A Star Tribune serialized novel by Richard Horberg
Chapter 5 continues
The story so far: Jack Palmer describes his musical dream for the town.
Jack Palmer looked at Dave. "No matter how good a teacher you are, Dave, your students are going to forget the history you teach them pretty fast — you know that. Patty and Allen, how long do your kids remember the parts of speech — if they ever learn them? How long do they remember the diagrams you put on the board? And all of you, don't they forget the numbers and the dates and the names, the formulas and the equations? But nobody forgets music. You remember word for word, don't you, the songs that were popular when you were young. You never forget them."
" 'When I grow too old to dream,' " sang Patty.
"Wonderful. Wonderful. We're all kindred spirits here, aren't we?" He glanced at his wife. "Didn't I tell you, honey, that this group is different? Anyway, here's my plan, my dream — if not this year, next, if not then, soon. Every grade, from first through 12th, whatever the subject, will focus on music. Ballads, folk songs, hymns, jazz, country-western, blues, that sort of thing, popular, semi-classical, classical — everything. Every grade will emphasize a musical instrument — brass, woodwinds, the works. Instead of the junior and senior class plays, we'll have operas and operettas and ballets. Instead of debate, we'll have singing contests — public invited, of course. We'll teach the famous composers and the star performers, of course, from Bach and Beethoven to Irving Berlin and Ira Gershwin. Enrico Caruso to Judy Garland. Sammy Cahn. And, ladies and gentlemen, it will no longer be work. It will no longer be drudgery. It will be fun. There'll be no disciplinary problems. There'll be no absenteeism. There'll be no last-minute preparation on the part of the teachers, no grinding homework for the students. Because everybody will love what they're doing.
"When we're finished, we'll be a musically literate town. What's more, we'll be happy. We'll be a utopia, the envy of all other communities. You won't need to teach alienation, Allen, because there won't be any alienation. We won't teach wars, Dave, because there won't be any wars. People will no longer fight — they'll sing. And play. Like I always say, the town that plays together, stays together."
He took out his handkerchief and wiped his brow.
" 'There's a song in the air,' " Patty sang.
"You bet there is."
"But what about literature?" Allen asked. "What about Shakespeare?"
Jack, flushed with success, smiled broadly. "I'm afraid Shakespeare is dead."
Dave Meyers laughed. "And, as Henry Ford said, history is bunk."
"See, Honey," Jack cried, "they understand. I knew they would."
When the party broke up at 10 o'clock, Allen expected the children to line up in their pajamas and sing "Goodnight, Irene," or something similar. But the children were in bed. He and Dave walked away together.
"Can you believe it?" Dave asked, shaking his head. "Was he serious?"
"I think so."
"And he's the principal."
"Maybe there's one in every town."
Ahead they saw Patty skipping down the street, waving her arms happily in the air.
"In this town," Dave said, "I think there might be two of them."
Allen dismissed Jack Palmer as a harmless eccentric and, the following Monday morning, still inspired by the letter he'd received from Greg Schmidt, returned to teaching with renewed commitment.
Over the weekend he'd had what he thought was a great idea for his 11th grade classes, one that would provide focus and give significance to their discussions. He talked to both of his junior sections about American history, about Thomas Jefferson's belief in rural America — that all virtues spring from the soil — that as long as America remained primarily agricultural, it would be strong, cities being "sores on the body politic." Instead of building great metropolises with their factories that would inevitably lead to crime, poverty and corruption, we should import from Europe whatever we could not make ourselves.
Students sat alert and interested.
Allen went on to talk about Frederick Jackson Turner, the American historian who believed that the American character was formed by the frontier. One of his professors had said, perhaps a bit facetiously, that Americans had "stepped out of history to live in timeless harmony with nature." He paused, then added (for the sake of the town kids) "and in timeless harmony with their neighbors." When a student asked what "stepping out of history" meant, he explained that in order for history to exist there has to be change, and if America remained forever a land of small farmers and small merchants doing what their fathers and forefathers had done, there would be no change, no history. America would remain an independent and self-sufficient stronghold.
He told them that they had two choices in life: when they finished their education, they could remain in — or return to — Stone Lake and live in timeless harmony with nature and their neighbors. Or — he paused — they could venture out and become citizens of the world, like Herman Melville or Thomas Wolfe or Ernest Hemingway. Or like Charles Lindbergh.
"But don't think that one is better than the other," he warned. "They're equally noble."
He identified a few books and stories they would be reading that year which illustrated the theme: "Rip Van Winkle," "Ethan Frome." "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin," "My Antonia," (if they could get copies for everyone), as well as Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Hamlin Garland, Henry David Thoreau and Robert Frost.
One of his better students, Bruce Dunne, a huge young man, the fullback on the football team and also somewhat of a wag, asked a question.
"What if I want to do both?" he said. "What if I want to stay here and live in timeless harmony with the guy next door and at the same time go out and see what the world is like?"
There was a little laughter. A typical Bruce Dunne question.
"And I suppose you want to play fullback for the Golden Gophers too?" Allen inquired.
Tomorrow: Chapter 6 continues.