I teach eleventh- and twelfth-grade English, and Friday is the seniors’ last day of high school. Needless to say, this week is a swirl of heightened, tangled, stormy emotions. It’s the I-can’t-wait-another-moment anticipation, mixed with I-don’t-know-what-to-do-next anxiety, poured into we-finally-made-it excitement, topped off with what-if-I-fail-miserably-at-life-and-end-up-living-in-a-gutter fear.
Absolute joy one minute. Pure panic the next.
So, yeah, it’s fun!
What better time for an assembly aimed at inspiring the upper classmen? It came today in an unusual form: nationally renowned children’s author and singer-songwriter, Barry Louis Polisar. My Creative Writing class won the visit through the Jackson District Library’s Young Poets Contest.
I have to admit… When I heard Vandercook Lake High School had won this visit, I briefly considered donating it to our elementary feeder school. Polisar was described in a Washington Post article last month as a rock star of the elementary circuit – “one of the most famous musicians of the children’s music scene… Bob Dylan, Steve Martin, and your grandpa rolled into one.”
Polisar writes goofy poems about lost pants and mean teachers, sings songs about asparagus and underwear. Audiences love the classic, “Don’t Put Your Finger Up Your Nose.”
Cool, but maybe not what my young adult students wanted to see at this important juncture in their lives. Or was he exactly what they needed?
The thing is, I told them in the past two days, that anxiety, panic, and dread you’re feeling about the uncertain future won’t help you one bit. It’s a wall you have to get through, over, or around. Fear closes you off, blocks your path, stops you from moving forward. The key is to step out, look up, and open yourself to possibility.
That’s one thing I’ve learned in my life. It takes courage, but it’s ultimately the most joyful thing to follow your heart – even when you’re not sure where it’s leading. We all are feeling our way through life, strengthening our selves and lifting our voices as we grow.
And Barry Louis Polisar has a wonderfully funny, delightful, off-beat story to share. He went to college thinking he might become a teacher, took classes he was interested in, eventually cobbled together a bachelor’s degree, and started playing guitar. When a teacher friend off-handedly asked him to sing for her young students, a career was born. That was forty years ago.
Now, Polisar travels the country visiting schools and fighting against a culture that he fears is losing its sense of humor and irony – one wacky song or poem at a time. He takes questions from the audience, and tells the story of how a catchy tune from his 1977 album was plucked from obscurity to become the opening song to an Academy Award-nominated movie in 2007, Juno. Titled “All I Want is You,” it’s a toe-tapping crowd pleaser, for sure.
He’s a five-time Parents’ Choice Award winner and has written songs for Sesame Street and The Weekly Reader. He has been a regular musical performer on The Learning Channel and the star of an Emmy Award-winning television show for children.
He’s not wealthy, he tells students, but he’s rich. He writes and performs for his job but hasn’t worked a day in his life. He finds ultimate satisfaction in creating new work and seeing it connect with audiences, he said.
I found satisfaction in watching him work his magic with my teenage students today (not to mention with every adult in the room). Afterward, I asked my students what they thought of this most unusual assembly, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.
From Allori: “This is one of my favorite assemblies we have ever had… It made me feel better that someone who has his life so put together didn’t know what he wanted to do at first. He made me feel inspired.”
Samantha: “Everyone responded with smiles and giggles as he sang.”
Lily: “He made me think I could go anywhere even if I’m set on something else.”
Cordelia: “He made common everyday life seem so extraordinary. He taught me that even after you grow up you can be a kid at heart. He also taught me that no matter what situation you’re in you can still make it fun.”
Luke: “Today’s assembly was amazing and probably my favorite assembly I have seen at Vandercook. I loved how he shared his stories of just going with the flow and it showing him where he was destined to be. I loved his songs and stories.”
Rasheed: “He was a really cool dude… Just the fact he enjoys and loves what he does makes him a very interesting man. His songs also made me laugh.”
Jordan: "He was a funny, goofy guy. If I had the chance to see him perform or tell a story again, I would."
And there, my friends, are some great examples of the joy I find in teaching.