diagnosed with either ED, LD, ADD, ADHD, ODD, MR, OHI or a combination of a few on that list?

“CHALLLOOOOOOONNNGGE!!!!” © Howard “Sandman” Sims

The dope part about the position was that Omar and I were set-up in the same class – a co-teaching situation. He had a semester’s worth of experience under his belt at the school already and many of the older kids either knew him or knew of him, so that was my open door to step through. We set each class up as a band. Different kids would play different instruments. We had a couple of keyboards, 4-5 guitars and eventually a bass guitar and a drum set. A good number of the kids took to it because hell, who doesn’t like music?! The fact that they were able to play music they were familiar with was usually the icing on the cake. We found that teaching theory to a high school kid with “oppositional defiant disorder” through music originally crafted by The Roots, Jay-Z, and The Isley Brothers, for example, worked much more effectively than passing along the “traditional” training that I received and hated as I was growing up. We had these kids playing together at every talent show, assembly, and school program there was and they took great pride in their performances. Their personal appearance at these shows was just as important as how they sounded. The kids usually agreed to coordinate colors as a group so that they would look like an actual “band” and we encouraged them to do so – it made them feel as though they were a part of something important. With the “new educator”  energy that we brought into the classroom everyday, we also felt personally responsible for not only their performances, but the therapeutic impacts the music was having on them as the music training served as a natural confidence builder for most of the kids. Matter of fact, I’ll just show you what I’m talking about. Here’s a peek at one of my classes from Spring Semester 2008 playing a pretty common R&B chord progression that I taught them… They learned it, practiced it as a class and put their own spin on it.

Ok, let me explain something to y’all, music is powerful… Let me say this again…….. MUSIC. IS. POWERFUL. It is so intensely powerful that it can become life-altering or even serve as a soundtrack to a major change in one’s life – I have seen it occur in many instances with the kids I taught. The same kids who had been kicked out of their neighborhood schools, abandoned by their families, in and out of juvenile facilities and/or jail, always performed at the bottom of their class, been told, “you ain’t worth shit” most of their lives are usually the ones who latch on to music the tightest. Why? Because when that kid finds something they are actually good, or in some cases great at… It will become something they almost obsess over. For example, Omar and I had a student who in his 8th grade year would run the hallways with his boys skipping classes, terrorizing other classes, and leaving school altogether… DAILY. Omar, who as I stated earlier was teaching at the school a semester before me ended up landing him in the music class he was assisting with and put a guitar in this child’s hands. Now, the one thing that was guaranteed to happen at that school on a daily basis was one word: unpredictability. No matter how much a kid said they loved music, or how badly they felt they wanted to be in your class and play <insert instrument of choice here>, the moment of truth came when they physically got on the instrument and started to mess around on it. The kid would either get frustrated and quit right on the spot, or stick it out and continue to work through the early difficulties of learning a new instrument. Well, this particular student caught on quickly by learning his notes and chord placement well before his classmates and even had a fairly nice tone when he played. Needless to say that after a few weeks, the child was hooked. As a music instructor, you know that the ones who are really serious about their instrument are the ones who make the effort to get access to that instrument in order to put in some time to play and practice it home – That’s exactly what this student did. One day, he walked into school with a brand new guitar and gig bag strapped to his back complete with a pair of sunglasses…You couldn’t tell him a THING that day. He told us that when he would get home from school, he would practice the guitar most of the evening and into the night. The results were very telling. Outside of the obvious fact that he became the top guitar player in the entire school, you also didn’t see him running the hallways as often. His grades began to improve slightly as did his overall classroom attendance. Later on, he even gave himself a “guitar influenced” stage name/nickname… The instrument and his newfound talent provided an unlimited amount of confidence that carried over into other aspects of his life and it was such a beautiful thing to witness. It assisted in his overall growth as a young man including coping skills and social abilities. He ended up graduating from high school and enrolling in college and now takes classes at a university in D.C. To this day, he and I continue to keep in touch as he is kid who I want to see WIN.

My students were even making a few waves outside of the classroom for what they were doing in it. One afternoon, I taught one of my classes the music to “Break You Off” by The Roots. After a day or two of practicing the piece, I let them know that I would be bringing my video camera in to record them in action as they loved when I had my camera on me – it let them know that they were improving, or at least good enough as a class to be recorded and posted on up on YouTube. Well, we worked out and agreed upon an intro arrangement and on the first take, they nailed it. I edited the footage and posted it up online and emailed the link to each student in the class (including a parent of one of the students who couldn’t believe that he was even sitting down in class long enough to learn an instrument). I then hopped on Twitter and sent a link in a DM to The Roots’ drummer and internationally known musical director, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson letting him know that my class is playing his group’s song… and playing it WELL. He in turn, tweeted this to his 1 million+ followers…

The link he tweeted directed everyone to check this video…

…I saw the tweet, hit the “Favorite” button and took a screenshot so that the kids could see it too. The following day as I saw each of them throughout the day, I told them, “I have a surprise for y’all when you get to class today.” When 6th period came, I told them all to come around my desk where the computer was located so that I could show them what I had been talking about all day. Now, they pretty much knew who The Roots were just through song recognition. About half of the class knew who Questlove was, so I went into what his exact role was in the group as well as other places they may have seen him (i.e. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party , Late Night With Jimmy Kimmel, various award shows, etc). And I finally showed them the tweet he sent out about them…. They all stared at the tweet on the computer screen…..looked at each other and let out a collective,

“OOOHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!”

I got hit with about 15-17, “OH, that’s VICIOUS, young!!”‘s and “He KNOW who we are, we’re famous!!!” They were hyped up for the remainder of the day off of that recognition. Very rarely had I ever seen my students get that excited about something positive. That class remained one of the most collectively talented and enthusiastic groups I taught…. They were only rivaled a couple years later by a 5th period class I had of all 9th graders who couldn’t WAIT until their lunch period was over to come into the classroom and start playing. Were they rowdy as all hell?… Yes. Did they get on my nerves……AND each other’s nerves constantly? Yes. But they certainly had a drive to improve that I hadn’t seen from any other class that I had ever taught especially since they were all first-time players. The bass player from that class ended up convincing his father to purchase a bass guitar and amp so that he could practice at home. The kid came in a couple of weeks later sounding like a completely different person on that instrument, the improvement was incredible. He was another one who walked into class carrying a bass guitar case on his back with newly found confidence that was through the roof. He would stop by my classroom early in the day to drop his instrument off because he didn’t trust that his classmates could keep their damaging hands off of it. Maaaan, the bright spots in the classroom sometimes felt few and far between, but they shined brightly once shown – YET it’s always the arts they want to cut from education first when money gets tight. Go figure…

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