For 12 years, I was a teacher at The Free School in Albany, NY. It’s an alternative school based on Democratic Education in which the students decide what they want to learn. Teachers offer classes that are optional to stimulate their thinking, but it’s mainly student directed. I would’ve loved to have gone to a school like that. I was completely bored in school, hated it and did very poorly. All I ever wanted to do was read, write, do art and music and be in nature. That’s pretty much what I want to do now, too. I was smart enough and always did well on tests, but I couldn’t see wasting my time on things that I had already learned or had no interest in learning, when at home I was learning lots from my parents and on my own. I read voraciously and was always very curious. I was the kid who drove adults crazy with my incessant questions, questions like “Why is the sky called a sky instead of a foot or a car or something?” I just wanted to understand everything.
In school, I had to learn what I was told to learn, when it was the right time to learn it. It didn’t matter what I was interested in. There was a routine, a timeline, but that system never worked for me. For instance, I was way ahead of everyone else’s reading level, and reading Dick and Jane made my brain shut down. At home, my mostly stay-at-home mom did science experiments, gardening, arts and crafts and indoor and outdoor games. My dad always sang, filling my life with music, and he was a newspaperman, encouraging and feeding my love of books and writing. He also loved going on educational trips, museums, historical sites, geological wonders, plays, the opera, movies and even botanical gardens for Mom. All our family vacations were full of learning. We went to Gettysburg, Plymouth, Boston, Mystic Seaport and other cool places in the east. Meanwhile, I slogged through school, hating every minute of it. I even let myself be convinced to go to college, but it felt like more of the same, and I failed miserably after one semester. I guess I was born a free spirit. I think that’s what scared my parents so much.
As a mother, I didn’t want my children to have the same experience with school that I did. Like me, my daughter was reading before she started to school. We were living in Portland, Oregon at the time, and she was lucky enough to be in a flexible school environment that allowed her to flourish, encouraging her creativity and letting her read at her own level. Then we moved from the progressive big city to a small town for about a year then to a little teeny rural town near the coast where part of the enrollment process was a form for parents to sign that gave permission to any teacher to spank your child. We didn’t get off to a good start when I refused to sign their form and forbid any of them, including the principal, to lay a hand on my child or threaten her in any way at all or they would be facing a lawsuit. Despite that, I was still willing to give it a try, but she was losing interest fast and, having had an unusual upbringing, was having a hard time fitting in.
Soon, we were moving east again. Who knew for how long? I took her out of school a month early, packed her, her brother and our cat, with all of our belongings, into our VW bus, and their dad and I took them on a long journey, learning our way across the country, talking about all of the states we went through, naming cities, mountain ranges, and rivers we crossed, taking side trips to interesting places and looking at the map all along the way. She probably didn’t learn much math on that trip, but we modeled ingenuity and survival in the face of extreme poverty - a very important economic lesson.
After a summer of settling into Albany, I started looking into school for her. I got discouraged very quickly when the principal of the neighborhood school she was assigned to assured me that there was no need to worry about violence in the school as they were frisking everyone as they came in. Luckily, I found The Free School. My daughter started school there, and I started interning, bringing my toddler along. After one school year, I became a full-time teacher. I loved working there. I taught local history by going on field trips, and I sparked interest in maps by holding scavenger hunts with maps guiding them. I got a student, who refused to learn to read or write, a job application to fill out, illustrating the need for certain skills. There was math baseball, science experiments, music and art and lots and lots of learning through fun and games. My daughter thrived and so did I.
Anatole France said, “Do not try to satisfy your vanity by teaching a great many things. Awaken people’s curiosity. It is enough to open minds; do not overload them. Put there just a spark. If there is some good inflammable stuff, it will catch fire.” I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had been able to follow my own path of learning. Not that I’m dissatisfied with my life. I love the road I’ve gone down and wouldn’t choose another, but if I had been given the opportunity to blossom early, what would that have looked like? My mother once confessed to me that she wished they had known about alternatives back then, maybe a performing arts school. I know I would have thrived. But is that the right path for everyone? I don’t think so.
Some of us seem to need the structure that school provides. I was so enthralled with the idea of freedom, I didn’t realize that the free school model wasn’t working for either of my sons. I stepped back, letting them try to find their way. But they were not self-motivated in the way my daughter was. My older son was a reader, with no interest in anything else. My youngest son seemed to have no interest in anything. But I stuck it out, hoping he would find his way. It may be one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made as a parent. Looking back, I think he needed discipline, a rigid schedule and higher expectations. I feel as though I let him down, but I didn’t know it at the time, and now it’s too late. His teachers and I tried to create that spark, but nothing caught. Sometimes it would smolder, looking as though it was ready ignite into a great flame, but then it would just die out, leaving him feeling like a failure. That is continuing today. I watch him flounder, wonder if it could have been different, and I will never know.
Wow! What a week it's been. On Friday, I did Music Together in Troy, NY, then Saturday, I was at a street festival in Albany, NY. On Sunday, I went back to Albany and played a two-hour gig of my originals and covers aimed at adults. Monday, I went to Schenectady, NY to play for the younger set for the summer reading program at a public library, Wednesday was another Music Together class and today, I'll be at an assisted living center playing 30s, 40s and 50s music for elders. In just a week I've done such a variety of music on 6 out of 7 days. I feel envigorated and ready for more weeks like this. I have always loved variety and have a difficult time choosing any favorites.
In the 1980s and part of the 90s, I was in a band called "General Eclectic". We named ourselves that because we played such a wide variety of music and attracted as wide a variety of people to our shows. We couldn't really catagorize ourselves. We played everything from Dolly Parton to Frank Zappa. Of course, we didn't appeal to everyone. Some folks wanted a band that played one type of music - a blues band or a Dead cover band, classic rock or country, but we did it all because we loved it all. Personally, I get bored going to hear a band where everything sounds the same. That's okay for background music, but I'm a very active listener. I like to get involved in the music. At General Eclectic shows, I loved looking out at the audience and seeing a table of hippies over here and metal heads over there, a table of country western fans up front and blues or jazz fans in the back. And ... everyone mingled. My granddaughter is in town and commented on how accepted I was by people of all ages at my recent evening show. That's always been one of my goals.
However, my biggest goal has always been to make my living making music. It took me a while to figure that out. I worked a lot of jobs to make money, some of them were better than others, and some of them taught me a lot. Most of them were just money-makers and didn't make me feel fulfilled. I worked as a school bus driver, a school crossing guard, a daycare worker, a home daycare provider, a piano teacher, a school teacher, a bookkeeper in a bank, a receptionist at a big corporation, a receptionist at an electronic repair shop, an electrician's helper, a house painter, a home and office organizer and a cleaner. I did piece work for a company making and selling macrame plant hangers and worked selling my own jewelry and botanicals. Finally, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and give it all up. I had started reading "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron and realized that I had to just make a move or I would never achieve my original goal, so I gave 2 months notice and quit my job. I had no idea what I would do, but I had to try. As soon as I gave notice, things came my way. This time my work included music lessons but also turned into performances for adults and children, gigs as an artist educator in schools, libraries and museums, transcribing and transposing music, editing music books and finally becoming a Music Together teacher. My dream was finally realized.
It took me a lifetime to get here, but I'm hear and couldn't be happier. Now, the best advice I have for young people is, do what you love. You may have to create your work or look a little harder to find it, but it's not worth slogging through each day doing something you hate. With a little faith and a lot of hard work, you can find your way. Ironically, as I was thinking about this blog post yesterday and how I would approach this topic, I took a break to look at the latest issue of AARP magazine. The personality on the cover this time is Willie Nelson, a musician that I have always respected very much. At the end of the article, the interviewer asked him what was the secret to a good life? He answered, "Do what you love." My thoughts exactly, Willie. I couldn't agree more.
Recently, at dinner with neighbors, I was asked if I was a good swimmer. I said that I am not, though I love to be in the water. Then, I told an abridged version of the following story.
I grew up in Connecticut, on the Long Island Sound. My grandparents lived in Niantic, Connecticut, along the coast. We spent lots of time at the ocean. We had clam bakes and swam at the beaches. As a kid, I loved to swim. Inspite of the fact, that my dad tried to teach me to swim by throwing me off a dock into the deep water and terrorizing me, I loved the water! I swam in the ocean, in the Sound and in lakes. And I didn’t just wade or splash around a bit. I dove in the waves and swam, jumping and laughing. I have a scar just above my knee from diving in the waves when the tide was still too low for that kind of play. I didn’t always have enough common sense and often had avoidable accidents as a result, some more life-threatening than others. I actually remember getting that scar, but until 2013, I didn't remember all the joyous play. Maybe my near-drowning in a lake one winter erased all good memories of swimming. But, I still love being in the water, just not over my head. I’m sure that’s why I didn’t play in the ocean for so long. I was afraid, and understandably so.
When I was around 10-years old, I loved ice skating. I dreamed of being in the Olympics. I practiced my figure eights and skated backwards, adding spins, jumps and flying around on the ice. But I usually skated at “Black Swamp” which was within walking distance of my home. Black Swamp was, well, a swamp that froze over in the winter. There were four smallish bodies of water tied together with small ice paths that could be explored, and some kids did that. I did it once in a while for a change. One of those bodies of water was large enough for plenty of kids to skate on. That’s where I spent most of my time. I wanted to cruise back and forth and around the perimeter. I wanted to move. Because it was a swamp, it was a bit lumpy with little bits of debris frozen on the surface, so if I had the chance to skate on a real lake or on a skating rink, I took it. But this was our everyday place.
My mom was a very social person, making friends wherever she went. Dad was shy, and depended on mom in unfamiliar situations, but he loved being social with his friends. They were part of a large circle of friends, chosen family really, who all loved to get together and party. Two of those friends were Aunt Marie and Uncle Ketchum. I’m not sure why we called him Uncle Ketchum instead of by his first name. No one else called him “Ketchum.” I seem to remember stories about my brother getting confused when he was very young and starting that, but I’m not sure they are real memories.
They were very interesting people, originally from the south. They had designed and built their house. He was the town's water commisioner. She was a housewife but also had some kind of part-time job. There were older books and toys at their house for us to entertain ourselves with and beautiful antiques all around, too. One of my favorite rooms was a guest bedroom that had a big old four-poster bed with a rope frame, a flouncy bed skirt, thick down pillows and comforter and a mattress so high that I needed to stand on a chair to climb up on top. In that room were china dolls and a large pitcher and washbasin.
Aunt Marie didn’t pay a lot of attention to us kids, but she was sweet. Uncle Ketchum was loud and a little scary to me. He had a gun collection that filled an upstairs room. The guns of all shapes and sizes were locked in glass cabinets inside the locked room. I only got a peek in that room a few times, but it was impressive. Unfortunately, he also owned a small cannon that he fired off every Fourth of July, with the Confederate flag waving, in the direction of his neighbor’s house, though not actually aiming for the house. His neighbor was Jackie Robinson. In 1963, at age 10, I was noticing racism and knew this was wrong, but kept my mouth shut. By that time, I knew pretty well how to become invisible. I also remember hearing my dad grumble about it every year on the way home.
One of the big draws for all of us was that they also lived on a lake. We fished and swam there during the nicer weather and skated in the winter. There were not many houses built there yet and often no one else out on the water, especially in the cold weather. I could skate fast and free, gliding and twirling on the ice. One day, they invited me to sleep over so I could continue to skate the next day. I jumped at the chance even though I was a little afraid of Uncle Ketchum with his boisterous ways and didn’t really know Aunt Marie, though she seemed like fun since she smiled and laughed so much. Anyway, I was offered the spare room with that big beautiful bed.
I woke up feeling like a princess, surrounded by pouf. I was coddled and cooed over. It was heavenly. After brunch, I went out to skate. I was a little surprised that Aunt Marie didn’t come out with me but pleased that she trusted me enough to go out on my own. Yes, I knew the rule, “never skate alone,” but she was the adult who lived there. She must have known that it was safe. I went out, cautiously at first, but soon lost myself in the freedom and delight. I did my figure eights, skated backwards, adding spins and flying around on the ice. Then I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a patch of darkness and skated toward it to investigate. Too late, I realized what it was and went down into the icy water. I haven't always had a lot of common sense.
I managed to swim up to the surface and call for help, thinking, “Never skate alone, never skate alone!” There was no one around. I went under again. Fighting back the panic and realizing that I would have to save myself, I started grabbing on to the ice, trying to pull myself out. The ice kept breaking, dunking me under again and again. At one point, I fell in and came up under the surface of the ice. This time I really panicked, thinking I was going to die, then immediately remembered a movie I had just recently seen about Harry Houdini, starring Tony Curtis. In the movie, one of his tricks goes bad and he ends up trapped under the ice in a river. He swam to the surface and took gulps of air from between the ice and the water. He eventually found the lightest spot and knew it was the way out. Isn’t it funny that from outside the water, it’s the darkness you have to avoid, and underwater you swim to the light? I found the pockets of air and eventually the hole. I started breaking the ice toward the shore, continuing to try to call out. I was tired, weighted down with skates and heavy winter clothing and couldn’t feel my lower body anymore. I decided to give up about six feet from safety when I suddenly heard the sound of a car coming in the driveway.
Their sixteen-year old, very cute son, John, came with a long board and rescued me. Because I couldn't stand on my frozen legs, he carried me into the house where his mom, Aunt Marie, was passed out from drinking. He took off my skates and coat, piled me with blankets, managed to rouse her, and she helped me out of my wet things and into a warm bath. Luckily, I did not have hypothermia, and my legs and feet thawed out, though painfully, in the bath. My parents came over very quickly and whisked me out of there. I never stayed the night there again. I also never swam underwater again. I love the water. I am often the first one in, and I’ve taught my kids and most of my grandkids to swim. But I panic when my feet can’t touch the ground. It’s taken me decades to be able to put my face in the shower, and I have longed to really swim again. Then, one summer, I went to Maine with my family.
My granddaughter, Tabby, loves to swim as much as I once did. She loves the ocean. She dives in the waves and swims, jumping and laughing. She has always invited me to join her. But, I was afraid that the waves would knock me over. That July of 2013, when she was 9-years old, I waded in, and then waded a little further, Totally taken in by the joy and abandon she had in the water. Suddenly, I was in deeper than I realized, right next to her, jumping the waves as the tide came in. One wave almost knocked me down, and I had that quick panic reflex start to overtake me. Tabby took my hand and said, “Isn’t this fun? Don’t be afraid, just hold your breath.” We jumped together, and I took turns with her on the Boogie Board, body surfing in toward the shore. Then I got washed over by a big wave and came up feeling a little shaken, but not terrorized. As I frolicked in the water, flashes of memories came back to me of playing in the waves as a child. Tears streamed down my face as I continued to revel in that recaptured joy.
I loved to swim in the ocean. And I don’t mean just wade or splash around a bit. I dove in the waves and swam, jumping and laughing. Tabby gave me the gift of remembering that and enjoying it again. I’m still afraid, but not paralyzed by that fear. I have taken many baby steps that feel like leaps of faith, and I have always been in love with my rescuer and with Tony Curtis. In spite of my fear, it's hard to keep me out of the water.