Sizzling drums. Drizzling tears. An unlikely alchemy.
Last week on a stage in Paris, while standing in a pocket of shadow off to the side of a big screen, I fingertipped away a couple of tears as I watched footage of my eldest son Parker, drumming. His jazz riff was hot, nothing but pure pyrotechnical spontaneous combustion. You’d have thought that was what was making my eyes burn.
The Paris audience, which erupted in applause for this filmed drummer they did not know, was made up of high school students, faculty and parents at the international school from which Parker graduated a few years ago. He graduated from there, in fact, only months after that drumming footage was taken. Invited to speak to this audience for a morning, I had brought as accompaniment that firstborn son of mine on film. Our youngest, Luc, who looks a lot like his big brother, I brought in the flesh. Luc sat front and center, about where his brother had sat during graduation practice, June of 2007.
Dalton, our middle son, I couldn’t bring to Paris. Although he wanted to come, a single day away from full I.B. coursework this semester could be lethal, and having lost study time doing Benvolio in this school’s “Romeo and Juliet,” he was already begging for an extension on a deadline for another major I.B. project, the extended essay. On that stage, I of course thought of Dalton and the pressure he’s under, pressure many of those students in front of me in Paris were under, too. They are strivers, most of them, in a demanding curriculum, and some were candidates for the full I.B.
There they sat, gorgeously alive, faces packed with promise. Concentrated, quizzical, study-weary, but leaning into my presentation as they are leaning into their future: ship mastheads tilting toward their oceanic tomorrows.
I was moved just looking at these kids. And some images I projected of Parker as co-captain of both basketball and volleyball teams made my nose sting and my throat tighten. Because this was Parker’s school, his very stage. And I was speaking to these students in what was Parker’s life stage – late adolescence – that crescendo swell when everything is coming together, plumbing deep and blooming wide all at once, building for. . .
For most of those students in front of me, as had been the case for Parker, this high school stage –– both the literal one on which I stood as well as the metaphorical one in which they stood –– was a launching pad for the world stage. That’s how Parker treated it. Life was ahead, huge and welcoming, his oyster, his clam bake, his personal “oceanic tomorrow.”
“So what are you all preparing for?” I asked my young, beautifully breathing audience. “Who’s preparing for this week’s exam? Midterms? Who’s preparing for SAT’s? ACT’s? That Extended Essay? Theory of Knowledge paper?”
Hands were shooting up everywhere.
“And college applications? Anyone here deep into those?”
More limp hands. A low groan from row 14.
“And what are all these numbers –– your test scores, I.B. or A.P. results, GPA –– telling the world about you? Telling you about yourself? Your aptitude? Your potential? Your worth? Your guaranteed happiness?”
Then in about row six, a girl with dark blonde hair and the huge eyes of a famished hawk, shifted, pulling her sweatshirt hood tighter around the nape of her neck. A flash of connection, and I wondered: Is she happy?
And for one breath, I choked as I tried to swallow that thought alongside the joy that exploded from that drumming boy, Parker. Then the rush of recollection: sitting in that school’s top administrator’s office in 2006, a couple of coaches next to me (at my request), the jazz band conductor standing in a corner.
“Listen,” I remember saying, “we have to pull Parker out of the full I.B., understand? Put him in a couple of I.B. courses, maybe, and maybe some A.P. I’ll go along with that. But what I’m saying is, his GPA is suffering, so I’m pulling him. And one more thing: no more drums. No more ball.”
The athletic director hung his head and shook it, side to side. The headmaster let out a long sigh. The conductor lifted his brows. “Really? Just . . . pull him?”
“You do that, Mrs. Bradford,” the assistant basketball coach mumbled a bit, “and you’ll take away his oxygen.”
“Mrs. Bradford, I really do think he needs music,” the man in the corner spoke up. “It’s in him. He’ll be sick without it. Besides, he’ll drive his teachers nuts drumming on his desk.”
“Right. Right.” (I was impatient with their softness while I was trying to be ambitious for my son. After all, someone had to be.) “Honestly,” I continued, “they aren’t necessary, music and ball. They’re treats, rewards for hitting the grades.”
The men were quiet.
“I know, I know,” I went on, “I’ll be unpopular with you folks, and okay, Parker’s good at these things. Really good. But don’t worry. I’ll be the one to break the news to him, not you. I’ll be the bad guy.”
To this day, and especially while viewing for the first time since 2007 that sizzling drumming footage, the memory of that conversation turns my insides into the hot slosh of the Ganges Delta. Its tide climbs my torso like a whole year of “oceanic tomorrows.” And I so want to weep.
Then I shiver with gratitude, relieved that, as it turned out, I buckled on that hardliner moment, and in spite of a sagging grade here or there, Parker was allowed – encouraged – to keep playing, both drums and ball. He played because his well-meaning but short-sighted mom was overruled by a dad, whose philosophy was simple: the immeasurable is of more value than the measurable. As floppy and slovenly as it might sound (dad said) there is value in just doing what you really love doing. There is value, he said, and there is even achievement in just being happy.
Dad was aligned with insightful administrators, people who were more interested in the holistic picture of Parker’s educational experience – his obvious talents, his nature, his joy – than in insisting on acquiring certain statistical currency. They were, in the end, focused on complete development, while I was caught in the pinch of the lie that tells us that hitting quantifiable markers of achievement alone – scores, rankings, admissions – equals education, which (the lie continues) will equal durable happiness.
Months after the drumming riff, a month after high school graduation, ten days into a college preparation workshop, Parker lost his life. That loss changed everything. Everything. Because I know in my cells how brief the time is we get to spend with our children, how illusory those “oceanic tomorrows” are, I have strong opinions about anything –– even a first class education –– that robs families of time together. Furthermore, I resent any outside element that imposes poisonous amounts of pressure (upwards of 40 hours of work each week outside of the classroom?) on youth, creating a toxicity that inevitably seeps into and affects the quality of that limited time these young people have remaining with their families.
And so, as much as I praise the I.B. for its
1) multiethnic, multilingual, multi-philosophical approach to learning,
2) its emphasis on self-governance and time management,
3) its focus on debate and verbal defense,
4) its development of rigorous questioning, including the questioning of authority, and
5) its global grading practices …
And even if I have my third child of four enrolled in an I.B. program, I can only be grateful that my eldest son’s last two years of life were not weighted with the I.B. and the kinds of anxiety, distress, sleeplessness and self-flagellation that I have seen it engender in many youth. Besides getting solid education, Parker had enough bandwidth in his young life for the things along with academic learning that brought him joy: his music, his sports, his friends, his family, his religion, and his hometown, Paris.