Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Little Ladies?

It started with Sandra Fluke.

But only because I myself am not female, and therefore don’t get to hear the kinds of comments that my female colleagues have endured since approximately The Dawn Of Time.

It started long before Sandra Fluke, I’m afraid.

Maybe I’m dodging responsibility when I note that the American media first started to notice how badly women can be treated by men a couple of years ago, when Fluke, an attorney and women’s rights activist, testified in a Congressional hearing about birth control issues. The Conservative Radio Host Who Shall Not Be Named (but whose name nearly rhymes with Flush Chainsaw) responded to her testimony by calling her a slut on national radio. From that point forward, with dismaying regularity, the media has brought forth more and more frequent accounts of the objectification, mistreatment, and abuse of women.

Has it seemed to you that the rate of these reports’ appearance has accelerated lately? Maybe the online algorithms are better able to sense us clicking on certain article links and guide us toward other related ones, so we see them more often. Or maybe the humans who run the media know a clickable story when they see one. “Hey look! Another jackass statement by someone who ought to know better. Stop the presses!!” Or whatever dramatic thing it is that editors yell, nowadays.

So it’s the media’s fault?

Not solely.

In any case, I’m getting less and less impressed with the species I belong to.

I guess I just find it startling that lots (seemingly) of men still, in the year 2014, talk about and talk to women as if it were the year 1914, or 1614. Or 14.

It’s yet another way we’re an awfully long way from the Gene Roddenberry Star Trek Utopian Vision Of Humanity.

These two particular stories got my attention, in just the last two days:

[1] According to the Huffington Post, “The buzz over a new book [“Off the Sidelines”] by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) this week has been all about her revelation that some of her male colleagues seem to have a fixation about her weight. She recounts that one expressed concern that she might become ‘porky’; another made the backhanded suggestion that she was pretty even when she was fat.”

The Talking Points Memo story on the subject said, “In one incident from her early days in the Senate, Gillibrand describes an older senator who approached her from behind and squeezed her waist. ‘Don’t lose too much weight now,’ she recalls him saying. ‘I like my girls chubby.’ … In yet another instance, a Southern congressman held her arm as they walked down the chamber aisle, telling her, ‘[y]ou know, Kirsten, you’re even pretty when you’re fat.’ Gillibrand also recounted the time a labor leader advised her to improve her looks if she wanted to win a special election for her Senate seat in 2010. ‘When I first met you in 2006 you were beautiful, a breath of fresh air. To win, you need to be beautiful again,’ he said.”

The remainder of the HuffPo article contains recountings of similar incidents from the history of the US Senate, including the evening during which Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) “found herself alone in an elevator one evening with 91-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who did not recognize her as a colleague. He inquired whether the ‘little lady’ was married — and then proceeded to grope her breast.”

[2] Thursday, several Fox News on-air personalities “defended the practice of catcalling, insisting women should ‘let men be men’ and downplaying the harmful impact widespread street harassment has on women.” They highlighted a New York Post op-ed piece that suggested that women should “deal with” “flattering” catcalls.

One of the program’s co-hosts, Kimberly Guilfoyle, defended the practice by saying, “let men be men,” and, “look, men are going to be that way. What can you do?”

(The Center for Disease Control, apparently, can do this: emphasize that street harassment counts as a “non-contact unwanted sexual experience”, and is therefore part of the most prevalent form of sexual violence for both men and women in the United States, impacting as much as 99 percent of women.)

Significantly, this exchange occurred during an episode of a relatively new Fox News Channel program called Outnumbered, which FNC describes as “guided by four savvy women and one man … designed to provide viewers with a fresh take on the latest news”. As if women commenting on the news was somehow a weird and wonderful new idea. One could easily suspect that this casting decision was designed to provide Fox viewers with the opportunity to pity the poor fella who is surrounded by four women who pose a dangerous challenge (to him) because of their savvy-tude. (Instead, the program has quickly set a new standard for almost-hilariously-sexist assertions, and not just from the poor fella.)

Yeah. Too many smart women in the room is dangerous.

Have to keep the little ladies down. Preferably in the kitchen. Barefoot, where possible.

In thinking about this topic, I first wondered if perhaps the people who are most prone to saying hideous things about (or to) and doing hideous things to women … just lacked any previous interactions with strong women that might have caused them to view women differently.

Then I realized that this statement sounds right on the edge of “were any of the women in their early lives strong women?”, which seems to put the blame right back on the women for not being strong … which is not at all what I was going for. I’ll cut to the chase here, and then circle around and get back to it at the end of this piece: every human being deserves respectful treatment, regardless of whether they “don’t take no crap from nobody” or they’re shy and retiring people. It doesn’t matter. They’re humans. They don’t deserve the kind of treatment that many men are giving many women … regardless.

What I was thinking of, I believe … was the sheer number of women I have known, throughout my life, that shaped my understanding of how women were just worthy of respect as men. To put it bluntly, I have indeed known women who either [1] were exceptionally good at whatever they did, [2] had personalities that included the almost cheerful disinclination to take crap from other people, [3] were wonderful, kind and decent people, or [4] all of the above.

This list would include my mother, who is All Things Grand In This World (and a tough cookie, to boot), and my sister, who is dauntless in the defense of her brother’s honor (but will stick it to him, if he has it coming).

This list would include all of my elementary school teachers.

This list would include friends from high school whom I recognized at the time as being far better academically than I, and friends who could debate me right out of the room, and friends who clearly were towering talents in instrumental music and theatre performance (and not even sixteen years old yet). And all of them willing to spare this shy person a “hello” in the hallway, a “hello” that would more often than not make my day.

This list would include people from that summer arts program I have occasionally referred to here, some of whom were very effective instructors of mine, and some of whom were the kind of students whose achievements have since surpassed their instructors’.

This list would include people I met in college (yes, mostly bandos, but others too) who have remained the most stalwart of friends since, especially during moments of Life Crisis.

This list would include numerous professional colleagues, in the public-school teaching and music-education communities, the general vicinity of whose expertise I can only hope to approach one day. Who are also funny and irreverent and helpful and wise people.

This list would also include a number of friends from one or more of those circles who have recently endured some intensely challenging personal and professional circumstances, and either have come out the other side brilliantly, or, I am certain, will.

Some of the things being said and done to women, I wouldn’t dream of saying or doing in a million zillion years. I suspect that this is at least in part because I know a lot of women who would slap me silly (metaphorically or physically!) if I told them something like “you’re pretty even when you’re fat” … and I would have it coming.

So what’s the deal?

Is it that the men out there who treat women badly, who think of women as inferior creatures in whatever way, have been surrounded by, not so much non-strong women, but women who for whatever reason have not felt empowered to not take the abuse?

(That sentence does make sense. I swear. Go back and read it again. It’s a labyrinth, but there’s a prize in the center.)

Not that this is any excuse. We’re all humans. We all deserve at least basic respect.

But could that be part of it?

If it is, then perhaps I’m fortunate to have known the people I’ve known.

August 30, 2014 Posted by | civil rights, current events | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Writing About What I Don’t Know

I don’t know what it’s like to go into a store and have all eyes on me.

Unless I’m wearing something entirely too neon for my personality, that is.

I don’t know what it’s like to be considered suspicious-looking just because I’ve arrived somewhere.

I grew up in a town where most people looked like me. My first, second and third public school teaching jobs were in towns where I could say the same thing.

The first grade was the first time I came face-to-face, literally, with somebody who didn’t look very much like me. I used to get all puffed up, thinking that I’d emerged from that experience looking pretty good, pretty low on the scale of zero-to-xenophobia. His name was Jon, he lived in our town, and he did not look at all like any of my redheaded British Isles ancestors. He was friendly to everyone, he was athletic, he seemed to like music and art classes about the same amount as any of the rest of us, and he was arguably the most popular boy in our grade. All the way through the fifth grade, he was probably still in the list of Top Five Most Popular Kids Born in 1966 Living In Our Town.

He was black. I was white. And, well, let’s be honest, so were about 98 percent of the rest of the kids in the future My Home Town High School Class of 1984.

I remember noting obliquely, nearly subconsciously, that he was the first black person I’d ever seen up close. (But only in the same way that I thought one of my other friends was the first Asian person I’d ever seen up close, and that one of the kids I didn’t care for nearly so much had the brightest red hair I’d ever seen, redder than mine even. Kind of a quick glance to assess details for identification’s sake. In the case of that red-haired kid, I wanted to remember, so as to avoid – but only because he was a bad kid. The misbehave-in-class kind of bad kid; the make-fun-of-you-on-the-playground kind of bad kid.)

That thought was quickly subsumed by the conscious thought that you wanted Jon on your kickball team. He was a talented player, … but he was also the first one to jump up and down and cheer and slap you on the back when you kicked one a long way and touched all the bases.

I remember consciously thinking, “Jon is cool.” And being absolutely genuine about it. He was. And not so cool that he didn’t want to be my friend at the same time. Don’t we go through life looking for those people?

I never thought to wonder what it was like to be him, though – short of wondering what it was like to be The Most Popular Kid in the First Grade.

I don’t have any idea where he is now. He’s one of the few Class of 1984 folks whom I have not seen in some form in the social media world, or at reunions, or anywhere else related.

But, based on my keeping up with the news over the last, well, forty-plus years since I was in the first grade … I can imagine that he probably does experience daily what I, as a white person, never will: being at an instant disadvantage just because of the color of his skin.

If the events of the last half month in Ferguson, Missouri have demonstrated anything, it’s this: no, we’re not living in a post-racial world, and yes, it is very, very often about race.

I used to tell the following story, starting with the phrase “this is as close as I ever came to feeling like a minority.”

During the summer between my acquisition of a music education degree and my first teaching job, I was one of three professional instructors of a summer youth band program administered by the Boston Police Department. The Crosstown Band was made up of thirty-five high school students from the Boston Public Schools – it was truly a concert band that marched from its bus to its concert site with a percussion cadence. We probably could have done parades had we gotten parade gigs, but we never did. But we could move from place to place and look good.

For six weeks, from late June to early August, we met every day from nine in the morning to four in the afternoon. I drove in from what is now known as MetroWest, the western suburbs of Boston, and joined my other two staff colleagues in working with our brass and percussion and woodwind players in the rather well-appointed music wing of Madison Park High School in Roxbury.

Madison Park is not that far from Boston’s Symphony Hall, geographically. But in most other ways, it is far indeed. In all the time I spent there, I definitely was quite aware that I was white, and most of the other people whom I worked with, or passed on the street during lunch break walks to the nearest fast-food joint, were not.

The Band was made up of three white students, two Asian students, probably six or seven Hispanic students, and the rest were black. Fairly representative of the city’s population, I judged. And the three staff members? White, white and white. We were pretty aware of how that looked, oh yes we were.

And after the first couple of days, I discovered something, to my utter horror. I had thought of myself as an open-minded, perceptive person. When I had attended UMass-Amherst, I’d taken the campus shuttle bus from my dorm to the middle of campus, that when that bus passed the graduate research center, it suddenly turned into a micro version of the United Nations general assembly, and I was right in the midst of it.  And my first little job out of college had been in a biomedical research company whose staff of scientists contained white, black, Indian, Pakistani, Irish, and (my personal favorite person) Vietnamese heritage – i.e., I lived in an environment that was about as diverse as statistical probability would put up with. The idea that I was having trouble telling a lot of those kids apart really, really made my heart hurt.

At least some of that had to do with was the fact that, then and now, I was and am pretty slow at matching up names with faces early in any experience.

At that moment, though, I wasn’t considering that; it just worried me greatly that they all looked alike to me.

Of course, two days after that, I knew everybody by name, instrument and pizza choice. But it was a tough way to begin.

So, in finishing this story, I used to say, “yeah, I found out what it was like to be a minority.”

That wasn’t really true.

Or it wasn’t the whole truth, and I sure wasn’t finding out what reality people of color deal with every single day. At no time did I feel like I was being threat-assessed when I walked in a room. At no time was I stopped and interrogated by a local police officer – whether I looked like I had the potential to be “up to something”, or not. (From time to time I’d sneak into my staff colleague’s office to pilfer a band score; but that didn’t count, I would judge.)

In fact, as I think of it now, the pair of police officers assigned to the Crosstown Band – who did their community liaison job beautifully; all the kids really liked them from the start, I remember – those officers were nothing but white, themselves. So if they were looking at me askance, it was because they weren’t sure what form of auxiliary percussion instrument I was carrying with me from the practice room to the stage. (It’s called a guiro … it makes scrape scrape noises. Yeah, one of those.)

In short, I was a mathematical minority … but I was experiencing exactly nothing like what black people experience every day (and according to a number of stories I have heard firsthand from a few church-affiliated and other sorts of friends and colleagues, that is not limited to what used to be called “the inner city”).

We have such work to do, with regard to race relations – hell, with regard to human relations, and don’t even get me started about how society appears to be regressing in its ability to treat women respectfully (too late – this blog has been down that road repeatedly). I freely admit: as much as I would like to be color-blind, as much as I fight consciously against the instinctive awareness of “the other”, of folks who don’t look the same as I do, that has been built into humans since before we were homo sapiens (is that one not of our tribe? Is that one here to steal our food, take our land, harm us, kill us? … caveman instinct!) … it’s still, nonetheless, a fight. I wonder if human nature will end up being too strong to overcome, collectively, in the end.

And I hardly know where to start. This month, the town of Ferguson has been blowing up … two years ago, it was George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin … this summer, it’s been the immigration issues that have exploded along this country’s southwestern border … and a few days ago, a member of the US House of Representatives actually suggested that the political party other than the one he belonged to was espousing immigration policies that amounted to “a war on whites”. (I get such a bang out of members of historically majority groups, or groups that have held the most power, in this country … Caucasians, Christians, straight people, men … explaining how persecuted they are. Walk a mile in the shoes of black persons, Muslim believers, gay persons, or women wearing anything other than a burlap sack, and find out what real mistreatment feels like, could ya? War on Christmas, my British backside.)

It just seems to me like we’re so far from being a post-racial society that the sentiment of “can’t we all just get along?” seems almost quaint and naive. I never expected to feel like Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of a Star Trek-ified future was embarrassingly Pollyanna, but here I am.

We’ve got to start somewhere.

I wonder where that is.

August 27, 2014 Posted by | civil rights, current events | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On A Lighter Note

Acquaintance I would have, but when ‘t depends / Not on the number but the choice of friends.

         –Abraham Cowley


I don’t know what it was, but there was something different about DMA at UMass this summer.

Let’s be clear: my work with the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy isn’t really work. There are things to do, there is physical exertion to be exerted, there is teaching (and learning) to be accomplished … but every once in a while there are “gigs” that one looks forward to for something beyond just the paycheck. This is always one of them.

Let’s also be clear: I’ve done 32 of these clinics now. Sixteen summers, two per summer; math class. Every single one has offered something that I could take away, knowing that it would be a memory that would stay with me permanently.

Sometimes it’s been the success of a student who at the beginning of the week was looking very like a rookie. Sometimes it’s been making a connection with a staff colleague whom I had not known very well, before the week began. Sometimes it’s been a weather event. Sometimes it’s been some other unforeseen event, and how the staff and students responded to it. Sometimes it’s been a practical joke for the ages. Sometimes, it’s been one “line of dialogue” by a staff member. But always at least one thing.

Let’s also be clear: every summer I get to work at the DMA clinics located at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and UMass-Amherst. West Chester is a day shorter than UMass. If I’m analyzing students’ conducting video, it’s only for two 40-minute sessions per student instead of three. So comparatively, my contact time with individual students is a little less at West Chester – not disastrously, but it does give me a bit more opportunity to check in with UMass DMA students. Nobody’s fault – it is what it is.

With all that said: again … this most recent UMass DMA week had something different going on.

Maybe it was kicked off by the first video afternoon. Western Massachusetts was suddenly under a tornado warning, and the word went out to staff: keep your student groups right where they are – DON’T send them walking outside to the next stop in their three-classroom rotation. So my group, code-named “Starship B, TV 1”, stayed put, and got a 70-minute block to work on conducting, rather than just 40 minutes. By the end of that session, I was really good with names, even when the kids’ nametags were facing the wrong way.

Maybe it was coincidence that caused many of my TV-room students to also comprise the four six-member squads with whom I worked in the mornings, during squad competitions. By the time I parked myself in front of Squads 5 through 8 at the week’s closing exercises, I felt like I knew these characters better than usual.

There are no empirical measurements that I can use to determine whether it’s been a great summer for those connections.

But there is one non-scientific determinant that is making a serious play for attention as a unit of measurement.

I keep getting Facebook friend requests.

Relatively speaking, a lot of ’em.

Since I jumped into that social media environment several years ago, I’ve acquired an average of something like 0.75 to 1.00 new Friends following each DMA clinic. Someone remembered a piece of conducting advice, or a good joke, or a dumb joke, or just a smile, that I may have thrown out there … or heeded my regular call to “keep in touch with us! We want to know how your season is going!”, and followed through.

And yes, I do have Facebook friend privacy protocols that I put into play. There are some elements of my social media life that high school folks probably don’t need to see, or would want to!, at least till they get into and out of college, or onto the DMA Impact staff full of college band student leaders. Maybe not even then!

But I have had the privilege of keeping in touch with some very fine people this way, lately. They’ve taken what the DMA curriculum has to offer and run with it … and often, their success is not confined to the marching rehearsal field. Some of them are genuinely among the sharpest online wits, or kindest-sounding people, or both, that I know.

We’ll see what this summer’s response will end up being, not just with regard to “number, but the choice”, as Mr. Cowley wrote. But so far … fifteen.

I am humbled.

August 13, 2014 Posted by | DMA, drum major, Facebook, friends, marching band, music, social media | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment