One of the few downsides of teaching in primary (speaking as one who has run the teaching gauntlet from the ankle zombies of Year 2 to the megolomaniacal minefield of the typical Year 12) is that you can’t really soundtrack activities with Prince.
All it takes is one perfectly-mistimed dip in classroom chatter or an impromptu walkthrough from the Head (with prospective parents in tow) and you can almost guarantee that the classroom’s tinny PA will blurt out “motherf$&@er” precisely after the Head has explained how the school promotes mutual respect between all stakeholders (and he hastily ushers the blank-faced parents out of your classroom to the strains of “Jack U Off”).
Yes, Prince’s unfiltered celebrations of carnality are not the stuff of primary education, but nevertheless my pen shall be purple this week. Not simply because he has left us far too prematurely; and not simply because he has had such a profound impact across a range of musical genres; but, primarily, because of the example he set that can be applied in all its fallible, frail glory across all professions, not least teaching.
Over the last couple of days I’ve had his last four albums on rotation (at home, not in school, I hasten to add). These final albums popped out with unseemly haste over the course of 2014 and 2015. Each album seemed to represent a statement of mastery over a given genre: dance music, funk, straight-ahead rock and R&B. The first thing that struck me as I listened was that Prince really hadn’t changed all that much from his 80’s incarnation: his music had the same production values, the same thematic preoccupations and the same, often infuriating eclecticism. Many of the songs contain more movement and evolution than are contained in entire albums (if not careers) of less virtuoso musicians.
I found myself cringing midway through the most luscious arrangements as Prince suddenly bursts in with either the most dinner-party-breaking lewdness or (even worse) a Chipmunk vocoder interlude.
Variable quality control, a single-minded desire to articulate the finer points of sexual pleasure: what on Earth could a teacher learn from Prince to apply to his or her daily teaching life?
Well, I guess only this (but it’s a big This). To him, as I listened to these final songs, music-making was not artifice, nor was it strictly creation (in the sense that he was crafting songs): he seemed simply to be breathing. The songs fell from him, true to their own form (regardless of fad or notions of what is good). He makes mistakes, his songs are riven with musical anachronism; but they are also punctuated by sudden leaps into an uncharted future of music (albeit a stack-heeled future of funky fedoras).
I wish I could teach the way that Prince made music. No, I don’t mean teach lasciviously and lavishing my lessons with lewd double-entendre (that’s what weekends are for). What I do mean is that I want to be authentic, fallible and to remain resolutely experimental. I want to enjoy the communal learning experience with my students as something almost spiritual (no, dammit, I won’t fight shy: I mean spiritual and not almost).
Learning, like a last breath, is profound. Learning, like a hot guitar lick, catches you in that hinterland between not knowing and knowing. It tickles you and reminds you that you do not know; but in letting go, you eventually come to a place of knowing, changed. The cathartic glow of a shared thing (a song or a lesson): transcendent.
As his elevator continues its divine trajectory, I salute him with a purple ink-stained hand. I can’t sing for toffee and can only play the most obvious guitar part of Wish You Were Here (which isn’t even one of his, and God knows I can’t play anything of his), but I can do one small thing for him to keep his spirit of authenticity and fallibility alive in my classroom.
From now on, my pen will be purple. Perhaps its ink will bleed into me and make of me something closer to a natural thing: a teacher who in not giving two figs what his Sanctuary Buildings critics think, gives far more. Trancendent teaching: true emancipation from the teacher formally known as Whatonomy.
[Starts singing ‘Darling Nikki’ to Nicky Morgan.]