Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Power of Drums

Many years ago, I was teaching high school English in a rural high school in Northern Kentucky, Oh, we were classified by our system as a "suburban" high school, but we knew the truth. We knew which kids wouldn't be there when the tobacco had to be stripped and which kids would definitely be in a tree stand the first day of deer season waiting on a buck. Not to mention that the principal knew exactly which fishing hole to raid on Senior Skip Day. Shoot, some freshman boys came to me one fall, John Deere hats-in-hand, because they wanted to start a "Huntin' and Fishin' Club," and they thought I looked like someone who knew my way around a gun and a rod. They were actually half right.

Now, it's true that some of these kids came from the city down the hill and had been kicked out of their own schools for some kind of bad behavior or another. Then we, the teachers and students of "that school up on the ridge" were supposed to somehow either scare these miscreants straight or give them so much country loving that they turned into decent human beings. Either way, it was a tall order. But it was in this climate that I had some of my best moments in teaching. For some reason, tall orders call for a lot of creative thinking and passion.

I don't know when it happened exactly, but one day in the mid 1990s, I was reading the Kentucky Post when I saw a headline that stopped me from skimming the rest of the news that day: "Banks to Lead Drum Workshop." To most readers that might have meant a couple of local banks were sponsoring an arts event, but to me it meant one thing: Dennis Banks, the Ojibwa Activist, was somehow coming to my neck of the woods. I drove to the Carnegie that day to hunt down Arlene Gibeau in her office. I had to get into that workshop! Never mind that I had never played drums in my life.

As it turned out, that was the least of my worries since I found out on the first night that we were going to make drums before we could even think about playing them. Then we were going to learn a bunch of songs from Dennis' culture and put on a concert--in one week. He said this to us like a bunch of mostly white people from Kentucky did this all the time and should have no problem cutting drum heads out of Elk hide and lacing them together to make a drum fit for a concert sung in vocables and Ojibwa. Oh, yeah, and Dennis was not fond of the word "play" as it referred to drum. We were going to learn to make drums and to drum and how to behave in the presence of a drum. He had his work cut out for him. Talk about tall orders.

Yet, by the end of that week, we had each crafted our drum with the help of a partner, knew how to behave around drums, sang in syllables and other languages, dressed in red and black for our concert, and felt so good we could hardly stand it. We were transformed! I knew that I wanted this feeling for my students.

In the five years that followed, I went to the workshop each year to assist in any way I could, bringing my Dad one year, my Mom the next and finally, my good friend and teaching buddy, Karen. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was slowly building the framework for my students to follow. Once Karen became involved, the two of us went into an absolute collaborative frenzy, deciding that the act of making a drum had propelled us toward a whole new idea for a humanities course, "Celebrating the Creative Spirit." So when our principal mentioned that he wanted someone to work on piloting a Humanities Course for high school, Karen and I were ready to jump.

We jumped right into a Humanities Institute that summer where teachers from Highlands, Southgate, and Simon Kenton began to formulate ideas for their courses. The end result? Karen and I invited Dennis Banks to our school(via a TIP grant from Kentucky Arts Council) to lead our students in a week-long drum workshop. Of course, because of Dennis' travel schedule, we could only get him during the notoriously snowy month of February. Imagine our surprise when school had to be called off for a snow day during our week-long workshop, and thirteen of our twenty drum makers still showed up to work on their drums with Dennis. In that moment, Karen and I believed in the transformational power of drums! One week before, some of these kids would have ditched school for a Jerry Springer re-run. But now, consumed with the passion of filling their own tall orders, they just couldn't let themselves down.


Elaine Jones Hansen said...

you brought tears to my eyes. a beautiful story - I'm glad for you and those students that you followed your heart/spirit and learned to drum.

wonder where those students are now?

Katelynn said...

Thank you for this, Roberta.
It restores my faith in humanity.
Do your students keep in touch with you?