There’s a new play that’s hot on Broadway and it’s called The Great Society. The title speaks volumes.
Immediately after President Kennedy’s murder in Dallas in 1963, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the presidency and completed JFK’s term. One year later, Johnson won the 1964 presidential election in a landslide. Until the Vietnam War ruined so many of Johnson’s goals, the Great Society programs defined LBJ’s 1964-1968 Administration.
The Great Society programs served one purpose: to help Americans from all backgrounds enjoy greater opportunities and a better quality of life.
Head Start was a perfect example of LBJ’s educational agenda. It still is. However, severe fiscal cuts proposed by President Trump’s 2020 budget pose a serious threat to Head Start. Contrarily, Leah Wells‘ recent memoir, On Another Note: Making Music at Head Start, offers us a reminder of everything hopeful about its classroom possibilities.
There was nothing effortless about the unexpected plunge that folk-music artist Leah Wells took when accepting a last-minute offer to teach in the Head Start program in the Bronx several years ago.
She did so for the same reason that the late, great James Cagney showed up one day and made inquiries at Warner Brothers: “I need a job!” Cagney told the studio personnel.
As the mother of two sons whose father had recently lost his job (he was dismissed without a severance package, despite years of loyalty as a digital printing house’s night manager), Leah Wells had daily economics tormenting her.
This memoir reads like a novel, due to the author’s musical command of the English language. Her sentences flow. The paragraphs are structured like melodies. Her sense of timing is rhythmic. Best of all is that she describes everything—her new milieu; the big buildings and the small children; her craggy administrators and the wide-eyed joy of her animated students—with precision.
From the get-go, the author immerses herself in a strange new world, a realm she’d never expected to enter. Although born and raised in New York, Leah Wells had never traveled way up to the realm of the Bronx.
It is, indeed, another country. Here’s how Wells recounts crossing the threshold:
I board the Number 6 Train and am instantly sorry that I didn’t bring something to read. I have nothing to calm my nerves as the subway winds us further north on this line than I’ve ever been. Although I was born in New York, nothing has ever summoned me to these heights, or should I say depths, because it is both. The train thunders through station after sooty station in the dark tunnel, and then climbs to daylight where we float over city blocks of low, pale-brick apartment buildings. When I disembark at the Castle Hill station my journey is far from complete. At the foot of the elevated station, Castle Hill Avenue appears to be a long, bland strip of fast food restaurants and discount centers. None of the buildings are over two or three stories and their palette is unusually pastel for this city. As I make my way further from the station I pass residential buildings of clapboard and shingles, painted pink and turquoise, and the polluted breeze that hits my face is salted. Could we be close to a river or the ocean? Nobody I ask can confirm that I’m walking in the right direction for Metropolitan Avenue. Not one of the three people I’ve stopped speaks English.
Every aspect of the public school system is as alien to her as the local geography. Like any artist who has ever gone into teaching for economic survival, Leah Wells quickly learned that principals, department heads, and every other type of administrator exist for one reason: to dictate rules and regulations.
They disdain her lack of lesson plans and proven methodologies. One administrator dubs her as “deficient” for lack of an immediate post-holiday detailed syllabus. The administrators insist that every idea has to be calibrated to dovetail with a specific goal for an outcome-based purpose. More stress abounds.
There are holidays that require prepared musical presentations. There are the so-called “Extravaganzas” for which Leah Wells had to create a concert-like variety of material as a way of “proving” the value of Head Start’s budget. And, each day, of course, there were the spirited-yet-exhausting go-rounds with innumerable kids. Wells had five classes in a row on her hands, and that was before lunchtime.
And yet, it is guaranteed that many a class will conclude like this one:
“Again, again, Miss Leah!” They cry when I finally sit down, putting the guitar to my knee to play a “good-bye song” at the end of our time together. I usually borrow the song from Barney the Purple Dinosaur, which goes, “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family . . .” to the tune of “This Old Man.” At the first cloying strains, some children are willing to sit and obediently mouth the words to this ubiquitous anthem that they recognize from watching television. Others stand to demand an encore. “Oh, stay, Miss Leah! Play more, Miss Leah. Play more songs!” Though utterly spent, I still blush at their show of ardor. “But we’ve already had lots of fun and I have to visit your friends in the other class!” I remind them gently.
One Friday I make a case for packing it in: “We’ve sung. We’ve danced. We caught scarves in the butterfly net. What more can I give you? Isn’t that enough?” I ask, edging to the door when a child named Ethan stands up to put in his two cents. “No, Miss Leah,” he answers, as earnestly as Oliver Twist asking for a second portion of gruel. “It’s never enough.”
Fortunately, this “Memoir with Classroom Exercises” lives up to its promise. The exercises spelled out in the book’s chapters are never intrusive or merely didactic. They illustrate for all readers how Leah Wells improvised her classes, adapted to structured classroom schedules, and overcame myriad administrative obstacles in order to create fulfilling hours of music and movement for her students.
But the exercises are also utilitarian. Educators needing prompts or ideas for engaging the wildfire energy of overpopulated classrooms will find a trove here. This book is tailor-made for teachers seeking inspiration for their own courses–especially now that New Jersey has made history by being the first state in the nation to legislate that arts education be included in all core curriculums.
General readers will find a deeply moving, humane, compassionate narrator whose wit, insights, ear for language, and love for the arts enrich the book.
In 2019, On Another Note: Making Music at Head Start shines a light on the Great Society’s legacy.
M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was published in 2017. His new book Mario Puzo ~ An American Writer’s Quest, the first-ever biography of Mario Puzo, was published by Heliotrope Books [heliotropebooks.com] on March 8, 2019 – the 50th anniversary of The Godfather.