By Wynne Kontos
Julie Landsman is a writer, a painter, and an educator who spent thirty years in the public school system and now dedicates her time to the elder population facing dementia and Alzheimer’s. Landsman’s Bechtel Prize–winning piece, “Words, Images and Music: How We Enter,” chronicles her life as both an educator and a student. “Memory is a slippery thing,” Landsman says. “What is left out can teach us as much as what we remember.” Landsman spoke to Teachers & Writers Editorial Associate Wynne Kontos about music and memory, creating and giving back, and why it’s important always to carry reading material with you.
Wynne Kontos: Congratulations on winning the Bechtel Prize from Teachers & Writers! Can you tell us where you were when you found out you won?
Julie Landsman: I was scrolling through my emails, and spotted the Teachers & Writers’ note. I decided to look at all the other emails because I did not want to feel disappointed quite yet. When I found out I had won, I shocked the dog at my feet by jumping up and cheering, hand in the air!
WK: Your piece is multi-layered, concerned with issues of music, memory, understanding, and compassion. What inspired you to write this piece for consideration for the Bechtel?
JL: I realized as I sat down to write that I have been teaching in many different contexts since I was 22 years old. Most of my time was in public schools in Minneapolis, often with students who were in trouble and had been asked to leave their regular middle or high schools. At the same time, I taught writing in community centers, at colleges, and at workshops.
Three years ago, I was asked to be part of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project and now teach in memory-care settings or with caregivers who have loved ones with the disease. I just kept this range of classes in my head, looked at a poem I had done lately that felt more like prose, and dove in.
WK: Music has been an integral part of how you communicate and empathize with others throughout your work. When did you first begin utilizing music this way? How did you discover music’s potential to reach greater depths with students?
JL: My father played piano and had jazz and big-band music going in our house all my growing up. It is one of the gifts he gave me. I expanded on his choices into rock, blues, soul, R&B, pop, and classical. I brought my music into my classroom in the mornings very early in my teaching career. Students would drop by and comment on what I was playing, or just sit and listen, sometimes amused, sometimes laughing at my choices, sometimes nodding their heads.
In my work with those experiencing Alzheimer’s or dementia, I was moved by the movie Alive Inside, which shows the power of playing music for someone and knowing what music he or she loved. I decided to incorporate songs into every class. I often play three songs in an hour session. It is remarkable what comes up, how language returns, what memories emerge for my students in those classes.
WK: In your piece, you write about the “benefit of ‘not-knowing’,” referring to the power of patience, of allowing people and things to unfurl in front of you. Why is patience important when we teach? When we write or create art? Has the “benefit of not-knowing” changed in recent years as the world around us changes?
JL: I have written and taught teachers and students about the value of “not-knowing” in the context of race and culture: waiting for the true complexity of each student to emerge, rather than acting on suppositions or assumptions about a student based on the skin color, class, religion, or gender.
I began to realize early in my public school career that I could not understand my class without listening, asking, talking with, and waiting to see how my students were living in their worlds. This listening is a kind of standing back I think—observing, laughing with, while all the time having a firmness as teacher, a moderator. Teaching is creating a place of safety that allows each student a voice, a way to be seen and heard. In writing, I also do not assume what will happen when I start into my notebook, or even on the computer as I work from an image, story, or idea.
We need to have faith to write, a faith in letting go of control. Writing is having patience with myself in a similar way I have patience with my students. In my painting it is the same. On the canvas I add color, shape, or abstraction to see where the painting wants to go. All this takes time.
What worries me about the world and the way we demand instantaneous information and answers is that we lose the chance to truly know someone or some craft. In education we are seeing more formulaic and packaged curriculum, guaranteed to get every student “up to grade level” in a matter of months. So we push and teach according to a script, and regiment our classrooms to accommodate only certain answers and responses. I worry we are not seeing individuals in front of us but test scores embodied in children. There is also, however, a healthy response in many of our schools to the impatience in the world: more meditation, more places of silence, more slowing down. It is difficult in a screen-driven, texting, talking-on-the-run existence to pause and wait, watch and withhold judgement or expectation. Yet I see more teachers, more parents, more young people trying to claim time free from distraction, to let themselves not-know.
WK: You spent thirty years in public education and now dedicate your time to teaching elders who live with memory loss to write poetry together. It seems obvious to consider how these populations are different, but your piece highlights how much of what we experience in our lives is so similar. Can you talk more about that? How has that common ground informed your work?
JL: What informs my work, both in teaching and in writing poems and prose, is my awareness of who is written off, who is designated as lost and absent in our curriculums, our history, our school libraries, and even in our community centers. When I taught students who were in trouble in school, I was taken by their strengths that were not tapped by our current system of education. I found in these young men and women the same desire to create, to share stories, to sing, to laugh, and to understand as those in more exclusive schools.
Over the years, it became obvious to me that poverty, race, white privilege, homophobia, and other forms of exclusion were keeping both adults and students apart. I believe that if we relax into the job, if we connect at a core, human level, we find that those in the toughest parts of town are just as smart and competent as those who “live on the hill.” With the memory-care work, it is similar: there are dreams and experiences and humor and deep emotions within those whom many have given up on.
WK: One of your students writes, “I am a moon-watcher, out my window, between the buildings, where the light moves.” This is such a beautiful line that so captures the ethereal aspects of memory, which are so present in your piece. What is it about memory that captivates us as teachers? As writers and artists? How are we defined by our memories, or are we?
JL: I have heard so many students talk about memories of their grandparents. When I use the “I Am From” prompt from the George Ella Lyon’s poem entitled, “Where I’m From,” my students are amazed at what comes back, what they had forgotten but now has resurfaced. Sometimes the memories are disturbing, sometimes pleasurable, and almost always surprising. I am so often taken by the depth of detail, the use of language, the power of images that are recalled; and often my students are taken by these sudden memories, too. I hear the phrase, “I have not thought about this for years” or, “Where did that come from?”
I do not think we have to be defined by our memories, yet I think they inform us about what is important, what stands out as we think back on our lives. At the same time, memory is a slippery thing, leaving out whole scenes and truths. What is left out can teach us as much as what we remember.
I think it is the randomness of what we call back and the unexpected juxtapositions that fascinate my students and me when we work with memory. I am always so impressed by the respect students pay their classmates’ memories, how they become quieter and more solemn as we listen and share. Perhaps memory is what is at our core—what forms a key part of who we are.
WK: What is the current role of the teacher and of the writer in today’s political and societal climate?
JL: In ideal situations, I believe teachers are guides. We are aware of the climate of the room, the hallway, the neighborhoods and tune into that. We use our knowledge, humor, and desire to communicate a love of scoping out the truth, be it in reading, science, history, or math. We provide a safe space for students to disagree, work with differences, puzzle out what the answer to their questions might be.
In this political climate, as always, I believe teachers have an obligation to make clear their sense of right and wrong, and be willing to share their guidelines, expectations, and beliefs. In the current divided state of our country, I think teachers cannot function with honesty if they experience a gag rule about politics or events around them. Students want to know how to think and approach the world. I believe teachers have a role in this learning process and can make clear statements about their country, politics, and events that do not shut down students, but provide them with a way to question what they are seeing and hearing.
WK: What else would you like to tell teachers, writers, and readers?
JL: Pause, listen to the kids, trust in their creativity and yours. Somehow, try and make student voices the center of the class.
Don’t let any formula take priority over your basic human compassion, your instinctive knowledge of how a student works, or when something might seem off. Throw out the planned lesson if necessary and pull another one out of your emergency, no-fail file folder.
Teach as subversive activity, questioning rules and systems when you can.
Find allies in your building to have lunch with, commiserate with, plan with.
As artists, find the time. Even if it is twenty minutes in the morning before anyone else has gotten up, or in the evening after your family or partner have gone to bed.
Write in your notebook even if you have no plans to publish or send out work. When ready, though, send out work. Give yourself a half hour to be disappointed in a rejection and then move on.
As readers, keep a book with you always—so that when you are waiting for the bus or in the dentist’s office, pull it out and read for a while.
Lose yourself in a book, don’t look up when the bell rings. Just keep reading. Listen to what the kids who pile into your class say when they see you lost there.
Wynne Kontos, a T&W editorial associate, is a licensed masters social worker, currently receiving her MFA at The New School. Her work is featured in the anthology, Love Sick: Growing Up with a Parent Who Has Cancer and Moonlit Wing, with interviews on the New School Blog and the One Story blog. She has performed her work with the writing collective Lost Lit and at the 25 East Gallery in Manhattan. She lives and works in New York City.