The air has been thick with “shoulda-been” birthdays, with Ana Grace’s 8th birth anniversary last weekend and my aunt Margie’s 73rd birth anniversary today. On Ana’s birthday a playground was dedicated in her name at Elizabeth Park in Hartford, and while the weather was uninviting, people flocked out to be there and I didn’t see a single person leave. Meanwhile, this weekend I will be celebrating Margie’s life and the music it inspired on Ripples in Baltimore to an audience of her devoted friends and family. Through it all, I can’t stop thinking about the spirit of human connectedness.
I am, for the second time, teaching Music of the 1960s at Choate Rosemary Hall this term, and yesterday was when I introduced “protest music” and, correspondingly, the very notion of protest and what conditions people in the 1960s had to endure that might have been cause for protest. For most of the class I was provocatively playing devil’s advocate. “Why,” I asked, “should someone like ME care about the plight of African-Americans? I’M not black, and I never will be.” Throughout the discussion I got some feedback, including one student pointing out rather articulately that the protection of self-interest is valid from a primitive standpoint but is unsustainable in the long-term. That said, the students were unusually quiet overall. Maybe it’s because the conversation was making them uncomfortable, maybe they had never thought about this stuff or maybe I was just doing a lousy job of provoking critical and ethical thinking.
Finally, with less than five minutes to go, and after listening to several songs by the SNCC Freedom Singers (“This Little Light,” “Certainly Lord” and “Dog Dog,” for those keeping score at home) I asked one more time why people should care about the oppression of groups to which they don’t belong. A girl who is usually quiet in class spoke up, forehead wrinkled, and said “because it’s WRONG.” Amen, amen.
At that point I took off the actor/devil’s advocate hat and got serious. It was, after all, after discussing similar issues the first time I taught this course that I walked downstairs and learned of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. While that tragedy is never far from my mind, the ribbon cutting at the playground put me in a particularly raw place.
So I told my students that while I don’t know any of their economic circumstances, their very presence at an institution like that represents privilege and opportunity. I told them about Sandy Hook and the little girl who I still can’t believe I’ll never see again and about how even in purportedly privileged communities, nobody is entirely immune to bad things. I said there are two responses to that: one is to simply build a thicker fence to increase the illusion of full insulation from harm and the other is to use whatever privilege and opportunity you have to fully participate in making the world a better place. I was glad I saved that for the end of class, because after that spiel (which lasted all of maybe two minutes) I was literally shaking and on the verge of tears. I remained seated and kept cool as the students left, but I essentially had to stagger through the next couple hours of teaching (note to those students – sorry ‘bout that!).
As such, it feels just right to be going to celebrate Margie’s life this weekend, though it goes without saying that I would much rather be visiting her instead. She and my uncle Tom (who thankfully will be sharing in the festivities) were tremendous, if extremely unassuming, role models during my formative years. Role models for caring even when one could make the case they didn’t “need” to. Margie was successful and lived comfortably but had no illusion of being above it all. Her own medical issues certainly could have played a role, but from my observation that only added an area of focus to her already-honed sense of broader responsibility.
I have ranted before and will surely rant again about how we are all one and how when you look beyond the most specific details it is clear that the adversity with which we all cope is a force that unites us. If others are suffering, why shouldn’t we ignore it? If the opportunity to create a more compassionate world exists but it requires effort or sacrifice on our part, why shouldn’t we look away? Well, as my astute student observed, because it’s wrong. That’s reason enough, isn’t it?