Debate Magazine

James Brown as School Principal

By Stevemiranda

I caught up with a former student, and we reminisced about the old days.

She attended high school in a time when the school had gone through four or five principals in quick succession, each lasting no more than a couple years. The administration had fallen into such disarray that it lacked a certain measure of control over the student body. In the place of administrative control, an extraordinary culture emerged in which students felt ownership of their school.

“I went to college and I’d hear people talk about how much they hated high school,” she said. “I would tell them, ‘I loved high school.’”

The more we talked about this, the more I understood the reason she had such a deep affection for those years. Quite by accident, the school had made a trade: it had given up control, and in exchange it had received inspiration.

In most schools, it’s the opposite: the administration maintains tight control over everything, and the result is a profound lack of spontaneity. Everything is managed, so nothing is inspiring.

* * *

At one point in our conversation, she talked about perhaps her life’s greatest triumph. She performed at Amateur Night the Apollo in New York City. In one of the world’s most famous venues, in an environment in which the audience will boo any performer they feel deserves to get booed, she sang her heart out. She smiles with pride when she says, “I didn’t get booed.”

Some singers will come with a CD and, instead of using the house band, will use recorded music to accompany their voice. The audience will have none of it, of course, and that singer will get booed off the stage. The reason is simple: the audience didn’t come to hear you sing; they came to witness you bearing your soul, sharing your passion, and sharing your art. Nothing less will do.

My former student is a classically trained musician, who has gone on countless auditions for orchestras around the country. Over time, she grew disgusted by the process.

She says, “You have these musicians who are taking beta blockers right before they perform because they know they have to play every single note perfectly, and they’re stressed beyond belief. This is why orchestras are closing down, because they show up and hear the notes but they feel anything. Me, before I perform, I’m listening to James Brown. Because that’s how I want to feel when I’m playing, and that’s how I want the audience to feel.”

* * *

We talked about “Cultural Relations,” a program (that’s since been eliminated) in which the school would rearrange the class schedule for an entire week while students led forums on issues like racism and sexism. The students led the forums. Adults were instructed to sit at their desks and stay out of the way.

The result, of course, was mayhem. It was the same every year, with some of the discussions spiraling out of control, hordes of students skipping out to grab coffee at the local Starbucks, attendance counts hopelessly inaccurate. The administration had lost control of the school.

But when you talk to alumni from that era, many will tell you that Cultural Relations was a life-changing experience. Because amid all the chaos, there were still moments when black kids, white kids, Asian kids, Latino kids, gay and lesbian kids, kids who had been abused, rich kids and poor kids . . . they engaged each other in authentic conversations about their lives and their experiences. These conversations were raw and unfiltered. They were real.

So yeah, some kids skipped out. But I would argue that even those kids learned something much more profound than anything you’ll find in an ordinary textbook. They learned that subjects like racism and sexism are so important that it’s worth stopping your routine and having authentic dialogue. Even if something might go wrong in the process.

It’s those kinds of lessons that change people’s lives. But in order to create the possibility for those lessons to happen, you have to let go. You have to accept the fact that it’s OK if everything isn’t perfect, it’s OK to miss a note once in a while.

Because in the end, the most profound moments of your life are not when everything was perfect, was but when your experience was personal, authentic, and from your heart.

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