Once every month of Sundays I give my students an assignment that makes me wish I could’ve had me as a teacher in high school. Please don’t read this as an arrogant statement; I would never under any circumstances want to teach me because I’ve had students who reminded me very much of myself at that age, and they’ve driven me bonkers. No, I’d hate me as a student. What I really mean is that I’m a huge nerd who occasionally does his own assignments.
In this case, I gave my Creative Writing students the task of arranging the soundtracks for their lives, giving them a few guidelines and basically free reign too narrate their lives with whatever music was most important and meaningful to them.
The idea behind this is that music has a way of bringing you back to a different epoch of your life. Oh come on, you know how it is, digging through your closet and finding that box of tapes you spent hours by the radio assembling by recording your favorite songs straight from the broadcast. It’s exactly the reason why couples pick specific ditties for their weddings, because of the feelings and memories certain music immediately invokes.
So I did it, too, even providing links to the music so you can listen to it and try to hear what I hear. If you care, that is…
Boyz II Men, “On Bended Knee”
You’re at a junior high dance, and scores of burgeoning adolescents have separated themselves according to gender in a dark gym dampened with the humid, sweaty air of active pre-pubescents. For me this time occurred in the mid-90s, so the music playing is pretty diverse, ranging from Skee-Lo’s “I Wish” to Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It,” and up to this point in the evening I’ve had a very nice time doing a manly mosh-pit ballet with my guy friends and just sitting out the slow ones.
I spent most of junior high sans girlfriend, partly because I was a huge wuss and partly because the girl I liked always had some beau on her arm. Mostly because I was a huge wuss, though. Despite that, I built up the nerve at one dance to ask this girl to dance, even though her card was pretty much full every other dance I’d been to that year. I want to say it was seventh grade, but I don’t exactly recall. All I remember is Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee” blaring sweetly over the speaker system and me dancing about three feet away with the girl of my dreams, fingertips resting slightly on her hips, her hands laying platonically on my shoulders. It felt like heaven.
Then again, I was twelve, experiencing hormones for the first time, so even a simple brush in the hallway from a member of the opposite sex was heaven. Take that for what it’s worth, I suppose. The song still feels magical to me, if only because it reminds of what puppy love feels like. Things get so much more complex when you’re an adult, so to have things be as simple as they were back then, even if just for the duration of one song, is a pleasant stroll through yesterday.
Nine Days, “If I Am”
Speaking of more complicated love, this one pretty much represents all the horrible, horrible luck I had the wiles of the heart during my tenure at Illinois Wesleyan University. Things did not go well for me there as far as the ladies were concerned, and I somehow managed to get my heart broken time and time again. This, in case you hadn’t already guessed, sucked immensely.
Somehow this song managed to both cheer me up and bathe in sorrow and dejection with me, and to this day I couldn’t tell you if the lyrics to this song are about a guy who refuses to give up on the girl of his dreams, or a guy who tried dating the girl with his dreams, screwed it up, and is now mourning over the blown opportunity knowing he’ll never get how badly he fumbled the whole ordeal. I was able to use the song for both as I went through all kinds of 18- and 19-year-old drama.
There was, for example, the time I foolishly told a girl I really cared about that I had feelings for despite the fact she was dating someone else (and had been for some time). Luckily for me, things went sour with Other Guy, and said girl relayed mutual feelings for me, which at the time made me feel as though I were filled with awesome. Shortly thereafter, however, she decided to give Other Guy a second chance, leaving me in the dust with a shattered heart.
From there I dated the girl that went home for a weekend and did the dirty with an ex-boyfriend, which was bad. Then there was the girl I dated only because she really liked me, and she ended up getting really hurt because I failed to deal with it properly. Also bad. There was the girl I dated long-distance for way too long, who, as it turns out, was the paradigm of The Wrong Girl for Joel. Bad, bad, bad.
And then, as a senior, I busted out this song and remembered the girl from freshmen year wondered what if would’ve been like had we dated, which ended up working out briefly, and then not working out shortly thereafter, leaving me in a bit of an emotional tissy. In retrospect, I look at this song and hear the line, “Never let the sun set on tomorrow before the sun rises today” and still see the wisdom in it. That little line, and this little tune, really got me through a lot of bad luck with my previous gal-pals.
Frou Frou, “Let Go”
At the end of that senior year of school I was pretty much at my low point in terms of self-confidence. I’ve never been a guy who gets too down on himself since I usually have a lot of good things going on, but in that last month or two of my college career there were no indications that my life would be of much value to anyone outside of my immediate family and closest friends.
The girl problems speak for themselves, but I was also spending something like five hours a day researching William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” for my senior seminar research paper. I felt no passion towards this subject and found the days long and grueling. There’s nothing worse than writing 35 pages about a topic you have less interest in than something like snail respiratory systems or igneous rock structures in dry, temperate regions of coastal South Africa. Plus, I knew I’d never publish it, so my audience was my professor at the time, who thankfully, mercifully, awarded me a “B” on a paper with less passion than a Sanjaya Malakar performance on “American Idol.”
Worst of all, I think, was that I couldn’t seem to secure a job in the teaching profession, despite several interviews, many of which got me very close to employment, but none of which took me the whole way. We’re talking like ten of these things where I’m driving hours to chat with administrators and potential colleagues, only to get a callback within days to tell me I didn’t get the job. Let me tell ya, the more job interviews you fail to nail, the more you feel like a giant D-bag. And that’s what I felt like in the spring of 2004. A giant bag of D.
Which is where this song comes in. The line du jour here is, “There’s beauty in breakdown,” and I eventually got to a point where I didn’t care if my life had direction or not, or if I’d be a contributing part of American society. I just wanted to take my failures, throw them into my bag of life experience, and start having fun again. So with a month left before graduation, thanks to some very good friends, I got myself back on track and started really feeling happy again. It might be a little cornball, but this song always makes me think of feeling so insecure, but it also makes me think of the sunrays I started to feel towards the end of that era of my life.
Dave Barnes, “Night Like This”
The story today ends here, with this gorgeous song by Dave Barnes. It’s only a couple of minutes long, but it just makes me think of those first few times I slow-danced with Amy, and how it got my heart beating with the same intensity as it did when I was twelve years old with Boyz II Men serenading the gym at the Friday sock-hop.
The smoothness of Barnes’s voice and the gentleness of the piano really make this song a true ballad, and when I hear it I feel all the love in the world for the girl at the end of a really stressful and uncertain journey. Of course when I slow dance now, I do so a little closer than I did in seventh grade, and even though the girl’s dance card is still full, this time it’s filled top to bottom with my name.
All things considered—ALL things considered—I’m a pretty lucky dude.
(Note about the clip here: The best quality version of this song I could find is laced over a montage from "The Office," though I promise I loved the song long before this fabulous show debuted, and my love for it has nothing to do with my love for the show.)