i got no idols

My then-girlfriend-now-wife first turned me on to Juliana Hatfield, with the release that remains her biggest hit, 1993’s Become What You Are. I was teaching high school at the time, co-directing a jazz band with a guy who ended up in my own band as well. It was his characterization of the record’s unique sound that still sticks with me: “a little girl with a big guitar.”

Fair enough. The single the record spawned on the Reality Bites soundtrack is the quietest cut on an album dominated by crazy slabs of snarling Gibson. Beneath it hammers Todd Phillips’ incandescent drumming (on a snare that sounds like a steel trash can, and cymbals like lids); above it floats Hatfield’s tiny, squeaky voice. The record is completely sui generis. My friend was trying to name a category, but who else would belong to it? Maybe early Go-Gos, maybe Sleater-Kinney – but not really. They were straight-up punk bands. Hatfield’s no riot grrrl.

Even if she wanted to be, she was hamstrung by who she was. My friend got to try out his smarty-pants sobriquet on the artist herself a couple of years ago, when he interviewed her for Popmatters. She set him straight:

I remember getting your first solo record and loving your voice—the sweet and sour thing, a little girl with a big guitar.

I hated when people would say stuff like that.  I hated that.  I was not a little girl, but everyone saw me like that because I was shy and my voice sounded like that… part of what drove me crazy—people thought I was exploiting it or playing it up, and I wasn’t trying to.  I loved rock guitars, and I wanted to make rock ‘n’ roll, but the sound of my voice kept my music from being rock ‘n’ roll.  I was stuck between these two poles.

Looking back on those records, do you think, “Maybe it’s good I didn’t sound like Janis Joplin”?  Every bar band in American has a singer who sounds like Janis Joplin, but you sound like yourself.

I didn’t want to sound like Janis Joplin.  I wanted to sound like Chrissie Hynde or Patti Smith—I wanted to have a really distinctive, original voice.  Chrissie and Patti and even Courtney Love have really distinctive voices that are … serious.   When I was younger, all my musical heroes were rock ‘n’ roll men like Paul Westerberg of the Replacements.  And I could never sound like that.  So I gravitated toward women who sounded like men.  I love the sound of those voices—chicks that sounded like guys.   Now I am accepting of the sound of my voice.  But it has been a frustration throughout my career.  If I’m going to be honest, I have to admit that.

I hear her: the disconnect between what she wanted to be and what she was, the fear that what she wanted to say would never be heard because of what her voice wasn’t. That disconnect never let her beHer apparently-inevitable ascension to the alt-rock goddess throne never materialized, on the rocks of bad promotion or changing tastes or whatever. A few later she penned the most acid response to the industry since Tribe Called Quest: “It’s not a sellout if nobody buys it / I can’t be blamed if nobody likes it.”

The record is on my mind this week, because my students are also trying to find their own voices in the teacher role they are working hard to grow into. Last Thursday we discussed the middle chapters of Kirsten Olson’s Wounded by School, against the backdrop of Lisa Delpit’s 1988 article on cultures of power and the exquisite Richard Yates’ short story, “Doctor Jack O’Lantern.” It’s a potent stew of perspectives on a teacher’s capacity to save a child’s life or hopelessly muck it up. Taken together, the readings reveal the places where individual teacher choices and personalities continue to saturate teacher practice – despite the ubiquitous pretending that “what works in education” is a settled question, that teaching is just a matter of following the right recipe (and perhaps adjusting for altitude).

We need to use texts like these carefully, because they run the serious risks of overwhelming future teachers with the scope and gravity of the task ahead of them. But by the same token, we need to bear in mind that only an authentic and personal engagement with the daily challenges of this work can sustain our students through satisfying careers that do not burn them out.

In this we have a lot in common with other caring professionals who work in high-stakes, resource-poor contexts. Compelling research in end-of-life care notes that, paradoxically, those caregivers who hold back something of themselves before the work’s stresses are the ones who burn out. It’s the ones who “become what they are” in the work – who bring everything they’ve got to the daily challenge, who sing in their real voice – that can ultimately be sustained by it. They are the ones who build the human-to-human relationships that endure and nurture. They are the ones who find success in long and rewarding careers, and whose students thrive.

This isn’t my original insight, not by a long shot. But it needs to be repeated and remembered ever time we climb into the ring with future teachers and try to have real talks about what the work will expect of them, and how they can bring everything they are to it. It involves the compassionate slaying of the dearly-held “hero teacher” narrative that gets sold back to us every three years or so. And then replacing it with the permission to bring one’s own unique voice and energy to the work – the affirmation that not only will it be enough, it will be the only thing that ever could be.

This post title comes from the last track on that record:

I’m a goddess in your eyes, and I will never die.
I was born of people’s needs, and what they don’t wanna believe.

I hope my work helps my students slay the idols of what teachers are supposed to be and supports them in becoming what they actually are. That’s what will meet the needs of the students that are waiting for them.

What do you think?

(image from VenusZine)

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