2018 Winner of the Bechtel Prize
By Julie Landsman
Author and T&W Board member Tayari Jones selected Julie Landsman’s essay “Words, Images, and Music: How We Enter” as the 2018 Bechtel Prize winner. Teachers & Writers Collaborative awards the annual Bechtel Prize to the author of an essay that explores themes related to creative writing, arts education, and/or the imagination.
In her prize-winning essay, Julie reflects on the connection between music and memory, stories and poetry. She explores the power of music in opening a path to feel and express emotions at any age. Learn more about Landsman’s work in her interview with T&W Editorial Associate Wynne Kontos.
Chairs in a circle, paneled walls, high windows that look out on St. Paul snowbanks. Maria, a dancer, puts on music. The elders move in their chairs, wave their arms, reach up to the light streaming in on them. When the sound changes from Brahms and goes to R&B, Bert, his memory wispy these days, begins to sing in falsetto, then bass, perfect pitch: “Ain’t no mountain high enough. Ain’t no valley low enough.” Gabby, his wife smiles next to him.
Maria takes the arms of Lydia’s wheelchair, pulls her along in rhythm to the song. I take Charlotte by both hands; we walk to the beat. Soon she tires, returns to her seat, sways as the others swirl, laugh. I put her shawl around her shoulders. We sway in our chairs to the rhythm of the dancers.
As the last notes of a new song, “Some Enchanted Evening,” fade away, Maria leads everyone back to their seats. I am standing in front of a large pad of white paper on an easel.
“Tell me about light; let’s do a poem about different kinds of light.”
Bert says, “Light in a martini glass around five o’clock.”
Lydia says, “When I was young, I never said ‘I.’ I was a twin, and it was ’We,’ always ’We’.”
David, who cannot remember his name, sings, “Let your little light shine” to himself.
Charlotte declares, “I am a moon-watcher, out my window, between the buildings, where the light moves.”
I write these in a list, with deep-blue magic marker. Before I leave, and after we have finished with images and memories of light, they will repeat the poem back to me, hearing their own words out loud, feeling the vibrations of language with sound.
Two weeks later, I go down on the ice, have a concussion. I lose all memory of the fall and its aftermath. For twenty-four hours I did not know place or hour, or how to walk without tipping, drunken stagger, caught leaning toward walls. At the end of the day, Ruthie Foster, Leonard Cohen, and Mavis Staples escorted me into remembering. In time, I found my balance, began to recall the visit to the emergency room. I recovered the ritual of my days, unlike Charlotte or Lydia, David or Steve, who have lost the way to the kitchen or the name of their beloved or even the sequence of syllables in a word.
Bert said to me, when I mentioned that I had lost my memory of the actual fall, “Well. Welcome to my world!” He chuckled.
I have been privileged to work with those with those who are experiencing Alzheimer’s, as well as with groups of their caregivers, for the last three years, as part of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project of Minnesota. Perhaps my own age, 73, retired after teaching for thirty years in Minneapolis public schools, makes this work a perfect match for me. Perhaps it is my love of stories and how they come at random times during our work together in memory-care centers that delights me.
Mary struggles to remember Henry, the man next to her, who shared fifty-five years of her life, and with whom she raised her son Jack, her daughters Lou Ann and Sally. He rose at 4:00 AM to do the milking with his father before going to work at the post office. He came home to her kitchen and the babies, to the living room and television, where he fell asleep in his chair by 8:00. Now he accompanies her to each poetry session. He fills in these details of their life together. What she does know now is that his hand rests under her elbow as he walks her to her seat at the back of their church on Sundays. What is familiar is the music there and how someone holds the hymnal for her. She cannot remember exactly who he is, yet feels at home with him. When I put on a hymn, “Oh Precious Lord,” she wept and thanked everyone for singing along. She remembered the collection plate, and how heavy it was.
One day in February, I play Bing Crosby singing, “Let it Snow, let it snow, let it snow.”
I ask them all to create a poem about winter.
Lydia says “Oatmeal.”
David says, “And if you were lucky you got some sugar on it. Meant there was money in the house.”
Charlotte says, “Winter moon.”
Bert says, “Sledding down Como Park “
Charlotte says “I am a winter moon-watcher!”
Mary says, “The wool hats we put on the children.” Henry puts his hand over hers and whispers something none of us can hear. She turns to him, smiles, and you can tell some memory is there, of him, or their life. A moment later, she looks confused and turns away.
We know, from the work of the Music & Memory project, that songs, chosen to resonate with the era from which those with memory loss come, can trigger not only scenes and sights from their buried past, but also joy in the words and sounds that come with the melodies. Sometimes when I play music, we dance, as we did with Maria, or we move in our seats, or we sing along. What surprises me is when those who have been immobile—heads bent on their chests—become animated when the music begins. When I ask them for words, they contribute, some by singing, some by calling out a memory not connected to the theme for the day. Some simply nod, a few in tears when they experience, for a moment, what has returned.
When I have described this work, people often say, “So it shows there is something there, that all has not entirely disappeared.”
Such statements remind me of the years I taught young people who had been written off by the school system—for behavior, or truancy, or defiance. In teacher lounges, certain colleagues would roll their eyes when the name of one of my students was mentioned. Amidst coffee mugs and cafeteria trays, while gathering up their folders and bottles of pop, others would shrug, mention a family he or she came from, how the whole group was a lost cause. Yet there were also many teachers who would stop in after school to get ideas for these students. They knew “something was there,” that these young men and women were not lost.
And too, in regular high school English classes, it was music that brought my students and me together. Before the school day started, and the dawn light began to rise outside my frosted Minnesota window, I put on some of my own songs: jazz, blues, R&B, gospel, soul, pop, some tame hip-hop. As students passed my room, they stopped to comment on my choice in tunes.
Marcus asked, “Why you wanna play that old-time music, kind my mom plays? Why not some of my music?”
Janey stopped to dance to her “gramma’s sounds” for a few moments.
When I invited them to bring some of their own music with them, we compared sounds before first hour some days, or after school if they were waiting for a late bus home. I began playing music in my classes, to start off the day, to get the hour settled. I have seen teachers integrate lyrics into their curriculum, asking students to explain a song they chose, to talk about its poetry, its structure. History teachers I admired used music to bring an era alive. I have always believed music is a seamless way to instill in students a love of language, of story, of mood that both melody and text can create.
In my classes now, I have seen it move memory, recreate past images.
I walk into the Friendship Center in Northeast Minneapolis. Mindy, a woman who looks much younger than the others in the Memory Care class, asks immediately, “What you gonna play for us today? That soul, that gospel to get us going?” I am surprised. Some days she has not known who I am, is puzzled why I am there.
“We’re going to write about summer. Going to play ‘Summer in the City’ to start.” Mindy smiles.
“You know. If you wore the same outfit each time you came here, we wouldn’t know!” This from Jack, who was born in Vienna and escaped to the US via Switzerland to Sebastopol, to Japan, to Seattle, to Montana, to Minnesota. The class laughs. Jack is 95 and has a PhD.
Again, there are parallels to life with students in public schools. Their humor would often come when, after we listened to a song, we would be writing together. Then we would go around in a circle reading aloud what we had written. Mason would always be the first to volunteer to read, and Susan would be the last. She had been unwilling to share for a few weeks until the rest of them encouraged her to go ahead and try. One day they touched on the subject of memory.
“You know your moms remember all this stuff. They remember everything and they don’t let you forget, neither. How they do that, man? How they able to tell you about your eight-year-old self like that, embarrass you in front of your new girl?”
“Yeah, and then they start telling stories on you ‘cause they can see you are embarrassed. Like the time you hid in the closet in a thunderstorm, or somethin’ like that.”
“You scared of some ol’ thunder, man?”
“Not now. I’m just sayin’ my mom and my auntie can remember when I was scared and they tell about it at the worst times.”
Music sets this off, this relaxation, the laughter. With both groups, music seems to bring stories or playfulness, and the bell rings or the hour is up, and there is a moment of wanting to stay together, a moment of unspoken satisfaction.
Music also brings sorrow with it. When Jack listened to a Chopin concerto I had brought one day especially for him, he wept. I asked for lines about love, the theme for the morning. He said, “So many I loved. So many.” Others in the class mentioned people they had loved over their lives, sometimes forgetting the names, the places, even the relationship, yet all could call out a word, an image.
With the high-schoolers, music also triggered sadness or anger or fear. Sarah wrote about her father who was in prison; Martha wrote about her grandmother who was sick; and Jamal, one day, after weeks of silence, listened to Joshua Bell’s violin and wrote about how he wanted to go to Georgia to see his favorite aunt who was not well, and how he worried she would not be there when summer came and he could return.
I ask the elders to read one line at a time of our group poem back to me after I point to it and read it. They are a hesitant chorus at first. Soon they feel the familiarity of what they have just spoken and what is now written on the large pages, and their voices gain volume.
Interspersed with music and the writing, I read poems I have found on the theme: Neruda’s “Ode to My Socks” for a day on clothing for each season; Nikki Giovanni’s “Knoxville, Tennessee” (“I always like summer best”) or Robert Hayden’s poem to his father, “Those Winter Sundays,” when we create a poem about family. Each time I read aloud I am moved by how they enjoy being read to, enjoy the rhythm of words even if they are not sure exactly what they mean. High school students, in classes for those who struggle with reading as well as those who are taking college English, close their eyes, relax in their seats, and enjoy the luxury of being read to.
We often say that elders have so much to teach us. There is no question in my mind that this is truer than I realized. I learn from them the power of song, the beauty of the sudden image, the gift of laughter. I learn about resilience and the love of being creative, no matter how devastating the loss.
In a similar way, I spent my life being opened up to the brilliance of students whom many had given up on, or who were unable to find a place in traditional classrooms. Much of my work arose out of our mutual connection to song, to language. I have seen students emerge from their pose, their fronting, their posturing, when their music, their lyrics, their language became a part of our work together.
None of this is to say that living with Alzheimer’s is easy or any less tragic for families. None of it is to say that a 16-year-old who overturns chairs and stomps out of a room during a bad day just needs the right song to get him to settle. And none of it is to compare these two groups of human beings to each other with false equivalence. It is to say, however, that we give up too easily on our kids and on our elders. It is to say that when we acknowledge there are mysteries we simply do not know about each other, music can crack open a flow of language for so many. From an “I Am From” poem, I have seen a young woman create a college essay, and—with the help of many teachers, counselors, social workers—be the first in her family to begin higher education. I have seen an older man tell a complete story about his days working in a steel mill after hearing the song “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford.
As I age, I am more and more convinced that my thirty years in public education were where I was privileged to absorb the intricacies of each human being before me. What amazes me and what I am so grateful for now is to have the chance to continue combining poetry and music with elders. As I write this I am listening to “Monk Alone,” the ease of his lonely piano providing me with a way into what I want to say.
I want to add the benefit of “not knowing” as a valuable lesson I have learned over these years. It in the interest of our students and ourselves to make sure we do not assume we know what is in store for those who sit in circles with us, who stop by our rooms on the way to the bus. Rather we wait, for the 82-year-old man to say aloud the name of his daughter; for the 17-year-old young woman, who has missed a week of school, to describe her trip to Mississippi to be with her dying grandmother. It is the suspension of certainty that enables us to listen. Not suspension of structure or expectations, but rather the acknowledgement that those before us can do things we have not envisioned for them. And it is in leaving ourselves open to possibilities, surprises, and the unexpected that we connect with the elders, the children and youth, most deeply.
My next to last day at the St. Paul Center, I say goodbye to everyone, as they continue to shout out memories. I say I will see you next week to Bert, lay a hand on his shoulder. An instant of non-recognition in his eyes, like the uncertainty in my mother’s eyes when she saw me in the last years of her life.
Yet in an instant, Bert connects to the now. He nods to me. “Don’t go down on the ice again!”
Charlotte’s weakening voice follows me out the door to the parking lot, “Don’t forget to come back.”
Stan, who sits next to his wife Emmy as she cuts up his food, sings, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”
About the Author:
Julie Landsman taught in the Minneapolis public schools for 28 years. She has taught at Carleton College and has been an adjunct professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, as well as at St. Thomas and Metro State. Her books Basic Needs: A Year With Street Kids in a City School; A White Teacher Talks About Race; and, most recently, Growing Up White: A Veteran Teacher Reflects on Racism are memoirs about her days in Minneapolis public schools. She has co-edited six books on race, culture, and education. Along with poet and activist George Ella Lyon, Julie has created the I Am from Project in response to the policies of the Trump Administration. The Project collects poems, videos, photographs, and art on a site where anyone can see their work published and get ideas for using this work in their classrooms, community centers, and gathering places.
Photo (top) from Virginia Commonwealth University