If you’ve never experienced the sound and feel of a Holiness Revival in a tent in the American South, you have yet to witness something that, for an 8-year-old, was both terrifying and fascinating. During those late-night revivals, I experienced an instantaneous conversion from sleep to alertness.
I’d begin peeling back the blanket and shuffling across the hardwood floors to the window to get a glimpse of what I was hearing. Outside my window, I could see a large white tent with a soft yellow glow of lamps inside casting shadows of people jumping up and down against the sides of the tent. These revival camps intended to bring about instantaneous conversions and resurrection of the spirit.
America is undergoing its awakening and revival that is both terrifying and fascinating. The country is begrudgingly awakening to an awareness of the deep crevices in our democracy that have been salient in the lives of Black people for decades, if not centuries, in this country.
Political disenfranchisement and police brutality are not new issues for us. We’ve shouted, wailed, sang, and marched in hopes that there would be an instantaneous conversion of our communities, schools and society.
Could it have taken the shuttering of our schools and an incompetent presidency to bring us to the point of looking out the window to see what’s happening?
One struggles when looking through American history to find a point when our democracy was equally “great” for all peoples. Miles Davis once said, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note—it’s the note you play afterward that makes it right or wrong.”
Our challenge is to determine what notes to play next in our classrooms and schools.
What Happens When You Play the Wrong Note
When school closings began in the Spring of 2020, it felt as though the education profession was virtually lost, left to find its way with no guidance from the top levels of the educational bureaucracy. We did not look to Betsy Devos for direction because her lack of concern for public education had already been proven. Her missteps included threatening to withhold federal funding from schools if they refused to reopen during the early days of the pandemic. She also rescinded the guidance enacted by the Obama administration intended to address disparities in discipline for students of color, suggesting alternatives to suspension.
Dizzy Gillespie once said, “The sign of a mature musician is to know what not to play.” Betsy DeVos was seemingly unable to determine what notes to play during her tenure because she could neither see nor hear her audience. We are a profession that is present, but unseen and unacknowledged, like the invisible man in Ralph Ellison’s 1947 novel of the same name. Now that we’ve served the tertiary purpose of housing children away from the home, educators have been cast aside.
If schools reopen, who will outfit classrooms with the necessary modifications required to keep students and teachers safe? Who will redesign the funding model to allow for smaller class sizes, which we’ve demanded all along, to ensure that social distancing is possible? It is in these finite moments that leaders both find and define themselves.
Finding the Magic
Leaders and teachers must master the art of being the best versions of themselves in this moment so it comes through in a powerful way for scholars. Throughout his career, Miles Davis reinvented himself, resisting the ever-present pull of becoming a prisoner of any given era as Jazz evolved. The familiar becomes unfamiliar with an approach that is uniquely Sinatra, Ella or Armstrong. Though the words on the page are identical, the way it is delivered is where the magic lies.
On February 18, 1969, in CBS’s 30th Street Studio, Miles Davis sat in a studio with a set of musicians and began recording his album “In a Silent Way”. This album and the title song were a shift from his previous work in that it marked his move to electric instrumentation. It was a point where he was integrating more technology into his recordings.
As the details of the title track were being worked out, Miles was trying to describe how he wanted John McLaughlin to lead into the piece on the guitar. He told him to “play like he didn’t know how to play.” What we hear is a slow, deliberate, hesitant style of play that pulls the listener into the tune with anticipation for what the other musicians will add to the tune. It is unorthodox. It is counter-intuitive given the sound we have come to know as Miles on previous albums.
Miles has taught us, with his horn and with his style of leadership, that we must always leave room for changing lanes. In doing so, we leave those who work with us room to grow and improvise. Boxing people in with sheet music can be restrictive and stifling. Change always makes us uncomfortable. It is inevitable and necessary. The album “In a Silent Way” broke barriers. Rolling Stone described it as “the kind of album that gives you faith in the future of music.” Perhaps this moment is just what needed to happen to bring our attention to the many needed changes in the field of public education.