The Echoes of the Jazz Age
The school was always the same. I do not remember the topic of the lesson that I was delivering to the class. It was too commonplace and typical, like everything here in Harlem. The kids were not particularly attentive. I paid little attention at their fidgeting. Kids are kids, and even here they have their own ways. The bell rang, and the kids jumped up from their seats and ran out.
I was walking along the hall when suddenly a girl ran into me. I was surprised to see Dorothy. She used to be one of my students but left this school a short while ago. However, I was almost expecting to see her again soon. For a kid from Harlem, it isn’t too easy to switch schools. Nothing is too easy for a person from Harlem. This is the truth with which everyone had to put up.
“Dorothy?” I asked.
“Excuse me, sir”, she replied, quickly stepping back and picking up the book that she had dropped.
“Aren’t you studying at a different school now?” I said.
Dorothy looked a little embarrassed.
“Not any more, sir”, she replied finally. “I’ve returned”.
I was not surprised at her words. Dorothy was the only student who tried joining a school for white children soon after the cancelling of the segregation law. I don’t know what she and her parents expected to gain by this action. People are opposed to novelty, disdainful to those who are ready to accept it, and cruel to those who create it. Every day of Dorothy’s new life was the absolute proof of this. The new classmates would not accept her as an equal. Neither children, nor adults could get used to the idea that the time of segregation was over. The memory was too strong. It held on with such persistence that nobody was able to fight it back. Nobody was willing to do it. I didn’t ask Dorothy what exactly made her return to the old school. I could think about a hundred reasons, and the majority of them were not too far from the truth. I could distinctly picture a crowd of aggressive kids surrounding the “intruder” and imagine the grimaces of hatred, looking on young faces as grotesque as those of the characters of Hieronymus Bosch.
I wondered how Dorothy could stand the bullying and mockery of her new classmates. Governmental edicts have little importance when the problem concerns stereotypes that had been cultivated by the society for years. The children are not quick to change their mind. I felt pity for Dorothy and at the same time I respected her.
“So you’re back”, I said. “The change must have been really hard for you”.
“It wasn’t too hard, sir. Of course, the days seemed much longer, but I didn’t think much about the kids”, Dorothy said. “I believe one day I would have got used, but my parents decided that I’d better return to the old school”.
“What did you think of, Dorothy?” I wondered.
“I just was remembering songs I heard”, she shrugged.
“Songs? Are you serious?” I wondered.
“Yes, sir, of course. I thought about songs or sang them silently, in my head. It helped to distract”.
This was an unexpected answer. I had never thought much about the ways to deal with human cruelty. But when I did think about this, I still could not fully understand Dorothy.
“Songs are nice”, the girl continued. “Haven’t you never noticed that music helps to forget your problems? Sometimes it even prompts how to act, I believe. A couple of times, at least.”
“Dorothy, what do you want to do when you finish school?” I asked, thinking that we’d better change the topic.
“I want to be a singer”, she replied readily.
“A singer?” I asked with surprise. “What kind of singer?”
“Jazz singer. They are famous now.”
I looked at the girl and smiled in surprise.
“So, you want to become famous?” I asked. I think I did this not because I was wondering about that but rather because I did not want Dorothy to fall silent.
“No, I just want to make music because it’s something that I value most”, she replied.
Music is not a thing to be easily understood. I had always thought that you can either simply enjoy music, or understand it, and the two are incompatible. Music certainly was not something valuable for Harlem. It did not seem an inspiring place for art. Too much sorrow sneaked in these dark streets, too much misery could be felt in the air. When I was Dorothy’s age, I dreamt of going to remote countries and getting a new life there. I used to idealize Japan and Far East and thought that they could give me something that was missing in here. However, time and experience showed me that childish fantasies cannot come true, and Harlem would never lose its control of our lives. The desire to get away was not uncommon among the youth here. Many of my students mentioned their plans for escape. Some of them managed to escape. Some escaped to religion, going to the meeting of local communities and listening to warm voices of brothers and sisters. Others escaped to art. Jazz and blues were popular, and more and more fans visited clubs every evening. However, it was hard to believe that music can actually become a way of life. But I could not deny that, in the absence of a physical escape, music could become the vent for ambitions and emotions.
“Are you sure that music is what you need in life?” I asked Dorothy.
She thought for a moment.
“Music’s what I really have in life. There ain’t much besides music”, she answered.
I listened to the girl and couldn’t help agreeing with her words. However, her idea seemed too useless. I couldn’t understand the point in cherishing hopeless dreams.
“Why music, Dorothy? Music won’t change anything, Dorothy”, said I. “It won’t drag you out of the situation we’re all in”.
“My parents also got mad when I told them”, Dorothy said. “Adults prefer to put up with troubles and go on suffering”.
“I’m not mad”, I replied.
I understood what she meant though. Indeed, many people here think that suffering is something that cannot be dealt with and should be simply tolerated. That’s what I often heard from religious brothers and sisters whose meetings I visited from time to time, either out of curiosity or by someone’s invitation. However, somewhere in the back of my mind I supposed that we could at least try to reduce suffering. I thought that maybe music was a waste of time, it was still worth trying. Perhaps, Dorothy made a right choice. Anyway, music is better than drugs and drinking that had ruined so many lives in Harlem. Not all managed to escape from them, and I would be glad if Dorothy could find a thing that brought some joy in her life.
“I’ve already tried singing. It’s great!” the girl said. “I sing at clubs, and I know that I’ll never regret spending my time on music”.
The honesty with which she pronounced these words made me think more about common attitudes to life.
I entered the club when the dusk was falling. There were not many people, but on the bandstand the musicians had already gathered. Dorothy was also there. Surrounded by other musicians, she did not resemble the shy girl whom I had taught at school. The musicians were preparing to play. I watched them talking excitedly, laughing, and smiling. Dorothy was as cheerful as the others, and this merriment seemed to me kind of out of place after everything she had gone through recently. However, there was no falsity in her cheer. A few people started applauding. The lights on the bandstand suddenly changed their color from dim yellow to vivid blue. I did not notice when the musicians took their places at the instruments, but the music abruptly filled the air. Dorothy started signing. She tried her best, without being embarrassed by curious and evaluative glances. Only the music, disturbing, anxious, and at the same time calming and soothing, mattered for her. The voice of the girl merged with the sound of piano and fiddles, and I lost myself in this melody. Dorothy sang with incomparable ease, and singing seemed to be the only thing to which she was fully devoted. I closed my eyes and listened. I listened and gradually started to realize the truth about this place and these people. Outside, the night was falling in big rainy drops. The rain was pouring down from the grim gray clouds, and muffled patting of heavy drops on the empty road seemed to mingle with the lively beat of drums. I looked at Dorothy’s face. She didn’t notice my stare. She was signing, and at that moment the world mattered little for her. The people in the clubs were eating, drinking, and talking. But I knew that in the depth of their minds they were absorbing the song, the blues song in which this shy slim girl put so much of her pain.
The next day, I came to school as I had done million times before. The bell was as loud as usual, and the kids were as noisy as always. However, I felt that something had changed. The change was slight and insignificant, but I felt that I had to find out what it was about.
“Dorothy, wait”, I said when the girl was going to leave the classroom.
She turned around and stared at me in hesitation.
“Tell me. Why did you leave in the first place? Didn’t you like something about our school?” I asked, though I did not think she would be able to explain.
Dorothy was silent for a moment. She was not really thoughtful. She looked as if she knew the answer for a long time but was not completely sure if she should voice it.
“I wanted to study where I want”, she said slowly. “I wanted to live how I want, not how the white tell me to”.
“You did a great job. You can be justly called a hero. Many kids should look up to you”, I said, trying to relieve the suffering that was reflected on Dorothy’s face at the thought about her recent past. But she only smiled.
“No”, she said. “I didn’t do nothing heroic. I just wanted to have my own life”.
I didn’t reply. I had nothing to say. But I knew that being heroic is not always about feats of arms and calls to banners. In Harlem, being heroic means simply to go your way. It means going, persisting, and ignoring fear. It means singing your blues song till the very last sharp chord.