The Phantom Heart
At the time of this writing, the response to Eleventh Hour Shine has been modest and on a small scale. One person has purchased the album from iTunes, about 300 copies of the CD have been sold or given away, and the short film Marcel’s Opus has drawn 275 viewers on YouTube.
To date, there has been no press, no reviews, no write-ups, and no buzz. Eleventh Hour Shine has its fans, but its dent has been minimal, which in the digital age, comes as no surprise. We live in an era in which anyone can produce a piece of work in any form of media and self-publish online. As the saying goes, the market is over-saturated.
But, commercial success and fanfare was not the point, nor was it expected. The original plan was to create a collaborative culture, produce a product that exemplifies what can be accomplished in such a culture, and to write about collaborative cultures and why they should matter to us in a world of extraordinary need.
But, in any project that spans a reasonable length of time, the creator’s intention, approach, and outlook tends to evolve. Mine certainly have. Arriving at the final chapter of this essay, I realize that collaboration is not really what this has all been about.
While I wanted to demonstrate what a non-competitive environment could accomplish, I also wanted to recover something that I had lost along the way. What had been lost at the time can best be described with the metaphor of the phantom heart. The phantom heart, like a phantom limb, is the felt sensation of the presence of heart, and the simultaneous recognition that it is gone.
What was lost for a time was the belief that good people of good will could ever make a real difference in a world that is increasingly controlled by dark, ego-driven impulses and sociopathic policy-making. The institutionalization of ill will has found its way into all levels of society, with the relentless drive to cut others down and to pass dehumanizing laws and policies which actively crush and oppress people. In the arena of public education, this phenomenon is personified by the “Race to the Top” initiative.
Under this Federal program, individual schools and districts are now forced to compete with one another for federal dollars. This has made schools and their districts further dehumanizing, with a hard focus on quantitative data, a culture of competition among teaching staff over test scores and a wide-scale disincentive from acknowledging real problems and doing real work. From my graduate research and from listening to the experiences of teachers across the country, the real and inspiring work of educating young people has been systematically replaced with the drive to maintain the appearance of success at the expense of meeting the real needs most of us signed up for.
I had dedicated my life to public education for 13 years by this point, and, for a long time I had an abundance of optimism and an inexhaustible well of ideas and strategies for making a difference in the lives of my students and colleagues. But, I could see where things were going. With the advent of punitive laws based on reductionistic assessments of the state of education in this country, the widening gap between research and its application in real places, the unproductive national conversation on education, and the increasingly common practice of problem-hiding in school districts across the country, I could no longer ignore my disillusionment.
I still believed I had some understanding of what could be done to improve things, but I also knew that nothing of much substance could be accomplished as long as the complicated school bureaucracies in our country declined to include the expertise of classroom educators. I had come to see schools as cavernous backwater places where tired and depressed people close their doors and their hearts, hoping to get through the day, through the week, and through the year. Places where the absence of hope creates a kind of vacuum that can so easily be filled by status-seeking political behaviors and the entertainment of staffroom gossip and petty complaint.
Around the time that these questions began to percolate, I was also experiencing inner turbulence of a different nature. Over the years, many dreams and visions had been welling up in me, only to be set aside for my graduate studies and pressed down and compartmentalized to make room for a professional life that was all-consuming. By the middle of the summer of 2012, I could no longer stem the tide of these visions, which were increasing in their intensity. I was feeling crowded by them and was compelled to search for a way to accommodate them. In August, after a month of reflection, I made the decision to take a sabbatical from teaching with the possibility of returning. I gave myself one year to pursue creative projects, including two albums, a series of writings, and two films.
Little did I know that the path I chose to take would become a perilous journey through the cauldrons of a house fire, displacement and hardship, multiple thefts, and the homicide of a loved one. Now, after more than two years since it began, the journey has come to rest in the fruition phase of all the work I was able to accomplish through the storms. Part of that fruition is the writing, which I had planned to do all along.
Although much of the writing I had planned to produce was to involve ethics, workplace cultures, leadership and the collaborative arts, I am increasingly interested in the power of personal narrative and the possibilities that might come out of the revelations about my own experiences as a human being in a turbulent time. My longtime reluctance to be personal and revealing in my writing is due to our society’s expectation that educators maintain the appearance of a sterilized existence, free of the passions, desires, perils and dreams that make us all human.
But, my teaching context has changed. At the time of this writing, I have now returned to the classroom as an adjunct professor in a college setting. This is a good move. Though my choice to teach in this environment is accompanied by lower pay and the absence of benefits, I am at last afforded the opportunity to do real work, to contribute what is actually needed in a professional setting, and to communicate openly and candidly in my personal life about reality as I see it and as I have experienced it.
Personal narrative for the sake of revelation is nothing more than indulgence. But, sometimes we just know that a story is both unique and familiar enough for people to relate to, and broad enough in its implications to move us to seek an audience.