Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

No Individual Raindrop Ever Considers Itself Responsible for the Flood

Our first clue was the puddle of water in the side yard of my mother’s house.

See, ’cause puddles never form there.

But the winter of 2009-2010 had been a busy one, meteorologically speaking; and late March had featured a “perfect post-storm”, if you will: a ferociously rapid spring melt … an exceptionally heavy and protracted rain event … and a nearby gravel pit that historically has acted as a catch basin for water runoff in the neighborhood wherein I grew up. The gravel pit usually is about half full of water, except in summer when it’s nearly empty. That March, following the melt and the rain, it was half full … then three-quarters full … then full.

Then, more than full.

Our next-door neighbors, who lived in the house between ours and the gravel pit, have occasionally done battle with the pit’s overrun, and they prepared to being doing so again. It didn’t take long for the water’s edge to creep up their side yard, make contact with their basement foundation, and become one with their basement. Nasty, but we’d seen that happen before.

Except I don’t remember the water level ever filling their basement. That was a new one. We offered them whatever help they thought we could provide, but it looked as if sump pumps and rags were not going to be nearly enough.

There, but for the grace of…, we thought.

And then the water’s edge kept moving.

And that puddle in our yard appeared. And grew. And reached around to the backyard.

And it was as if Mother Nature looked at my mother’s property, and said, “okay … you dared think it couldn’t happen to you? It’s on.”

So, over the course of the last week in March, various family members joined my mother in her every-two-hours, twenty-four-seven, i.e. get no more than two hours of sleep at a time before we go check the basement and run the pumps again, Sisyphean rear-guard action. Tiptoe down the basement stairs, note the inch or two of newly-acquired water, slip on the wading boots and fire up the pump again. “Rinse and repeat” became a slightly cruel catchphrase.

(Two subplots from this time in our lives, one having to do with the suspected root cause of the extra runoff water’s being deposited in that particular catch basin, and the other having to do with the great lengths to which members of that neighborhood had to go just to convince the Town that this was maybe something for which it shouldered just a bit of the responsibility … will be set aside, just now.)

The “Easter miracle” that year, for my family which is rather laden with churchly responsibilities … was that when the flood waters rose well past the point of nuisance, it was the Saturday morning before Easter, and not on Easter Sunday itself.

About 5:30 in the morning, that first Saturday of April, I tiptoed down those stairs and noted that the water level wasn’t an inch or two, nor was it a few inches, as had been the case for the previous day or so. It was most of a couple of feet. I even thought I could see it actively rising before my eyes; although this may have been one of the side effects of sleeping for 120 minutes in a row, max, for a night or two.

And then we figured out that, at the rate it was going, by mid-morning the water level would reach the basement electrical outlets … and that would be an uncommonly bad thing.

Time to shut the power off. Therefore, time to consider “transferring the flag”. Having family living nearby is a good thing anyway – a place to go to regroup – but especially when you look at your thirteen-step staircase from the kitchen to the basement and only see the top five steps.

Long story short, the water level didn’t eventually get all the way up that set of stairs, although it got close. And although much of the side and back yards had ponding water on top of them, our house sat on a faint incline that ensured that the lake would not engulf the house from all sides.

Spoiler alert: we didn’t lose the house. In the last five years, we’ve watched with great suspicion when the piles of snow gave way to not being piles of snow anymore (particularly this past winter in New England, which featured levels of snow that I couldn’t come close to seeing over) … and we’ve worried, when the rains have come with extra-special intensity. But so far (knock on whatever dry wood is handy), we’ve not seen a repeat of spring 2010. Climate change may have something to say about this in the future, but up through this moment, so far we’ve lucked out.

So, this morning, I looked at photos of the flooding in Texas … the vast, sweeping plains of muddy water covering whole neighborhoods and and businesses and highways! … and thought, I would like to be able to say that I have some idea of what must be going through the minds of some of my friends and colleagues who live out there. I would like to … but I probably don’t.

I have been only half-joking when I’ve described to people what it was like, that April morning, when we realized that we’d have to “transfer the flag”. At that moment, my imagination was working on sleep-deprived overdrive, and I thought there was a real possibility that we might lose the house, the house I grew up in. The half-joking part has been when I’ve said to people, “I went through the seven stages of grief in about nine seconds.”

I can’t, therefore, begin to imagine what it must be like to see your entire street, neighborhood, town … engulfed. With no high ground to go to, because it’s Texas. With no real expectation that your life might be flooded out, because you live in a landlocked area, unlike, say, those folks who live in houses in coastal-facing towns, which look great in the summer tourism season but can be just a wee bit vulnerable when the tides rise and the storm surge surges and you start wishing you’d chosen to live somewhere other than on a scrap of land that the ocean would now please like to reclaim.

What in the world kind of rainstorm dumps seven or nine or twelve inches of water on a town, overnight?


(Meanwhile, much of California is asking Texas, could we maybe take some of that stuff off your hands?; or perhaps loftier questions like, are there still makers of public policy who don’t think climate change is a terribly high priority? Yeah – the same ones who blame disaster-storms on local sin. A post for another time.)

Small comfort to the people of Austin, and Dallas, and Houston, many of whom may not have anywhere to go like my mother had … but one does occasionally look at one’s own problems and feel forced to admit they’re not as big as all that.

Similar small comfort, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person here in Drys-ville who are sparing a thought or two or twelve for the lower Midwest today.

And looking ahead to the storms that are forecast for this weekend, as well. Good Lord.

May 29, 2015 Posted by | current events, family | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Essential Personnel Only

In my career as a music educator, I think I’ve heard it all.

Which is a foolish statement, since I’m not done yet. But, specifically, I’ve heard lots of variations on the theme, “well, music isn’t as crucial a subject as language arts, or math.”

Occasionally, this has come in the form of sympathy, where if there are cuts to be made to public school budgets, we music teachers (along with our colleagues in the art room, theatre, home ec kitchen lab, shop, etc.) work under the anticipation that we’ll be amongst the first to be let go. “We’re always on the bubble,” I have murmured.

Sometimes, this comes in the form of a version of … well, I don’t know if relief is the right word, but the usual quote is, “well, you don’t teach MCAS subjects, so you’re not quite as stressed out as those who do, right?” – MCAS being the local Commonwealth of Massachusetts (God save it!) acronym, and also pejorative term for, standardized tests. I have been known to half-joke, “if they ever decide to pilot a music-MCAS, I’m going into insurance.” Give or take a fine-arts course requirement, I always saw as a luxury the relatively large percentage of students who were in my music classes because they wanted to. Because they enjoyed it. Because they got something out of it … and frequently reported that in retrospect, those classes turned out to be really important in their development as well-rounded humans.

As often, music teachers hear (or overhear) the ol’ “music isn’t as crucial a subject as language arts, or math” refrain [and if you studied music, you know why calling it a refrain is exactly accurate!] in the context of what is considered important in education, and what is not.


In the last three decades, it’s been discovered that A Nation was At Risk, and that we must Leave No Child Behind, and that we must Race To The Top, and that we must ask whether our children is learning.

Amidst that environment, forces from within and, increasingly, outside of the sphere trained education professionals have emphasized that we must prepare our children for their inevitable role as cogs in the great works of a strong, competitive American workforce. Must remain economically competitive, first and foremost, after all.

No doubt, it’s important for people to be able to write well, to read well, to perform math well. If you ask me, randomly, out of nowhere with no warning, what are the important skills for children to develop so they can function in our society, I admit that I’ll autopilot back to the “readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic” thought.

Nonetheless, in this space, I have previously written a sufficient number of posts that if you’re a regular reader, you get the idea: it’s important for children to have access and exposure to the fine arts. Never mind the various studies that line up musical participation with higher test scores, and other very fine but arguably extra-musical benefits. That’s fine. But as Wynton Marsalis, one of America’s most well-known advocates for music education, has noted many and oft: Americans are in danger of losing their culture. We as arts educators are fighting to keep our population aware of the existence (never mind the effect) of Aaron Copland, Louis Armstrong, Madeleine L’Engle, Ansel Adams, Al Hirschfeld, Martha Graham, and Duke Ellington (for openers).

So, no news there.

Having spent some time as a teacher, and (happily) having been a student of some positively stellar teachers throughout my life, I have come face-to-face with the requirements of the profession. Comprehensive knowledge of subject, yes; but, equally, comprehensive knowledge of the craft of teaching, ability to work with children (never mind all the different kinds of children that come from all different backgrounds and bring all kinds of different baggage), and – something you can’t quantify in a test or from looking at a resume; you have to see it in action to know you’re looking at it – utter love for the activity and its participants.

A long-standing friend of mine heads a major university’s undergraduate teacher training program, and he blogs nearly constantly – and eloquently indeed, backing up his assertions with an almost ridiculous amount of research – about the daunting list of qualities that is required of teachers to be good teachers. He has also struck me as something of a ferocious guard dog to the profession, when he has written about the additional responsibilities that are increasingly being required of teachers once they enter the public-school teaching, thanks to (to be frank) the meddling of policy-makers whose “ed reform” philosophies appear to be motivated by factors having more to do with profits than with any kind of genuine care and concern for our children. He’s an often delightful thorn-in-the-side of people who really ought to get themselves gone from our game.

And he writes with the aforementioned utter love for the teaching profession, and concern for the young people that he and his colleagues are trying to prepare for that career. And he’s bugged, to put it mildly, by the environment that those new teachers are likely to get thrown headlong into. But he’s fighting the good fight, no matter how uphill it may be getting.

And then this sort of thing happens.


The headline read, “Late Night Budget Action Dilutes Teacher License Rules”.

Anyone with a bachelor’s degree could be hired and licensed to teach sixth- through 12th-grade English, math, social studies or science in Wisconsin under a provision slipped into the state budget proposal by a Republican lawmaker”, wrote the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “And any person with relevant experience — even a high school dropout — could be licensed to teach in any other non-core academic subject in those grades, according to the provision.” [The emphasis is mine. Read on.]

This provision was approved as part of a K-12 education budget package by the Wisconsin legislature’s Joint Finance Committee last week in a vote that took place at 1:30 in the morning.

The measure’s chief legislative proponent claimed that its purpose was to help rural schools find and retain qualified teachers in hard-to-fill subjects. The executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance riposted that the measure “totally destroys any licensure requirements that we have in Wisconsin.”

In an interview, the Wisconsin legislator said that the idea was “to help schools fill specific niche areas, not to help people bypass a four-year degree and some kind of formal teacher training.” [The emphasis is again mine. Continue, please, to read on.]

A spokeswoman for the state teachers union said that teaching requires more than subject-matter expertise; and that a teaching license provides some assurance that the person has received training in how to teach children.

But then I read this summary of the news story offered by Wisconsin Public Radio’s news website. And it may have been just an unfortunate turn of phrase … but words matter, particularly in the journalism business, and I don’t think the single word that got my attention is insignificant. I think it reflects to presumption of far too many people, inside and outside of the education profession:

Last week, a provision was placed in the state budget by a Republican lawmaker to allow anyone with a bachelor’s degree to be licensed and hired to teach core academic subjects. Under the same provision, no education would be needed to teach non-essential classes in middle and high schools.” [The emphasis is … everybody sing along … mine.]

I’m quite certain that amongst those non-essential classes … is music.


This is the uphill battle that arts educators have fought forever, and fight right now, and likely will have to continue to fight.

If it doesn’t help you in the world of the global competitive workforce … if it doesn’t get you ahead in the business world … if it doesn’t have a direct effect on The Economy … well, then it’s not essential. Ed reformers insist. Legislative lobbyists insist. Dear Lord, even public radio (on purpose or not) parrots the terminology that relegates any subject having to do with art, culture, or anything else that isn’t standardized-testable, to the academic underclass of non-essential.

Non-core academic subjects. Niche areas. Non-essential classes.

These people.

May 28, 2015 Posted by | arts, blogging, current events, education, government, journalism, music, npr, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I’m Right, I Presume, Part 2: Addendum

[Ed. note: I got to rather uncharacteristically foaming at the mouth about one tiny little detail of Tuesday’s blog post, the one about the father writing the letter to the principal about school attendance policies.

[I almost, almost posted the following text to my Facebook page after having seen a number of my friends, whom I love dearly, linking to the original article about the letter, seeming to agree with the article’s assessment: that the father had written the Best Letter Ever.

[Characteristically, I sat on my post for awhile, as usual not wanting to fly off the handle. I thought further about it.

[And I’m still as cranky as I was. So. You be the judge…]


All right … I would like to offer an open letter …

To the 15-seconds-of-fame father, the author of that now-viral letter to the school principal which is now being lauded in some quarters as a righteous stick-it-to-the-schoolmarm smackdown, etc etc etc, blah blah blah, Buzzfeed headline uber alles (with apologies to those of my fine FB friends who are linking to it):


Sir, my particular beef with you, in this moment, is separate from the attendance policy issue. In your letter, you wrote,

I can promise you [our children] learned as much in the five days we were in Boston as they would in an entire year in school” …

and then, shortly thereafter, you wrote,

We appreciate the efforts of the wonderful teachers and staff and cherish the education they are receiving at [our children’s] Elementary School.”

On behalf of teachers everywhere who are frankly getting it done in spite of challenges that both have and have never been seen before, I say this: you can either say the first sentence, or you can say the second, but damn it, you can not say them both in the same letter without being revealed as a hypocrite.

If you can’t keep yourself from hurling snark at the professionals who are educating your children, then pull your kids out of school, set up a GoFundMe account and open the Montgomery County Academy for the Blessed.

I’m sick and tired of hearing abuse come out of the mouths and keyboards of people and thinktanks who know everything they need to know about educational practice because they went to school when they were kids.

May 1, 2015 Posted by | education, teachers | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment