When I was young and foolish and starting my life as a teacher, the second decoration I put up in my classroom (after a framed 8 x 10 of Jorge Luis Borges) was a poster of Miles Davis. A closeup of his face, Davis held his fingers to his temples, his eyes closed. There were no words on the poster, and no indication of a horn, but when I looked at that image I could almost hear the moan of the trumpet from Kind of Blue.
More even than the music, the first year teacher that I was found inspiration and comfort in the Davis quotation: “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”
I lived by that quotation for my first few years of teaching, taking chances, some that worked and some that didn’t, and doing my best to inspire my students to do the same.
More than twenty years after hanging that poster on the wall, I still love the quotation, and Kind of Blue, though the principal I have become sees in it a freedom more suited to youth and jazz musicians than fellows like me with gray invading our beards.
As I think about the quotations that touch me now -and as a former English teacher, there are a raft of them- I find that one from James Baldwin hasn’t faded from my mind since the first time I read it during the year I started teaching.
Over the years former students of mine, reconnecting after having gone away to college and to start adult lives, have often asked me about “that Baldwin quote.” It was something I shared with many of my classes on the last day of the year, an idea I hoped might resonate with some as it did with me.
Capturing a truth that applies to all of us, Baldwin wrote: “People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead.”
When I was 25 that seemed prophetic; at 46 it simply feels true. We are an amalgamation of our ongoing choices, and the lives we lead are ours to create.
It’s time to listen to some Miles Davis.