Sunday, November 25, 2012
Schools Can't Accommodate Talent?
In an essay about George Gershwin, critic Joseph Epstein wrote, "Like many vastly talented people, he could not be accommodated by school, so he dropped out at 15 and went to work plugging songs to vaudeville for a music publisher" (Essays in Biography, 445).
That comment--almost a throwaway remark--got to me. Like many vastly talented people, he could not be accommodated by school ... Interesting use of the passive voice, too--could not be accommodated ... We do not know who or what could not accommodate George Gershwin at school, but this situation--a very talented person dropping out, doing well--is common enough in literature and the arts that it got me thinking.
Many years ago, early in my career in Aurora, a former 7th grade student of mine--then in the high school--told me that choir was the only reason he went to school. This young man--extremely bright and from a wonderful home--graduated but did not go to college. He started working with pottery instead--a passion he continues to explore today, forty years later.
And there are famous cases of Nobel Laureates in Literature who never went beyond high school--or even finished high school--Hemingway and Faulkner among them. Playwright August Wilson dropped out, and Tracy Letts never went to college (their Pulitzers are not thereby tarnished). Hell, Shakespeare himself never went to university. (I'm not as familiar with the biographies of musicians and artists--but I'm betting the story's much the same.) I used to joke with my WRA students: Want to be a great writer? Drop out now! (None ever did--which shows (a) none of them wanted to be a great writer, (b) they knew their teacher was a dork.)
And is it true that gifted students find themselves uncomfortable--unaccommodated--in school? Sadly true, I fear. For so many reasons. It's fashionable now to decry bullying, but I know from my own experiences--as a student, as a teacher--that talented kids have had a very hard time in school for a very long time. Many times, the anti-arts, anti-intellectual climate is so intense in the school, that kids have to hide their talents. Dismiss them, even. And, sadly (in too many cases I've seen), abandon them.
And have you seen any films about teenagers lately? What and whom do they celebrate? The hard-working artistic kids? Or the athletes? The partiers? The slackers? (You get one guess.) In 21 Jump Street, Channing Tatum tells Jonah Hill (as they prepare to go undercover as high school students) that you need to ridicule kids who try hard.
The pro-athlete posture in many public schools is grotesque. Look at your local high school's trophy case ... what's in it? How many assemblies devoted to pep rallies or other celebrations of athletes? How many to celebrate non-athletic talents? Who gets an entire section in the local paper? Whose pictures are in the paper? Whose words are quoted? Whose achievements adorn the school's website? Who has booster groups whose members raise money and devote themselves to celebrating student achievement--a certain sort of student achievement? Our community recently raised millions of dollars ... for a new football stadium. A well-lighted place where virtually all the young men who play will be injured.
Would the community have come up with millions for the drama program? The music program (not counting marching band)? (I've often wondered, by the way: Why not have band concerts with a 15-minute football game during intermission? How would that go over?) Any of the other arts? Creative writing? (And by the way--What would the community response be if I started a drama program and announced that just about all the kids would be hurt while we were practicing or performing? That I needed an EMS unit standing by during the shows? Think that would go over?)
I've often gnashed my teeth about another aspect of all of this, too--standards. No one goes to, say, a middle school basketball game (boys' or girls') and leaves muttering, Those kids weren't as good as the Miami Heat. But for kids in the arts? It's somehow different. Standards are higher. When they sing or dance or act or paint, they have to sound or look more ... professional. The standards for them are much higher. If they don't sound, well, professional, then they suck. Years ago, I directed a high school production of Grease. At one of the rehearsals, some high school boy I knew came by to watch, and when our "Sandy" was singing, he turned to me and said--with great enthusiasm: She sounds like the record! She was gifted, our Sandy. But what if she'd been just ... ordinary? What would that young man have said then?
And need I ask: In austere times, which programs get cut first?
It's very difficult to change the culture of a school--especially when the larger culture reinforces all the odious aspects of it. So kids with talents in the arts have to be lucky. They have to attend a school where the adults care about their gifts--and who do something about it. They have to attend a school where the arts flourish so pervasively that the other students recognize and value their gifts. They have to live in a community that values their achievements--and not just with words. They have to live in families who cherish their talents--who don't steer them away from the arts because there's no money in it.
I would say that such situations are rare in today's consumer-driven, personal-pleasure-driven, athletics-obsessed culture. Which means that it remains difficult, nearly impossible, for the George Gershwins and August Wilsons--and William Shakespeares--of today to make it through their classes, to last till lunch.