Lessons from New Orleans

Last month marked the 10th anniversary of “Katrina,” a hurricane that wreaked death and devastation on the citizens of New Orleans. But the Crescent City has always been a tough, edgy, “hit first and ask questions later” kind of town. NOLA has never been confused with Forrest Hill.

A century ago, a young boy, a boy with no parents, a boy who was being raised by his grandmother, went out to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Because New Orleans was even then a dangerous city, he took his grandmother’s boyfriend’s gun, so that he could join his friends, who were also going to fire their pistols in celebration of New Year 1913.

He and his friends were walking towards the centre of town, when a stranger fired a blank in the direction of the young boy. The youngster did not hit his personal pause button. He impulsively returned fire, and after his subsequent arrest and trial, he was sent to an institution for what was then called “wayward boys.”

Unlike most of the other reform schools of its time, this group home was founded by an African American man named Joseph Jones, who tried, as best he could, to give his “non traditional students” a well rounded education. Like our own Dr. Kinnear, Jones promoted taking a “whole boy” approach to learning. Part of this involved twice-weekly band activities.

A teacher named Peter Davis ran the band, and despite his best efforts, he didn’t click with the newest member of the band class. The new student didn’t seem all that interested in trying to play any of the instruments, and he seemed lethargic in class. But Peter Davis kept trying.

Then one day, the new boy picked up the tambourine, then the drum, and then the horn. Something clicked as he began to play. It didn’t take long for him to discover – and for everyone else to recognize – that he had an unusual aptitude for the alto horn. And he began to throw himself into playing as he had never done before.

Years later, the no longer young man went from entertaining people on the streets, then to dance halls, then to recording studios. The rest, as they say, is history.

The story of young Louis Armstrong sticks with me for 3 reasons:

First, there is a sort of serendipity to life, a serendipity we often fail to recognize. It’s important not just to be lucky, but to recognize our good fortune. If Louis hadn’t brought the gun, if he hadn’t been right there when that stranger fired the blank, if he hadn’t been arrested and then sent into exactly the right place, where he would bump into exactly the right teacher, the world would be a poorer place.

My questions for you on this are: Can we recognize our own good luck? Are we doing anything with that luck? And have we ever expressed gratitude for our good fortune?

Second, everybody needs a Peter Davis. Without him, Louis could have been just another fatherless boy, just another statistic. It would have been easy for Peter Davis to write off young Louis. Who needs one more knucklehead kid? Why wait on a boy who won’t meet me half way? And why should I care about a kid whose own parents have given up on him?

It would be sensational, by the way, if every student had 6 teachers with whom he forged a Davis-like connection, but my experience tells me that what you really need is at least one. We all need one other adult whom we can turn to in that dark moment of the soul because we all hit the wall from time to time, and as Michael Thompson points out, every boy needs a third parent once in a while.

Third, we all need to find an alto horn. Not literally, of course. But Louis found his aptitude. Our challenge is to find ours. A strength of UCC is that you are exposed to so many different options; you can test drive math, science, film, rugby, service, and cricket – to name just a few.

We talk about “igniting” in our mission statement, and that’s really what I’m talking about. Many of you already throw yourselves into arts or sports or technology. It almost doesn’t matter what the activity is. What’s important is that it is YOUR interest, not your mother’s, your father’s, or your advisor’s, and that you care so much about it that you are able to stay with it, to practice endlessly, so that you feel you can achieve some degree of mastery. Because it is that sense of accomplishment, that belief that you can solve a problem or do something really well, that can help give you the confidence to tackle other, bigger challenges in the future.

Let me end with a question I sometimes struggle with myself: I think it is great that you have so much on your plate. It is wonderful that you have so many academic, artistic, athletic, and service options. It is also terrific that at UCC we tend to attack all of these with great energy, and that our expectations are very high. We don’t just play rugby, we expect to get to OFSAA’s. We don’t just fiddle with the Jazz Band, we want the audience’s ears to feel like they are in the French Quarter.

The downside to these universally high expectations, of course, is that we can sometimes feel inadequate if we aren’t good at everything. And I want to challenge that sense of inadequacy. Very few adults are good at all things. (You should see me dance or do taxes or dance while I’m doing taxes!) And I sometimes ask myself, “Would the world have been a better place if Beethoven had been a better math student? (Mr. Tong might argue the other side of this.) But I will leave that question unanswered, at least for the time being. I just hope, though, that you aren’t always measuring yourself against some impossible standard.

So my 3 “takeaways” from this morning are these:

1, You and I are lucky. Let’s recognize our good fortune and do something with it.

  1. Find your Peter Davis. He or she may be in Laidlaw Hall right now. Don’t wait for him or her to find you. Start shaking that tambourine!
  2. Search for your own version of Louis’ alto horn. You may be fiddling with flute or banging the drums right now. That’s ok. Keep exploring and practicing until you get to your horn.

And the next time you hear Louis’ classic, “What a Wonderful World,” I hope you’ll remember the story of a parentless boy on New Year’s Eve. Remember Peter Davis’ persistence. Remember that we can never give up on one another. If you can keep all of this in mind, you’ll hear in that song Louis’ recognizing and rejoicing in the great serendipity of life.

“Oh, yeah…”



2 thoughts on “Lessons from New Orleans

  1. There is a collalary to this in Venezuela: forty years ago, in 1975, a program was started in the streets of Caracas–about as far from bucolic Forest Hill as one could imagine–called El Sistema, which is simply translated as “the system”. The program was simple: put musical instruments into the hands of street kids and let them work thier magic. Of course this did and does not solve everything, but this initiative has now made Venezuela one of the world’s leading educator’s of classical musicians.

    The best known of course is Maestro Gustavo Dudamel, sometime conductor of the LA Philarmonic…

    Adam de Pencier
    former faculty and parent, Class of 2016

  2. I enjoy reading your posts! The latest is no exception. When I wanted to read it aloud to my Grade 8 son, he proceeded to tell me that you shared the story at assembly after which he shared the same story with his 7 year old sister. Thank you for an opportunity to engage in a valuable conversation about a meaningful lesson!

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