The Need to Play On

“They kept it up to the very end. Only the engulfing ocean had the power to drown them into silence. The band was playing ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee.’ I could hear it distinctly. The end was very close.” —Charlotte Collyer, Titanic survivor

What made them play on?

That is the question people ask most frequently to Steve Turner, the author of “The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic.”

Why did the Titanic’s musicians continue to play on the deck even as the ship was going down? Were they told to do so by the Captain? Was it part of their job description? Did they think they would be saved?

According to Turner, the answer lies more in the composition and moral character of the orchestra, in particular, the band’s leader, violinist Wallace Hartley.

hartleyBy all accounts, Hartley was a highly principled person and a devout Christian. He’d recently been engaged to a young Christian girl, Maria Robinson, and they planned to marry after he’d completed a few trips on the Titanic. He was personable, cheerful and would always attend church when he was back on land.

Turner’s research for his book revealed two interesting comments that Hartley made to colleagues that shed some light on why he behaved as he did.

In explaining why he believed Hartley called his men together and began playing, even as the ship was sinking, musician John Carr related that Hartley has once told him,  “Music was a bigger weapon for stopping disorder than anything on earth. He knew the value of the weapon he had, and I think he proved his point.”

Another musician who had served under Hartley, Ellwand Moody, told a British newspaper; “I remember one day I asked him what he would do if he were ever on a sinking ship and he replied ‘I don’t think I would do better than play ‘Oh God Our Help in Ages Past’ or ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’.”

So, according to Steve Turner, it appears almost certain that Wallace Hartley had contemplated being on a sinking ship and had already decided how he would respond. He believed that music could prevent panic and create calm. He had also chosen his final piece of music.

Which brings me to a few questions, starting with, “Why do I (and others) keep advocating about educational issues in Oklahoma?”

Are we, too, simply “playing music” to a frantic and distracted group of passengers on a sinking ship?

And how much longer can our state’s public education system stay afloat while “taking on water” the way it has for the past decade?

There is reason for despair. Even as a natural optimist, I feel it.

After the passage of ESSA in 2015, I am now resigned to accept the reality that test-based accountability will remain the predominant driver of school reform for the rest of my education career. That saddens me.

Even worse, the education of yet another generation of children will be stifled by an output-based system that seeks to rank and sort them – a process which seeks to strip them of their uniqueness in order to develop standard “widgets” for corporations to replace their retiring widgets.

The Oklahoma budget remains in shambles. Per pupil funding for Oklahoma’s children has dropped 27% in nine years and the hole will be deeper after this year. There appears to be no end in sight.

Most teachers and school support staff have not had a meaningful pay raise in a decade. Health care costs are exploding, further eroding the wages of teachers who carry their spouses and families on insurance.

Our state is hemorrhaging teachers to surrounding states and to other occupations. For the second year in a row, the state has been forced to issue over a thousand emergency teaching certificates to meet the burgeoning need for new educators. High quality educators are getting harder and harder to find. This scenario will get worse as more baby boomers exit the classroom over the next five years.

The 2016 state elections witnessed an influx of educators or pro-public education candidates running for state office. While we made some modest gains, these new voices are often drowned out in the current House and Senate.

State Question 779 offered hope for beleaguered teachers that we might be able to bypass a listless legislature and capitalize on the direct support of Oklahomans to pass a long overdue pay raise. It failed miserably at the polls. That one hurt.

The voucher wolves are wounded, yet are also emboldened by the election of a President and his subsequent appointment of a Secretary of Education who together are an anathema to the idea of free and equitable public education for all children in America. The push for public funding of separate and unequal private school education for wealthy Americans will undoubtedly accelerate in coming years.

Over 50 years after our nation declared a “war on poverty,” too many children are growing up in homes of despair, dysfunction, and destitution. When hungry and deprived children from poverty fail to achieve at the same level as their wealthier peers, teachers and schools are blamed. This fact is not soon to change.

There is a danger in doing this kind of blog that one can get all wrapped up in anger, frustration, and disillusionment. From time to time Often, I wonder why I should keep playing music as I watch other passengers board the lifeboats to get off the sinking ship.

But, it’s worth reminding myself from time to time why I care.

This vessel we call public education in America is worth saving.

American public schools are everything that we have to say about the hopes and fears and aspirations for our future. Only in America do we bring people from any and all backgrounds into the same school buildings. Only in America do we let you pursue whatever dream of a future you can conjure up in your mind.

We strive to provide every child, regardless of background and home life, at least one unrelated adult in his/her life who can provide good direction and model a healthy adult life. We guarantee that every child will have access to a place where every person is put in place to honor the needs of that child first and foremost – not profits, productivity, or the good of the institution.

American public schools collect everything there is to love and hate about our culture. American public schools openly display everything that is beautiful and everything that is broken about us as a people. Our flowers and our warts are on clear display for all to see.

Given all that, American public schools capture all that is random and chaotic and unpredictable about life. American public schools is the incubator of American values, morality, character, and human decency. They are democracy in action – messy, tumultuous, acrimonious, pessimistic, idealistic, inefficient, hopeful, dogmatic, ugly, glorious, optimistic, joyous, striving, triumphant, advancing, spirited, exhausting, reborn again and again and again.

As teachers, we know that we will leave a mark on the future, but we rarely know how. The events and special moments for which we build and plan vanish into our students’ pasts like a fleeting puff of wind, even as we discover that a few simple words you spoke decades ago have become a treasured guidepost in someone’s journey.

I believe in public education. While it as an expression of best and worse of our national character, it also represents our collective hope for a brighter and more prosperous future for our state and nation. A better America.

I believe there is nothing so incredible and so powerful as watching unique young people from diverse backgrounds learning side-by-side, finding their way to a greater understanding of themselves and each other, finding their path in the world, learning to be an integral part of this collective we call America, while retaining their uniqueness and special value.

Nothing else compares. Nothing.  American public schools will never be good enough for some in our society. We will never be a neatly manicured, efficiently unified system because America will never be that kind of country. That’s okay. It’s not a flaw; it’s what makes our nation special and worthy of emulation.

So, yes, maybe those of us who advocate for public education are simply “playing on” while the ship of public education begins to list and take on water.  Maybe it is a futile exercise, akin to rearranging the chairs on the ship while it sinks.

There may be a time in the not-so-distant future when I bid you all adieu and tell you, “Gentlemen, it’s been a privilege playing with you tonight,” while scurrying to capture a  seat on the lifeboat.

Yet, tonight is not that night. I have not yet “been drowned into silence” and (God willing) I hope I have many more songs in me yet to play.

I hope you do, too. Because it your music and what you do to nurture the lives of children every day that keep me going.

So, together, let’s keep playing our music, even if it is sometimes drowned out by a cacophony of negative voices and naysayers. The hell with them. Let’s play louder and maybe add some cowbell!

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5 thoughts on “The Need to Play On

  1. The band plays on amid the uncertainty (or rather the certainty) of doom and the brokenness. All the while, the captain and his charges are hellbent on steering us into the iceberg field. I’m not talking only about Trump and DeVos, but our state politicians and, most alarmingly, my own district superintendent and site principal who have bought into the religion of “personalized learning”. We play on even as we hear the vessel being gouged again and again. The water swirls around our feet while our leaders are oblivious and complacent. When the time comes, these people have “an arrangement” that will save them from going down with the ship . . . not that it will benefit us much.

    In my teacher nightmares, I see myself panning my searchlight over the cold water that has overtaken many of my colleagues. “Is anyone alive out there?”

  2. Thank you for this post. I will not be silent but I am leaving th band. I will retire after 32 years in Oklahoma’s public schools. My retirement will not support me so I plan to sing in multiple classrooms as a sub. But I will not abandon those of you still on the ship, I plan to be more politically active and my congressman can expect more calls and visits. Keep playing, our kids need you!!!

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