Member “Mrs. Kate” Carpenter is a folksinger, songwriter & storyteller from Callahan, FL. She shared a recent experience with us she had teaching below. It is a wonderful reminder of the power of music to connect.
Recently I was skyrocketed out of my comfort zone. I was asked to teach songwriting to youthful drug offenders in a Department of Juvenile Justice residency in Jacksonville, FL.
Though I’ve been writing music for over 40 years, I’ve only taught songwriting a handful of times. I took the job on faith, thinking I could do some good in the lives of these young men, ages 14-18.
I consulted with a couple of friends of mine who have taught similar residencies. I took notes and developed a plan. I had to teach for 10 hours in the course of a couple of weeks.
It was never the same twice. They switched rooms on me; they switched groups on me. Supplies were hard to come by, and nametags non-existent. I had bright, creative boys in my class, and kids that looked dead, even though alive.
Their homework assignment for session 3 was to write a song or rap and share it with the group. I was totally unprepared for the passionate explosion of creativity that blasted forth. Taking turns, the boys belted out their raps. The energy rose to a fever pitch as they performed. At one point 4 boys were reciting the same rap in unison dancing, spinning and jumping all over the floor. They were loud! They were passionate…and nearly out of control! You should have seen the looks on the guards’ faces. You should have seen the look on my face! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
These kids knew their stuff. I stood in awe of their creativity and passionate performance chops. The rhythm, the creative rhymes, the intensity….it was all there.
I asked them, how do you learn each other’s raps? They told me that’s all they do at night in their cells. They aren’t allowed to have pencil and paper. It dawned on me that they have developed their own oral culture. Who needs a pen or computer to create?
A bright boy, William, wrote this in just a few minutes time:
Had a lot of time to think
Had a lot of shots to drink
My mind’s so heavy
Thought I was gonna sink
Don’t know I would do
I just can’t get a clue
The thought had crossed my mind
But I can’t pull it through.
So stay eye to eye with me.
Can’t you see?
I’m lost in a fantasy.
So let me out.
O let me out
And let me show you what my life is about.
I’m a 63 year old white lady. A doctor’s daughter, a preacher’s wife. I have never experienced life on the streets. I’ve never gone to bed hungry. I’ve been surrounded by the love of a stable family every day of my life.
In teaching this class, I learned that I don’t have to “be like them” to impart knowledge to them. And they don’t have to “be like me” for me to learn from them. I respected them and in turn, they respected me.
I sang songs that I had written, and had the young men write new verses for my songs. Being a children’s artist, I brought out my puppets and let them work them and write songs for them. They entered into my world and genre, just as I entered into theirs. I don’t know how it worked, but thank God, it did!
As I departed on the last day, I shook hands with the boys, and looked them in the eye. I hope they saw love there. And I hope they’ll ask me back. I’ve got a lot more to learn, and they have many more songs to write.