Tie And Jeans

Whistling In the Dark

There’s two major life-events that change the way you listen to pop music. The first, well documented, is falling in, and subsequently out, love (every pop song on the radio is suddenly speaking to me). The second is having a kid. I’ve remapped far more of the Morrissey/Stephin Merritt catalog into odes to parenthood, which is a profoundly non-canon reading.

To a limited degree, teaching had a similar effect on me. There’s a number of songs, often ones from my own adolescence, that consistently push me into a reflective fugue. Chief among them is TMBG’s “Whistling In the Dark”

I remember feeling really pressed at age 12 to define who I was and all that I wanted to do based on what was clearly an inadequate sample size. I loved to read, but generally disliked what I was asked to read. I was just figuring out how to write, but hadn’t found anyone who was willing to talk about craft within the context of the bad super-hero stories I liked writing. Even the Apple ][ computer lab (yes, in 1990) was a rather locked-down affair. I felt like I had seen the farthest shore of everything, except the things I sucked at (math, memorizing stuff in science, ball sports) where I had been kindly asked to sit in the back and not bother anyone.

Fortunately for me, I had some space to whistle in. My parents bought a new 386, to which I added a modem and a soundcard. I stumbled through configuration blindly and got the machine to do something new (to me!). I met the people who would introduce me to TMBG on what we would today call a fan-fic BBS (we called it a story board, or just the Mango). They were willing to read about my centaur Starfleet officers and help me manage verb tenses. Years later, I got to a math class where being confused was considered an asset and fell in love with that.

Through most of that time I was considered aimless, if not shiftless, by the adults in my life. Almost everything I now love has roots in those years, but none of it traces back to the academic day.*

There’s only one thing that I know how to do well
I’ve often been told that you can only do what you know how do well
and that’s be you
be what you’re like
be like yourself.

I can think of fewer more damning and destructive sentiments to push onto adolescents than “Be yourself.”

It’s a tautology that crushes their spirit a little more every time they bounce around. Every circuit shears off another potential self, another passionately engaged life, discarded because it doesn’t match distorted image pressed onto them at the identity mint.

By the end of the song I’m ranting through the (nonsense) verses. Turn out the lights on middle school! Let darkness reign over campus, and let the joyous sound of experimentation and play ring out. If anyone dares ask “what’s it good for?” or “when will we use this?” then banish them to the tax form mines!

Give me the kids who don’t know what they’re good at any day of the week.

* The one exception is cooking classes, which I remember as thoroughly enjoyable. It’s also a case of loving something and being thrilled that you can “get away with it” in school.


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4 thoughts on “Whistling In the Dark

  1. ktenkely on said:

    I like being with the kids who don’t know what they are good at yet, too. Being able to find those things that they later become passionate about is wonderful. When we pigeon hole kids, they may miss out on other learning opportunities and passions, they need to be allowed to explore and succeed and fail at everything.

    • tieandjeans on said:

      I’m still struggling to find ways to have young kids embrace failure and risk. In content-based classes (which, unfortunately, covers most of what ‘counts’ in middle school) the best I’ve seen is to build assessment only around the small list of particular skill/knowledge strands that you deem essential, and then open up the field for how students can approach those. It’s not a universal solution – because the least-effort path is almost always the same as “do what you’d always do.” It’s flaky, as the final products may fail dramatically even if the skill/knowledge parts are solid. Those failures make it difficult to promote (even though they’re the *whole point* of the structure!), because to the casual parent/admin observer it looks like “exceptional kids producing exceptional work.” Then you’re back at the root cause, which is the conflation between product and person. “Do what you’re like” to paraphrase TMBG. Ugh.

      I’m increasingly in favor of a vision for middle school that is a broad discipline/subject/art survey, with emphasis on how to fail spectacularly. Give students a chance to find what they love failing at, then use their high school years to improve their craft.

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