I do not hide the fact that I am a fan of rock and roll.
And, if you’re a Canadian of my age, that means being a fan of The Tragically Hip.
That means being a fan of Gord Downie.
Gord, as we all call him, in a very Canadian way, like we knew him personally, sort of way, passed away this week. About a year and a half ago, it was revealed that Gord had terminal brain cancer. As fans, we got to say goodbye. There was new music. There was a final tour. The last show of that tour was televised, and Canada pretty much stopped to watch.
And now, he’s gone.
It rattled me. I’m a big fan of music, and lately, that seems to mean dealing with loss after loss of artists who had given you songs that meant so much. Gord’s passing has hit the hardest of these.
A painting I did after catching my last Hip show hangs in my classroom. Gord watches over us as we work. I’ve looked up a number of times the last few days, and thought about what that means in my English classroom.
Like many of my favorite artists, Gord made rock and roll a literate pursuit. I’ve written here before about his lyrics and poetry. In many ways, Gord wasn’t a lyricist as much as he was a poet fronting an amazing band. The Huffington Post, this week, called him a pub-rock poet. In my classroom, he watches over young writers. As I encourage them to play with words, a master of the craft is there, I hope, in spirit.
“The longer that line stays on the paper, the heavier it gets, ‘til all of a sudden, if you’re trying to extract it, it weighs about 700 pounds.” — Gord Downie on songwriting, 1996
Gord was inspired by writers, and wrote in response. And that gave him a style all his own. Many of my favorite artists write lyrics that have too many words per line, yet they somehow work perfectly. Gord was one of those writers. He never shied away from the perfect word, even if it was a word that didn’t exactly fit the rock music behind his delivery of them. He wrote fearlessly, somehow keeping a foot firmly in the abstract and concrete in each line. There is much for young writers to take from this, to develop a style, and do take risks.
“I write every day. I walk around in silent conversation with my latest unfinished songs.”— Gord Downie, 2009
Gord worked outside of the Hip as well. He wasn’t, as a writer, confined to a single genre or form. There are solo albums and a collection of poetry. There are many who feel that these outlets allowed Gord to explore more deeply his craft as a writer. Instead of only writing pieces that would be Hip songs, he could craft poems, or songs that needed other collaborators to be fully realized. It’s easy, in a classroom environment, to stay within the confines of comfort, to set pieces aside, even though they are pursuits you want to explore. If we follow Gord’s lead, we might not do that.
Gord used his lyrics to speak his mind. He used his status as a celebrity to get behind causes, and promote the things he believed in. We will soon be studying one of his last projects, Secret Path, intended to bring the issues of Truth and Reconciliation into the public eye. The story of Chanie Wenjack’s fatal exodus from the residential school he was forced to attend is heartbreaking in itself, but this next trip through it will be especially hard. However, we will explore this hard chapter of our country’s history in my classroom, because that’s what Gord wanted. I hope that students will find ideas and opinions in all our work to make them think, and question the world they’re in, to form ideals and values that guide them well through their lives.
There was a bravery in Gord’s performances. This was a big part of the magic of a Hip show. Words like unhinged, unpredictable, manic and intense describe his stage presence. Yet, this never detracted from the seriousness of what he was singing. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have that kind of bravery in our writers’ notebooks?
There was a bravery in the way he faced the end that he knew was coming. One of the greatest struggles I feel I face in my classroom is the ease with which some students throw up their hands in frustration when they face a challenge. If it gets hard, they look for a way out, instead of facing it. The title of a Hip song became synonymous with Gord’s facing his diagnosis – Courage. I hope that painting hanging reminds us the importance of persevering, of pushing through the challenge to achieve what we’ve set out to do.
I’ve long believed that our interests as a human should have some presence in our classrooms. As a music fan, I think in terms of influences. In the past year, since hanging that painting, Gord Downie has become an important influence in my work. Though it seems strange at first to call a rock star an influence on my work as a teacher, the more I think about it, the more it resonates. I look up at that painting, and think of what he inspired, and I resolve to honour it in our work.
Who are your influences, specifically, those who aren’t teachers? How does their work influence yours? How does it influence the work of your writers?
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