Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Never Gave Up: A Peace Tale About Hip Hop and Fifth Grade Hopefulness

The fifth grade class in Room 101 was no picnic. By the end of September, they were already on their third teacher. The first had some kind of a heart attack during the first week (but would recover). The second was a demure but severe long-term substitute with no formal teaching experience. And the third - a kindly, well-intentioned, slightly-overweight white man named Mr. Booth - was earnest but struggling.

When Janet and I walked in for our first Peace Games class at the beginning of October, we both expected to encounter a mild case of chaos. Not surprisingly, that was exactly what we found. We brought a modified version of the lesson - cutting out about 20 minutes of superfluous icebreakers - but it was immediately apparent that we did not cut nearly enough. Adjusting to three teachers in five weeks had made the students tired, suspicious, and understandably restless, and it showed. They thought nothing of barking at each other from across the room or getting up and walking around without regard for anything the three 'teachers' said. We were hardly more effective at crowd control than we were at teaching, learning students' names from the many reprimands parceled out by Mr. Booth. By the time we stumbled out the door, Janet and I were both speechless.

The months that followed saw the class fall into something resembling a routine that managed to find comfort with a persistent low-level chaos. Classes were always noisy and somewhat free-form, with a fair share of scolding (from the adults and children in equal measure), but it was clear that Mr. Booth - for all of his on-the-job training and baptism by fire - had earned the affection and respect of the students. Despite ample reasons to be discouraged - even crestfallen - he was always unfailingly optimistic and hopeful. He was never at a want for an encouraging word, and his mind was always at work trying to come up with new ways to capture his students' imaginations or motivate them to achieve higher. (One morning, I was shocked to come into his classroom and see a full-sized replica of a fully-operational traffic light, which Mr. Booth cheerfully explained was going to anchor his new behavior management system. It worked for a while but before long became just quirky and distracting.) Most revealing, though, was the fact that his students - in all of their craziness - clamored to be around him. They came early, stayed late, and seemed to bask in the attention he lavished on them.

When the spring rolled around and it was time to start thinking about a Peacemaker Project, Janet and I approached the process with something like hopeful trepidation. By this time, Janet had taken over lead teaching, although I regularly backed her up. Despite the stress that they induced in us, we - like Mr. Booth - had grown to enjoy these students a lot. They had character. And so when they told Janet, maybe impulsively, that they wanted to write a hip hop song for their project - a prospect that would surely have scared off teachers less novice than any of the three of us - she sought out a way to make it happen.

We asked around and found a local hip hop artist who said he'd come to the class. The visit was an occasion that prompted both fifth grades to crowd into the small classroom for an impromptu concert and discussion about positive hip hop lyrics and a session of brainstorming ideas. The whole class spent a few weeks on free-writing exercises and then started writing draft verses. Most of the first drafts centered around how they were 'the best rapper alive' - or similarly-themed self-referential odes - which we gently tried to redirect to issues that they saw in their communities. Before long, the ideas came freely: drugs, violence, single parenting and absent fathers, even hope that someday there would be a black president.

With verses in various draft stages, Janet set out to find a way to record the song. The classes became increasingly cantankerous, as students competed to collaborate with each other or have more or less of their verse included in the final product. And when Janet brought in music samples and had them try rapping to a beat, everyone had an opinion on which songs were or were not good enough and everyone wanted to be heard at once. It was as loud and as chaotic as it had been on the first day. And yet this was not the same as the first day. Somehow, this chaos felt more focused.

When she wasn't in class or working with students on their verses, Janet was calling around trying to find a recording studio. Finally, she got in touch with some graduate students at the Berklee College of Music who agreed to sign out a recording studio for a day so they could record and mix the students' song. It was the field trip to beat all field trips. We took the train to Berklee in the morning and crowded into the studio as the Berklee students explained the process: first, they'd figure out some music samples and loop them (when our students started singing along to the chorus of 2Pac's "Baby Don't Cry," they knew they found the hook); then, they'd bring students in two or three at a time to record lyrics; and finally, they'd edit it all together. If all went well, we'd be able to walk out that same day with a CD in our hand.

It wasn't always easy. Students got restless when they weren't recording. Some needed more takes than others to get it just right. A couple of students asked Mr. Booth to read their verses for them at the last minute (which he did). But when we finally arrived back at the school at 2:00, they were able to borrow a CD-player from the kindergarten teacher across the hall and debut their song for the first time with the principal and several of the other adults in listening in. It was a remarkable moment. Students were beside themselves with pride, unselfconsciously singing along to their own voices and smiling broad smiles. Adults, very few of whom would have been able to imagine such a moment back in September, were astonished.

The fifth grade students who wrote that song in the spring of 2002 are turning 18 this year. I wonder often where they are, what they're thinking, what kind of people they have become, and what else they've accomplished. I don't take for granted the fact that the road has not been easy for some of them, but I'm hopeful that the verses they wrote in their halting ten-year-old handwriting have stayed with them on the journey.

Never Gave Up
Mr. Booth's Fifth Grade (2001-2002)

Let's share the Nathan Hale virtues:
peace, community, pay your dues
We are the future, so we're here right now
To keep the peace, and we'll show you how

Yo, the violence in our community is insane
It is deformed and ugly, (what would I like to do?)
I am the future
stop these drugs, stop these thugs,
stop the illin', stop the killin'
Yo, yo, when you smoke, it messes up your brain,then you start going insane
You start getting weak, you won't be able to take the heat
Aright, aright, okay, come on,
Yo, people need to help each other out
Yeah, killin's not the answer, without a doubt,
Alright, goin' to the store to gettin' shot, what's that all about?
There's shootin' at night, that's not even right
It takes your brain, then it gives you a death...

Baby don't cry, hope you got your head up
Even when the road was hard, you never gave up
Baby don't cry, hope you got your head up
Even when the road was hard, you never gave up
Baby don't cry, yeah
Baby don't cry

What's going on with our community today,
we got drive-by's like every day
You see drug dealers ain't keeping it clean
We tryin' to set the world free with dignity
I love the world with dignity
C'mon (yeah, I feel ya)
Anger's like a stranger,
it's about to change ya
Let the change be for humanity

Our rap is clear, our message is plain:
violence and drugs will drive you insane
One, your vein, feel the shame, miss the train,
You'll ruin your brain on cocaine
Don't even know your name

Baby don't cry, hope you got your head up
Even when the road was hard, you never gave up
Baby don't cry, hope you got your head up
Even when the road was hard, you never gave up
Baby don't cry, yeah
(Listen to your teacher)
Baby don't cry

Yo, it's united we stand, divided we fall
We should respect each other,
whether blacks, whites, Latinos, and all
I can't take the pain
There are gunshots springing, bullets like rain,
But they don't fall soft, only hard
I just want you to relax, till I picture you, God

We are diverse, with all different faces.
How come our presidents don't share our races?
White's alright, but in my crayon box
there's also reds, yellows, and blacks
We can be anything we want to be, but it will take time
Even if you're too busy, our future will not wait

Baby don't cry, hope you got your head up
Even when the road was hard, you never gave up
Baby don't cry, hope you got your head up
Even when the road was hard, you never gave up
Baby don't cry, yeah
Baby don't cry

We have teen pregnancy and we can't be free till we stop and see
Can we please stop and see?
Family is a need, not a want,
Doesn't matter if it's a mother or not
But where are the fathers when their kids need 'em the most?
They're out sowing their royal oats

We are the future of the world today
We need to stop and pray, people are dyin' everyday
Without education, can't do what we want, can't make our dreams come true
Tomorrow's sunrise is the light we see
Tomorrow's promise is ours to keep
The world we share is under the gun,
the peace and creatures for everyone
We believe in humankind, no one will be left behind
If you are lost, let me draw you a map:
We're from the Hale School,
and this is our rap!

Baby don't cry, hope you got your head up
Even when the road was hard, you never gave up
Baby don't cry, hope you got your head up
Even when the road was hard, you never gave up
Baby don't cry, yeah
Baby don't cry

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