Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The Takeaway

Twelve years ago today was a very tough day.

On a couple of previous anniversaries of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC, I have taken a moment (here in this blog space) to note the date, usually utilizing what I remember of where I was – what I was doing (hmph). I made a connection, without great difficulty, to the music I was making at the time with my students – and the role that music played in getting through the day, or making sense of the day later, or offering comfort to people who needed it for a long time after.

I was teaching today, as well. Since I’m relatively new to my school, I was teaching several classes’ worth of students with whom I had never shared this particular observance. The change of scenery, I think, caused me to think in perhaps wider-angle terms than I would have otherwise. Things are different … somewhat.

My seventh-grade students were weeks or months old in 2001. I was twelve years younger, too; and much closer to the beginning of my teaching career than I am now. I wasn’t as schooled in the ways of geopolitical affairs and foreign policy as I have become, since. Then, I was much more likely to worry greatly about driving under highway overpasses than I am now – or, let’s just say that now I worry more about whether the bridges are going to come down on their own, never mind with help from terrorist people.

One night about a week ago, I noticed my local television listings beginning to fill up with 9/11 documentaries and tribute-laden programs – the Discovery Channel was showing nothing but, all afternoon and all night – and I was frankly shocked for a moment after I found myself thinking, “oh… Here we go. It’s that time of year.”

For those who lost people that they dearly loved, that day, September will always be “that time of year”. I was instantly embarrassed at my thought (which I had unhelpfully delivered to myself in the voice of the “Stewie” character from “Family Guy”). The sister of a good friend of mine from high school was on the second plane that hit the World Trade Center, for heaven’s sake. If the tables were turned, I’d be more than a little put out that somebody was thinking of this particular anniversary with the same kind of jaded outlook that a lot of us carry into, say, the holiday shopping season in December. For many many people, this is and always will be – well, deadly serious.

Not long after 9/11, many people wondered if it would be this generation’s Pearl Harbor – not so much as an impetus for war specifically, but more as an event that was both unforgettable and a turning point in a lot of people’s understanding of the state of the planet Earth, for better or for worse. I doubt people were thinking, “oh… Here we go again,” on December 7, 1953.

So I did several hundred mental pushups, as a sort of penance for my offhand thought. And I thought, okay, then: is there anything that we can take away from that awful day? Anything positive? Anything that we’ve actually learned?

There is the temptation to respond to that question by commenting on political- and military-science permutations of this question. We went to war in two places in the wake of 9/11 and we’re still hanging around in one of those theaters, a dozen years later, and to what end I’m not sure (except that this must be how the Soviet Union felt in 1980 or so). More lives lost; less ground gained, I think.

I am tempted to express deep concern about our temptation – then and now – to knee-jerkily retreat into patriotic fervor, as a means of reassuring ourselves that not only was this an awful, evil act (well, it was that; and no civilian population anywhere “had it coming”), but that becoming victims of that heinous crime automatically made us, or perhaps more properly our government, blameless in all things and justified in any and all responses. Invasions of whole countries followed. Euphemisms like “extraordinary renditions” and “enhanced interrogation” followed. Unnerving titles such as “Homeland Security” were created. Chants of “USA, USA” only make me smile at the Olympics, I think.

As is almost always the case … it’s not nearly as simple as politicians and pundits make it their business to make us believe.

So, while government activities and international politics grind on, actual people still suffer, both directly because of the attacks and indirectly, for a staggering and unnerving variety of reasons. There are vast, sweeping plains of wrong that haven’t yet been made right. There were wrongs before 9/11 that haven’t yet been addressed. There are debates that haven’t even been properly begun.

So what can we possibly take away from 9/11 that can make the human race seem like a noble thing?

Finally, I came around to this:

If thinking about 9/11 causes us to wonder what would possess someone to do such a thing, and we look further afield than just the instinctive, jingoistic “they hate us for our freedoms” answers … then regardless of what we find, we’ve at least tried to imagine the world from someone else’s point of view … and that’s something.

If observing 9/11 will cause us to remember and thank and support first-responders – not just the ones that ran toward the burning Twin Towers, but the ones that run toward trouble and danger in our own communities all the time, right now – then that’s something.

If recalling 9/11 will cause us to remember or be introduced to tales of ordinary people helping other ordinary people in far-from-ordinary circumstances … then that’s something.

If remembering 9/11 will cause us to reach out to people we know who lost friends or family on that day, to offer them some help or support or comfort or connection … then that’s something.

If I can start out sitting in a classroom with students who were mere toddlers in 2001, having conversations with them about those terrible events and these difficult issues … and somehow end up with a teachable moment that boils down to “go out of your way to treat people decently, so that your individual world stands a chance of being a better place”, or “let’s work together because it sure beats working against people” … as happened this morning …

then I guess that’s something.


September 11, 2013 Posted by | blogging, current events, news, politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Music Therapy

So, this week there has been and, I expect, will continue to be a great wave of remembrances of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. And here I am, contributing to the great wave.

Already there have been a number of “special television events” commemorating and analyzing that horrible day, and what effect it had on the ten years that have followed.

From one cable TV news network came a remarkable three-hour examination of the events of 9/11 which focused much more on the armed conflicts the government of this nation subsequently pursued, and the terrorist organization it was claiming to pursue, and the lasting effects of 9/11 on our society: how we view the wider world, and how the wider world views us, among other issues.

From another cable TV news network: a documentary about the re-building of the World Trade Center, the end of which made clear that the plan was to replace the twin towers with a complex full of commercial and retail locations (in essence a giant shopping center), and the tone of the piece seemed to be, as soon as this place is finished, it will mean America has somehow won. Like they told us not long after 9/11: defeat the terrorists. Go shopping.

In September 2001, I was beginning my third year as the music teacher at a small high school in the Blackstone Valley. On the morning of Tuesday the 11th, my first two 85-minute class periods were each a separate section of a class called “Instrumental Music”. Originally I think the plan was for this to be when the band met, but not nearly all the band kids could be scheduled into the course, even though we offered two sections of it every semester, so it became a chamber ensemble class – several students and I making various volume levels of music every day. So we were playing tunes. All morning.

My first class ended just before nine in the morning, so my second class was full of students who knew little or nothing about what was happening in New York City. My tenor sax guy, Sean, came into the auditorium, set up for class, and said, “hey, Mr. H, did you hear? A plane hit the World Trade Center.” But he didn’t know much else, so I filed it away, perhaps to investigate later.

The third out of four class periods that day was my prep, and by chance that day I ate lunch alone in my office, rather than in the teachers’ room — desperately working to stay one chapter ahead, as they say. I ran up to the second floor of the building to use the photocopier in the library, and when I got there, I saw a TV set up in the corner and about twenty students watching it. It looked like your standard “must watch this video and the only working video machine is in the library” deal. Then I glanced at the TV picture, and noted that it was CNN, it was live, and a large building was on fire. I stayed there just long enough to put two and two together and get, “ah, so this is what Sean was talking about.” I made a mental note to watch the news and see if I could catch up with that current event later that night and returned to the auditorium, to set up for my last-period class. I’m pretty sure a PA announcement was made not too much later, about what was going on, but I don’t recall specifically what it said, other than to confirm that this current event was getting to be an even bigger deal every minute.

This I do remember though. Last period began, and my singers came in. The “Choral Music” class usually began with me at the piano, and the eight kids in the class ranged around it, warming up and singing from lead sheets. Privately, I called the class “Intro to Music Through Singing A Lot Of It,” with a subtitle of “Songs I Can’t Let You Graduate High School Without Knowing.” The majority of the students either had never sung before but would rather like to try, or had never sung before and needed the elective credits. (Whatever gets you in the door.) At that early stage of the semester, I had handed out only perhaps five or six tunes – I tried to mix up the repertoire, so it was the Beatles, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Billy Joel, Duke Ellington, Sting, and Rodgers & Hammerstein for a start.

I said to the kids, “I’ve been hearing about what’s been going on in New York, and you guys have probably seen more than I have. If folks want to take a few minutes here to chat about it, we can.” When you’re a teacher, you might become a therapist at a moment’s notice; well, I thought, here we go, shrink: let’s see what you’re made of.

They all, all of them, looked at me and smiled thinly; and one of the girls said, “Mr. H, we’ve kinda been staring at it all morning. Can we … just sing?”

Music turned out to be the best therapy that day.


I’d be okay with that being the end of the story. But it wasn’t. Not long after we’d gathered around the piano and started singing the tunes that we’d learned so far that school year, one of the main office secretaries came into the auditorium and pulled me aside. “Could you put together a song with any of your students? That we could maybe have you perform over the PA at the end of the day?”

If I’m in a particular mood, sometimes I will quote one of my summer-arts-camp colleagues, who once said sarcastically, “Music is Magic! It just Appears!” Non-musicians often assume that a musical selection is easy to put together on the spot, no preparation required; just put a bunch of people on a stage or a field and say, “perform!” and you’ll get the University of Nebraska Cornhusker Band instantly, or the cast of “Glee”, or whatever. Magic! (And sometimes, as another wise colleague of mine once noted, music teachers are our own worst enemies: we find a way to Make It Happen, thereby making it look a little easier than it might really be. So people might be forgiven for the misconception.)

But in this case, I wasn’t feeling sarcastic. This was one of those instances in which music can accomplish things that perhaps no other school activity can. I relayed the request to my singers, some of whom had never sung in public before. “Well, gang, what do we know? These seven things, I guess. Is there something that makes sense?”

And one of the kids looked at me squarely and said, “Obviously. ‘Imagine’.” I’d handed out that John Lennon song only just the day before. So we threw out my lesson plan, made sure we were good at that song, dragged a portable keyboard into the main office, gathered around the telephone handset that the secretaries used when they read the morning announcements, and … just sang.

Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for, and no religions too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

The kids’ sound was quite nice; the nice singing went into a telephone and out into the building via PA loudspeakers that were not exactly made by the Bose company, so we might as well have been performing from low Earth orbit with NASA as our sound guys, for all anyone knew. But five students made it through their first ever public choral performance safely.

And we felt like we’d done our little bit to try and help the world get sane again.


[Lyrics © 1971 Lenono Music]

September 7, 2011 Posted by | choir, education, music | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments