Music

Songs w/ Substance #8 – John Prine – “Lake Marie”

Lyrics: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johnprine/lakemarie.html


Every place has a history. Every river, hill, valley, and tree has bared witness to an endless array of mankind’s collective moments.  Thanks to the diversity of the human experience, that history rarely has a coherent narrative—it is a random collection of happenings that may share nothing in common other than a pair of geographic coordinates that mark the place in which those happenings unfolded.  Nevertheless, part of the same narrative those happenings remain, and it’s up to us to decide what that narrative means.

No song in the history of music better illustrates this phenomenon than John Prine’s “Lake Marie”. The lyrics recount a history—part-actual and part-fictional—that describe a few of the events observed by the lake’s “peaceful waters”.  These events include a tale of two abandoned babies that gave the real-life Wisconsin lake its name, a fictionalized but highly-believable story of a struggling marriage seeking to find salvation in the fond memories formed on the lake’s shorelines, and a pair of mutilated, murdered bodies discovered in the forest that surrounds the water.

The disconnectedness of these events is challenged at the end of the third verse, when the song’s narrator, who is learning about the area’s latest double-homicide through the “TV news”, connects those murders back to the marriage that he could not save.  He finds in those murders an unmistakable symbolism of his own lost love that had been “slammed up against the banks of old Lake Marie.”  To the narrator, Lake Marie is a place of unfulfilled promise—a love set to the soundtrack of “Louie, Louie” that could not endure the test of time…A serene and secluded body of water that could not hide from nor escape the world’s ugliness.

John Prine once said that, in his songwriting, he likes to “try to look through someone else’s eyes,” and give his audience “a feeling more than a message.”  “Lake Marie” is reflective of that effort.  It’s a song about a certain place with a certain story, but it’s also a song about all of the places that us humans name, occupy, and experience.  It’s a song about the public history for which a place is known, but it’s also about the more intimate connections that form between that place and certain individuals.  It’s a song about the different meanings that we attach to a place depending on that place’s significance in our own stories—both for better and for worse.

We all have our own Lake Marie’s.  They’re the towns where we grew up and the parks and playgrounds where we made our first childhood memories.  They’re the buildings of education and employment that shaped and molded us into the people that we are today.  They’re the various scenes and settings that have played host to our lives’ greatest triumphs and tragedies, and the personal relationships that we have formed with those places as they become a part of our history and we become a part of theirs.  That’s why in John Prine’s song, even if we don’t know Lake Marie personally, we all know how Lake Marie feels.  Aah baby, we gotta go now.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below

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Politics, USA

More gun control would lead to less gun violence. Period.

In governance, some things are just common sense.  If you have higher taxes on the rich, you will have less economic inequality.  If you invest more money in education, you will have better public schools.  If you increase border security, you will have less illegal immigration.  And if you pass gun control legislation, you will have less gun violence.

These are value neutral statements.  They are not saying that the result of the above trade-offs are necessarily good things or bad things.  They are simply saying that if the first action is taken, the second thing will happen. One does not need to be a fan of the type of equality that results from higher taxes on the rich—an action that some may viewing as punishing success while rewarding the lazy—but nevertheless, this action would undoubtedly create less economic inequality.  Likewise, one does not need to like the limitations that gun control legislation might impose on their 2ndamendment rights, but it is undeniable that less gun violence would be the result of those limitations.

When it comes to guns, this is also true as a matter of degree.  Degrees of gun control and gun violence are inversely correlated—the more of one, the less of the other.   In the United States of America, we will never be able to eliminate gun violence completely, but with every step we take towards controlling our firearms, we also take a step towards reducing the violence that guns can create.  Take longer waiting periods.  In and of themselves, longer waiting periods would make a nearly imperceptible dent on the overall amount of gun violence in this country.  That said, longer waiting periods still would likely prevent some instances of gun violence, such as crimes of passion or firearm purchases that take place during episodes of irrational decision-making. What is more, if passed as part of a more sweeping gun control package, longer waiting periods could play a role in a larger ensemble that makes a more visible impact.  This package could include items such as mandatory background checks, required certifications, higher age restrictions, and bans on certain assault-style weaponry or modifications.

If you’re not buying this logic, try running the thought experiment in reverse:  What if we made guns more easily attainable?  What if we removed the gun control measures that we already have in place?  What if any Joe Schmoe off the street could walk into a gun shop with a driver’s license and a debit card and walk out five minutes later with a fully-automatic weapon and ammo to boot?  No matter how many times I run this simulation in my head, the results are always the same—more shootings and more bodies.

I’ve often heard it said that—no matter the limitations and regulations that we place around guns—if somebody wants a gun, they’re going to find a way to get one.  I don’t buy that argument.  Perhaps if the person is a career criminal well-acquainted with the sketchy faces and shady places that make up the black market, then yes, they may find a way to obtain a firearm, even if the law says that they shouldn’t have one.  But when it comes to many of the hapless teenagers that have been shooting up our schools over the past two decades, I’m not so sure that the same is true.  Would the Parkland shooter have obtained a semiautomatic rifle if he could not have legally purchased one himself?  Maybe, but maybe not.  Would the shooter from Sante Fe have gained access to firearms if there were stricter laws regarding gun storage in a house inhabited by minors, or if the house would not have contained firearms at all? Maybe, but maybe not.  If we could rewind time to the days before Columbine and implement all the restrictions and regulations suggested in this write-up, could we have prevented the 217 episodes of gun violence that took place in schools across the country during that time?  Definitely not all, but very likely some.

And that last part is the key.  No amount of gun control will eliminate gun violence.  No single piece of legislation can make a mass shooting impossible.  But more control of firearms CAN and WILL reduce gun violence in this country.  While eliminating gun violence should always be the goal for the ideal world, reducing gun violence should guide our decision-making in the world that we actually live in.

There are reasons to be skeptical of some gun control measures.  Like it or not, the right to bear arms is constitutional in this country, and while I would be the first to support a constitutional amendment that changed gun ownership from a right to a strictly-regulated, dutifully-earned privilege, that solution does not seem plausible considering the current political reality.  Also, despite what the statistics tell us, possessing a gun does help some people feel safer, and in many instances, has given people the ability to protect themselves, their families, and others when harm inevitably threatens.  Nevertheless, the point stands that the more we begin to shift our laws and our attitudes away from protection of gun rights and towards limiting them, the less gun violence we will see.  On that single point, it really is that simple.

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Education, Military, USA

Teaching, Ideology, & Neutrality

I had a substitute teacher in my classroom the other day when I was out for some PD.  I got a chance to meet him when I arrived back at the building prior to the end of the day.  He was a cool guy with an interesting story.  Just in the brief conversation that I had with him, I suspected that he and I might have some ideological differences.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  I like a sub that offers a change of pace from me. It keeps my kids on their toes.

It wasn’t until a couple days later that I noticed the bumper sticker.

In the corner of my whiteboard, I have a bumper sticker that I found in a filing cabinet underneath a pile of posters.  It’s a historic bumper stick, created in 1979 by a group called the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.  The bumper sticker reads: “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”

I’ve had this bumper sticker for a while.  It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I appreciate the premise.  However, on this day, it wasn’t the bumper sticker that caught my eye, but the slip of paper that was hanging beneath it.  It read: “Were it not for a strong, well-funded military, our schools would not have the freedom to do what they do!”  Following the quote there was a hyphen indicating the quote’s author.  Following the hyphen was the name of my sub.

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I was not sure how to feel about this at first, but I definitely felt things.  Part of me felt annoyed that a guest in my classroom would have the audacity to make such an alteration to the physical space.  Part of me felt angry at the implication that the messages that I am providing to my students are somehow misleading or harmful.  Part of me felt impressed by the balls and conviction of such a bold, unapologetic move.  And part of me felt a tinge of self-doubt that perhaps my sub had a point.  I spent some time thinking about those things, and I think that I know how I feel now.

Both of the quotes make legitimate claims.  It is legitimate to claim that a strong, well-funded military allows Americans to enjoy many of the freedoms that we enjoy, but it is also legitimate to claim that we spend too much money on our military, particularly when compared to other potential areas for public investment, i.e. education.  To be sure, a strong military and an educated populace are both essential components of a free country, and the debate over allocation of resources towards establishing each of those components is a fair one.  In hanging his quote next to my bumper sticker, my sub definitely did his part to facilitate a conversation that undoubtedly has a place in social studies classrooms.  That is why my sub’s quote continues to hang on my whiteboard.

But what motivated him to do it?  What motivated my sub to go through the trouble of typing that quote, printing it out, cutting it down to size, and hanging it on my whiteboard?  The way that I see it, there are two possible explanations.

The first is that my sub is a self-appointed member of the neutrality police.  He believes that high school classrooms are places where knowledge should always be presented in a way that is unbiased and objective, and takes it upon himself to address any potential violations of this most important principle.  However, something tells me that this guy is not going around posting Peace Corps flyers next to National Guard advertisements or pinning re-elect Obama buttons next to portraits of Ronald Reagan, meaning that there must be a different explanation.

That explanation is ideology.  In my bumper sticker, my sub saw an ideology that he did not like, so he decided to amend it with one that he liked better.  Since he names himself as the author, I think that I can safely assume that the ideology expressed in my sub’s quote is his own, and I’m guessing that the sub also assumes that the ideology expressed on the bumper sticker is mine.  In that assumption, he is partially correct.  I do sympathize with some of the concerns expressed on that bumper sticker—that the spending and veneration we commit to our military existed for our educational institutions as well.  But aside from that ideological overlap, there is another, more pedagogically powerful reason that that quote hangs on my whiteboard: it makes my students question things.

In a school that is chalked full of national guard posters and pencils, college acceptance recognition for current seniors who will soon be members of the United States Army, Navy, and Airforce, and the best damn Veteran’s Day ceremony that you’ve ever seen, that bumper sticker makes my students question, just for a brief moment, whether the veneration that we provide to our armed forces can sometimes be just a little bit much.  In a school that is the constant victim of budget cuts and failed bonds, growing class sizes and shrinking resources, that bumper sticker makes my students consider, just for a brief moment, whether the value that we place on our schools and on their education can sometimes be just a little bit insufficient.  It’s a 3” by 12” piece of paper that makes my students question the pro-military messages that they are subliminally bombarded with every day of every school year. They may choose to embrace the sentiment expressed in that bumper sticker, or they may choose to reject it, but at the very least, just for a brief moment, they are asked to consider it.

I don’t have a problem with ideology in education.  In fact, I don’t think it is possible to avoid it.  Nothing in education is neutral.  Even neutral itself is an ideology.  As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire once wrote, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”  Our goal as educators should not be to eliminate bias—it should be to teach students how to detect it, analyze it, and ultimately choose whether to embrace its sentiments or reject them.

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Lots of different perspectives are included in my classroom, both in the content that I teach and in the voices of my students.  As a source of authority, I usually don’t like to include my own.  However, in certain situations I will share my perspectives on issues, not in an attempt to convince students to think like I do—although I’m perfectly happy to convince them if they’ll let me—but to explicitly teach them a more important lesson: while I may be a source of authority, I am not an ultimate source of truth.

I’m an adult.  I’m educated and informed, but ultimately, students should question me just like they question their books, their newspapers, and any quotes that might hang on their classroom whiteboard.  I want students to hear different perspectives, understand different perspectives, consider how different perspectives might merge with or challenge their own, and then ultimately, choose whether or not to accept whatever it is that those perspectives have to offer.

I have my own perspectives and opinions on everything that I teach.  Education is an inherently political act, and there’s no doubt that my leanings and biases enter into my classroom even when I’m actively trying to suppress them.  But because my classroom is built around teaching students not what to think, but how to think for themselves, I don’t shy away from the ideological.  I hope that my sub approaches his teaching with the same humility.

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