Someone Stole My Students’ Music Writing
Mar 21 2013
During my 12 years in New Orleans, I’ve managed to mostly avoid crime. For five of those years, I tempted fate by not owning a car and riding everywhere on bikes—three of which I did lose to thieves, but bike theft is quaint compared to the crime this city coughs up daily. I’ve swung my heavy U-lock at groups of teenagers who’d pulled their shirts up over their noses and grabbed at me in passing, but I’ve remained in the minority of longtime Marigny/Bywater residents who’ve never been mugged or robbed. Until last Tuesday, when someone smashed the window of my rental car and stole my laptop bag stuffed with four pounds of writing that my elementary and middle school students had planned to publish as a book.
Upon moving here in 2001, I quickly became frustrated teaching traditional writing in high-risk classrooms (one of the few good jobs available to me without much experience). After Katrina, I began giving my students writing assignments exclusively about music because everyone loves to discuss and critique music. I've taught this “English class disguised as a music class” ever since. The kids' hilariously mean reviews of New Orleans albums have been published in several local magazines, all of which paid the kids for their work. I managed to save this fourth-grade dissection of local brass-rock band Egg Yolk Jubilee’s album, Fried:
“The first song, ‘Kingfish’ sounds like rock. Also, blues, and jazz. On ‘No Buts, No Maybes’ the singing sounds like a dude who is sick. On ‘No Quarters,’ the genre sounds like jazz. ‘Close to You’ has the sound of an elephant farting. I imagine Elvis. The singer sounds like a constipated vampire. ‘Freaks’ sounds spooky, like a scary movie. ‘Demons’ is jazz. It has a lot of instruments. It makes me feel like I am in a cemetery. In my head I see a band of hobos.”
Most kids call it “rap class,” though, because mostly we’ve written and recorded song lyrics. Of the 130 songs we’ve written in almost two dozen New Orleans public schools since 2001, the kids' biggest hit (as detailed in the New York Times) so far was “We Rockin’ Jewish,” a tune we recorded while housed in Touro Synagogue, after all the schools had flooded:
We need some black people, in the synagogue
We need some black people, in the synagogue
We need a swimmin’ pool, in the synagogue
We need an elevator, in the synagogue
We need some seafood, in the synagogue
We need some silence, in the synagogue
[whisper] We need some silence, in the synagogue
[shout] Do it, do it, do it, do it / you know we rocking
Jewish, Jewish , Jewish, Jewish , Jewish, Jewish
Snap with it, rock with it, lean with it, bounce with it, preach with it
All you rabbis gotta teach with it
Do it, do it, do it, do it / you know we rocking
Jewish, Jewish , Jewish, Jewish , Jewish, Jewish
But I can just go buy another drum machine, or even go accost Mannie Fresh again, whereas I doubt I can convince the kids to redo everything they've written and drawn since September. They didn't much enjoy writing it the first time. I empathize: after each long school day, the last thing any kid wants is to sit still and write, even if they’re writing raps. This year, I was placed in a language-immersion school full of smart kids and engaged parents—a place I half jokingly refer to as “the only good New Orleans school I've ever stepped foot in.” Yet even these kids, after a long day, want only to leave structure behind. But good kids that they are, they dutifully slogged it out, created tons of great writing, and almost published a book.
Along with tons of album reviews and raps, my second-to-eighth grade students had written press-conference-style interviews with musicians I’d hired to perform in the school cafeteria, including wild cellist Helen Gillet and family-friendly bounce rapper LuckyLou. They’d also penned fawning essays about their favorite famous musicians. One girl’s essay began, “Do you know who is my favorite music artist?
“Mine is Katy Perry. She was in a movie called Katy Perry. She used to have a husband called Russell Brand. I read her book called Katy Perry’s Life. I have read all of them. The three things I don’t like about her are that she put whip cream on her chest, and the 2nd is that she left Russell Brand. And there are bad words in her music. She is 20 years old. She wears a blue wig and wacky outfits.”
These accompanied illustrations of Perry, Big Sean, Psy, Cee Lo Green, Maroon 5, Radiohead, Whitney Houston, and more. For another assignment, my students drew themselves wearing full stage regalia while performing for adoring thousands to go with essays they’d written about their fantasy future musical careers. One fifth-grader imagined:
“My stage name is Sinra. My band is called Heart Beating. I don’t play an instrument but I SING! Adel inspired me to sing and I want to be like her. My song most liked is ‘Heart Beating and Singing.’ Two lines from that song are ‘Heart Beating and singing / hard to tell if any one’s around.’ I’m from New Orleans and it’s hard to remember how many songs and concerts I have finished. That’s ME!”
All of that is gone.
Upon first walking out of band practice last Tuesday night, slipping into the rental car and noticing the broken glass, I laughed a little. My ’98 Volvo had been totaled two weeks earlier—a blessing, since New Orleans’s terrible potholes had shaken loose the brains and bones of an otherwise strong car. I was just about to spend $600 on new tie rods for the $2,700 beast, when the insurance company swooped in, cut me a check for $5,000, and loaned us a free white Kia SUV. We didn’t have the rental car long enough to fill it with more than a baby seat, a giant striped hula hoop, and my daughter Cleopatra’s metal Flyer wagon. So sitting among the shards, I chuckled, assuming the rental’s shininess and Illinois plates had attracted the thieves who’d, in the end, gotten nothing. Haha, dumb assholes. I began joking to our drummer about how I planned to lie to the cops and claim I'd lost my laptop. I kept on laughing, adding a camera to that imaginary list, and an iPod. Then I realized: No, wait. Oh no. No. No.
I care not about my seven-year-old yellowed-white Macbook. I'd once tipped a beer into it, and it came back to life. My daughter dumped orange juice across the keys, and it came back from that too (albeit, with inoperable up and down keys). Another time it slipped from my car into a mud puddle so deep I couldn't see it; I removed some screws and propped it over the heating vent, and in five days, it came back on, with the up and down keys working again. All this to say: it was time for a new computer. I’d backed up most of my own important work—though only 20 percent of the kids’ writing had been digitized. The rest of their work lived in those red and yellow folders, which now presumably lie in the city dump.
I waited for the police in the chilly night outside the warehouse for two and a half hours: plenty of time to think. The famous New Orleans painter James Michalopoulos, who lets us practice in his warehouse, came out and told me too late that his Scion had also fallen victim to a smash-and-grab last week. James owns a rum distillery and gave me a big new bottle of his alcoholic ginger-root beverage to keep me company while waiting. Alone, drinking and thinking, I saw this tragic situation quite clearly: I’d been caught slippin’. I’ve lived here long enough to know better. I almost deserved this.
The kids, though, did not.
Since it's legal to sit on the side of the road and drink in this town, I drank and drank. After about an hour, I finally flagged down two policemen who showed me their laptop, on which I was fourth in line behind three similar calls on the same block. Then they left for another scene. Thirty minutes later, I tried a similar effort with two more cops on their way to free a dog from a car. Another cop, a bald kid, barely stopped for me, barking “No!” in passing.
I couldn’t leave my gear in the car, so I carried my dad's 1958 Gibson acoustic guitar (in truth, my only possession of either financial or sentimental value) as I searched the surrounding area, hoping the thieves had ditched the folders marked “crawfish,” “falcons,” “lions,” and “tigers.” I checked a dozen garbage cans and two big dumpsters: nothing. Finally I stuffed the heirloom back in the unsealed car and sat back down on the curb with the ginger root.
I drank so much in frustration while waiting that it eventually seemed like a good and productive idea to pull my rental out halfway into the middle of the road and park. Watch a cop come quick now. It's 100 percent inadvisable to fuck with the New Orleans police department. Last week, in a brightly lit coffee shop, I watched two cops slam to the ground and bust open the head of a white guy so high that one of my second graders could have pushed him over. Waiting out in the street, I drained the bottle just as the bald kid cop zoomed back up: “What is your problem, sir? You cannot block the street.” I whined at him, explaining my predicament. He ordered me to go home and wait there before thankfully screeching off.
I drove the smashed rental a mile or so down the Mississippi River to home, where, with a big glass of water, I continued waiting. The cops arrived at my house shortly thereafter, dusted for prints, and let it be known that I wasn’t very smart for parking my car on one of the Marigny’s busiest, best-lit streets. I agreed.
I woke the next day and wrote to my bosses asking them to find a substitute until next Monday. I didn't tell them why or what happened; I needed to work up the courage to tell everyone I’d been caught slippin’. It was hard to say aloud: “Every handwritten word of the kids’ writing is gone forever.”
I managed to say it on the phone to the local TV station though—a reporter enthusiastically ran over to my house and filmed me standing beside the rental’s busted window and describing this anomalous loss. I forbade her, though, from contacting my students about the incident, hoping that her report might first help us recover the folders, so that I’d never have to tell my students how truly stupid I’d been.
So far, I haven’t heard anything.
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, Salon, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here.
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