Archive for August 2013

Making Peace With The Wild Things, Redux:
A Prayer For My Students

August 24th, 2013 — 3:01pm

After two weeks preparing to teach a 10th grade English class in the struggling urban school where I work, at the eleventh hour, I’ve been re-assigned to teach English to a cohort of students who failed 9th grade English last year.

The class is bigger than any I have taught at this school – too big, as it stands, for the tables, chairs, and computer stations – and these are not students who share. Class starts Monday. And though I am generally fearless, the task before us is daunting, indeed.

As I noted in February of 2012, in a feature which I have reposted below, the challenges we face in inner-city schools are myriad – a complex of environmental, situational, and institutional issues. But this particular group is an extreme among extremes. Many of these students do not speak English at home; parent contact information is universally absent or out of date. Most only come to class once or twice a week, and are aggressive, sullen, and highly disruptive when they do. And though it is hard to benchmark, given their chronic absences and refusal to work, their test scores suggest that their skills are years below grade level.

In short: these students see school not as meaningless, but as a constant and powerful aggressor. They share a perception of literature as both alien and enemy. And I know all this intimately, because the majority of the students in this class failed my 9th grade seminar last year, too, which stacks the deck against establishing a healthy classroom relationship among us.

It is not in me to plan for failure. I am a good teacher, damn it: creative, relentless, hopeful, and engaging. I know that there is work to be done here, and that miracles can be made. But getting it right will require a long high wire act, with no net.

In order to accommodate this unexpected opportunity, Cover Lay Down will be on hiatus for a week or two until I regain my footing in the classroom. I regret the necessity, but trust that regular readers, and the artistic community we work to support, will understand.

Thanks to all, in advance, for allowing me this chance to do right by my students.

Originally posted February, 2012

Student grades are due tomorrow, but we went to church anyway – we had to sing, and after two years of semi-regular practice as a Unitarian Universalist, I have come to a place in my life where I find peace and solace in shared practice which starts and ends with love and service, togetherness and open-ended truths, and a shared commitment to social justice.

Much of this is due to the particulars of our chosen worship setting. The UU church which we attend is in transition, with an interim minister who has my undying respect; wise, and gentle, with a knack for bringing new texts and ideas to the table, presenting them clearly and coherently, and then braiding them together to reveal the thing which we needed most of the world in that moment.

I experience her sermons as a kind of miracle of the mind, that binds my soul and body, and answers my unspoken need. Even when I am distracted by my own thoughts, her bright, intelligent prompting provides an avenue for me to come to myself with new eyes, and with a renewed determination to accept that which has been lurking in my heart and mind.

And in this case, a sermon on blessings and failures, and how we so often fail to allow ourselves to experience the joys and sadness they should bring us, has brought me back to my students.

innercity (1)The students I teach are ill-prepared for success. They are the product of a city that is stacked against them, a community that is in too much of a hurry to address the deep foundation issues which would support true progress, a system that is under too much pressure to make it look like things are working. They come to my ninth grade classroom with fifth grade reading skills, without the stamina to be learners for more than a few minutes per class day, with anger against me for enforcing the most basic rules, and an image of the classroom as a competitive space, where they win if they can overwhelm the lesson, or if they can sleep successfully, and thus avoid confronting their unpreparedness.

They also come, if indeed they come at all – one in five students is absent on a given day – with long histories of pitting themselves against the world, which make them almost unteachable for most of the semester, until and if we can delay the curriculum long enough to get into their hearts. Most of them are incapable of experiencing joy or sadness at all, let alone the empathy we assume is prerequisite for understanding a text. Instead, they experience only despair and bitterness, disappointment and pride – emotions they cannot acknowledge, to themselves or others, lest they appear weak, and lose the only game they know.

A few of them manage to survive and move forward, and a tiny, tiny percentage aim to thrive. But these are the minority: just 25% of students in the city where I teach even graduate from high school within four years, and it’s not hard to see why. Last week, a boy in one of my classes taunted a girl into attacking him; in the aftermath, his lack of ownership in instigating the fight was both frustrating and expected, but it was his comment that “It wasn’t a fight; she’s a girl” that reminded me just how unprepared these almost-men and almost-women are to accept even the basic conditions that we believe are necessary to help them move forward.

We do what we can for them, and sometimes more than we can afford, in an environment where each student gets just two minutes of my individual attention, if that, per day. In tiny slices of time we struggle to push our way in, to learn who they are as individuals, to identify the gaps between where they are and where the curriculum assumes they are, and construct a pathway for them that bridges their particular chasm.

But half a bridge is no better than none, and it may be worse, given that it contains so much false hope. In the end, it is our lot to hold them responsible for their actions, lest we become part of the machine that lies to them, and tells them that they are ready. It hurts to fail so many, but it would hurt more to pass them along without merit or ability, to undermine their next classes, to perpetuate the lie that a good heart, however buried and patinaed, is evidence of success.

And so many fail. Despite unanswered parent phone calls and teacher conferences full of hopelessness, long unattended after school sessions offered, a hundred new attempts at kind words and coaxing, over half of the 80 final grades I will enter into the database before the sun rises tomorrow are F’s. Of the remainder, another half are within the D range, marking their recipients as desperately unprepared academically but willing to struggle just enough to produce something that hints of promise, though probability says that not one of these 20-or-so students will pass sufficient classes this year to move on, leaving them stuck in the eternal-seeming limbo that is another ninth grade year.

Only four of my students from last term earned an A of any sort. Only six earned B’s. And of those, there are still one or two who only bothered and blossomed in my class, or perhaps one other – they liked me, but in a manner untranslatable to other teachers’ style.

How did we get from sermon to city? These things are related, somehow, though they are hard to untangle. But today, in church, as the minister read a section from Everything I Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, I was reminded that my students do not know what we taught them then, if indeed we taught them at all.

And although the time for sharing had passed, suddenly, in the middle of the sermon, I wanted to say a prayer for my students.

I wanted to light a candle for my beloved failures, curled up against the world so tightly that, like fists, all they can do is destroy.

I wanted to cry, and ask forgiveness; to say that I really did do everything there is to do, and let the feelings simply be, in the community I trust, even as I despair in the peace of my beloved wild things, who tear at me until the bell rings, and the clock runs out, and it is too late.

I wanted to, but I didn’t.

I offer it here, instead.

4 comments » | Mixtapes, Teaching

RIP Chicago singer-songwriter Matt Ryd
(On wellness, illness, and the artistic lifestyle)

August 17th, 2013 — 11:48am

I will stumble, will I fall?
I’ll be humbled, will I crawl?
I am broken, will I be healed?
I am beaten, am I torn?
I’m alive, but nothing more.
I am broken, will I be healed?

– Matt Ryd, “Healed”

However comforting it might be, by its very nature, our focus on coverage can distance us from the lyrical narratives of up-and-coming folk artists and singer-songwriters. So when news came down the wires this week that 28 year old Chicago native Matt Ryd had lost his struggle with depression and stress brought on by an eating disorder, it was a harsh reminder of just how inseparable the personal and the professional lives of artists can be – and a note of caution for all of us to remember that artists are people, not just providers of song, and that even when their lyrics seem to speak loud and clear as a cry in the darkness, it’s easy to misread how truly their chosen narratives illustrate their inner demons.

When we first featured Matt Ryd in our New Artists, Old Songs series in the summer of 2010, all I knew about him was what I could see and hear through his music, and the mechanics of his chosen relationship with his fans. Both were worthy of celebration: as we noted at the time, his newly-released cover of Dire Straits classic Romeo and Juliet was “a perfect case study in how simple, deliberate arrangement and sparse instrumentation can transform an original into something deliciously sweet and new.” And though we ascribed his coverage choices to a calculated attempt to appeal to the masses, the warm acoustic popfolk reconstructions of songs from Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Katy Perry and Paula Abdul he included among the gems on his mailing list exclusive cover series and his increasingly prolific YouTube sets made it clear that Ryd knew how to play, and be playful, in the 21st century marketplace.

Outwardly, Matt showed all the signs of up-and-coming success: he recorded five albums between 2008 and 2013, releasing his first full-length, “Looking for Home”, to a sold-out crowd at Schubas Tavern in late 2010; his song Healed, whose lines appear above, was featured on Scrubs. Always a champion of his fellow musicians, in 2012, he formed the production company Rydmedia to produce albums for local artists. Frequent genial-yet-humble missives to his fans sustained a likability that brought us in, and kept us coming back. And his insistence on releasing all of his music under Creative Commons licensing only underscored his embrace of the modern pass-along models that drive artistic momentum today.

But behind the music, Matt was suffering. Towards the end of 2012, he checked into an in-patient facility to address his eating disorder; when the insurance ran out, he left, which caused a spiral of anxiety and depression that would bring him back to residential treatment. He was open with his fans about this process, sharing a long message on his Facebook page in March of this year addressing the matter head on, and apologizing for the silence that it would produce.

And then, on Sunday, August 4th, Matt lost his struggle with what had become an overwhelming complex of illnesses. Obituaries and remembrances rightly refer to him as both a musician and an activist for eating disorders, in recognition of how deeply and how well he had come to share his challenges, even as they deepened over the past 18 months. As his parents noted, “our hearts are broken, but we take comfort in the knowledge that he has finally been “Healed” and will suffer no more.”

Matt was luckier than most: he had some insurance, and a strong support system of family and friends. But Matt’s story reminds us that mental and physical health is a heavy topic for artists in the US, where a lack of socialized medicine and a predominantly private-sector economic model for the arts writ large often leaves musicians bereft of the basic safety net that others take for granted.

Ethan Scott Baird of New England folk trio Pesky J. Nixon speaks fondly of Andrea Coller, a young Massachusetts songwriter of great potency and potential who fought cancer three times before her untimely passage in 2008; both Baird and Coller worked with The SAMFund, which helps young adult cancer survivors from all walks of life regain their financial footing after cancer-related illness, and her courage shines through the raw power of You And The Ghosts and Best Bad Choice, two original demos he sent along. In addition to late greats Dave Van Ronk and Richie Havens, Ethan also cites Vance Gilbert, who was out performing 24 hours after leaving the hospital with a brand new pacemaker, as examples of those from older generations whose ability to manage health issues have been challenged or undermined by the lack of a safety net. More generally, he notes,

For the group of artists that make so many of our favorite places, experiences, and the world in general so much more colorful and interesting, lack of health care, both physical and mental, has drastically reduced our expected lifespans. I see this affecting self-employed friends and entrepreneurs every where I go. Often these are our best and brightest who choose to redesign and redefine the world around them. It seems a shame that an issue like access to doctors and medicine often can be the reason why our brightest lights go out early – it really doesn’t feel like it should be a first world problem.

Though we do not always see it, evidence of the ongoing struggle to support artists in body and mind lurks behind the music we share and track here on these virtual pages. As the recent passing of indie musician Jason Molina of Songs:Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. reminded us, drug and alcohol addiction continues to haunt many in the musical world, its temptations fueled by the hard life of touring, the raw soul of the artist, and an unhealthy popular celebration of the life of excess as the price of doing business. And sadly, mental illnesses of other sorts are rife in the creative world; most famously, the list includes oft-hospitalized bipolar musician Daniel Johnston, who we covered in a Single Song Saturday back in January of 2011. Admirable non-profits such as Nuci’s Space, which aims to “prevent suicide by providing obstacle free treatment for musicians suffering from depression and other such disorders,” fill an important need, here – but it is notable that many who suffer from depression are neither able nor willing to seek out such help on their own.

Accidents and unexpected illnesses arise as frequently among artists as they do in the population at large, too. Our recent review of this summer’s tributes included If You Wait Long Enough: The Songs of Will Stratton, a benefit album for the young indie singer-songwriter and composer whose cancer diagnosis last year “illuminated the conflicted plight of artists in a world where medical bills are often unaffordable for those working outside the world of 9 to 5 employment.” And indiefolk duo Brown Bird, who have not formally recorded any covers, but whose songs are already finding substantial coverage in the pages of YouTube, remain on hiatus and functionally unemployed while lead vocalist, guitarist and lyricist Dave Lamb struggles with leukemia.

In Matt’s honor, then, and in keeping with our artist-centric focus, for the next month, 20% of all donations to Cover Lay Down will be re-gifted to Sweet Relief, a non-profit founded in 1993 to support musicians who find themselves in “untenable predicaments” due to illness or disability, such as Vic Chesnutt and Victoria Williams, both of whom benefitted from Sweet Relief tribute albums and concerts. Those who wish to honor Matt directly can also give to ANAD or NEDA, a pair of support organizations that were an important part of Matt’s life for many years; those who wish to lend their support in other ways are encouraged to consider the other causes listed above. And, as always, we urge all readers to patronize the arts by buying albums, attending shows, and giving to those projects and causes which support struggling artists, the better to ensure the health and good fortune of those who explicate the world on our behalf through song.

Some favorite covers from Matt Ryd’s Mailing List collection, in tribute…

…and from a few other folk artists and singer-songwriters mentioned above, whose voices have been silenced or stifled by illness, injury, and pain.

Always artist-centric and ad-free, Cover Lay Down shares new songsets and coverfolk features weekly. Want to help support our mission and the artists we celebrate? Donate to Cover Lay Down before September 20th, and we’ll regift 20% of your donation to Sweet Relief!

3 comments » | Matt Ryd

I’m Getting Older, Too: A Coverfolk Mixtape
(from Bowie’s Changes to Dylan’s Back Pages!)

August 11th, 2013 — 10:04am


Though the folk camp skews older, it is not irrelevant that I am older than most music bloggers. Age matters, in the intersecting world of music and homage which we inhabit. Our tastes are formed by the mass media clutter and the countercultural alternative scenes of our own individual youths; even as our collections diversify and improve in time, our touchstone foundations are always a product of the worlds of our teens and twenties. My formative years covered the emergence of MTV, and assume the three minute narrative as compass and companion; I think fondly of cassettes, and think in CD format better than any; though we cover Dylan and The Beatles here too, the songs that ring truest as tribute to me spring from the 80s and forward, and from my father’s record collection.

Generational grounding is a common thread here at Cover Lay Down – I have made no secret of the ways in which my own time-and-space history brings me to Mary Lou Lord, Nirvana, or Michael Jackson, to pick a diverse sample. But in truth, there are more personal reasons to muse on aging today: as of yesterday, my wife is 40, too; today we head North for an in-law’s retreat in the woods to celebrate, with friends and family, food and drink.

But although we exchange our trinkets, gratefully, gifts seem trivial: we are young at heart, and work hard in our own ways to model youth for our children, and to maintain a seemingly effortless and innate childlike wonder. Most days, that is blessing enough.

To be fair, it gets harder every year to be young. But there is compensation: as I have come to own the winding path that has led me here, I find myself pensive yet fearless in the face of further age. And being here, now, without fear and with curiosity intact helps me be a better parent, a better husband, a better teacher, a better me.

Some songs about growing older, and checking in on the changes, then – covering the gamut from pensive to protesting, from aging gracefully to railing against the dying of the night. May you cherish the moments in time you inhabit, and put them away carefully when they are through. May you, too, sing your histories and futures.

    Getting Older: A Coverfolk Mixtape [zip!]

Cover Lay Down is back from the summer folkfields with new features twice weekly! See you soon!

3 comments » | Mixtapes

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