Somewhere along the line, I acquired the idea that I should have mission. Something towards which I worked that would be for the good of others, change things for the better and would give me a rock on which to build my life. Sadly, I can’t remember the specific moment that this idea took shape. Nor can I remember when I first felt it – but I’ve just realised that it’s been there, guiding me, for a very long time.
And, in the last month, I’ve come to understand that my mission is no longer positively productive but has become deviously destructive.
From my first small success on the piano as a little girl, I knew music was something I could do well and easily. I loved it, wanted to share it and felt it was a key component to a happy life. When I became a music teacher, I wanted to share the joy I felt making music with students. I wanted to dispel the idea that only the “gifted” could do music. I believed (and still do) that everyone can make music. The difference between music and the other “important subjects” is that students get so little time to learn music.
I used to say to people in the school district where I worked in Iowa, “Imagine if children were only allowed to see letters, read words, hear great language twice a week for 25 minutes. Then everyone would think those few who could read were gifted. It’s all matter of time – not talent”.
With that thought, I made it my mission (unbeknownst to me that it was a mission however!) to become the very best music teacher ever, so that the schools I worked in would see, understand and believe that music was important. They would believe that children deserved to learn music as a language, a means of expressing oneself in the same way they learned the spoken and written word or the language of mathematics.
For the first 5 years of my teaching career I was given a “pink slip” every May. This meant I lost my job because the budget was tight and, of course, music was the first thing to be cut. Every August, I would get a call and be told that my job had been “saved”.
Various things happened, year after year, in schools all over the world, that sent the message loud and clear “MUSIC DOESN’T MATTER”. Give us a great Christmas concert, make sure the kids like coming to music and everyone will be happy. In my entire career I was evaluated as a teacher once and that was in my first year of teaching. Why? “Ooohhh, you teach music and I wouldn’t know how to evaluate that!”
So finally, I’ve figured out what precipitated my breakdown in March. I finally realised that I had failed in my mission. I was going to change exactly NO ONE’S idea about the importance of music in the schools. I have changed how students and parents think about music education, led many students to love and participate in music, maybe even encouraged one or two professionals, but I haven’t been able to change the system. And it won’t change: not now, not ever.
Having a mission can be a good thing: it motivates you, guides you, gives you the energy to keep going no matter what and helps you care deeply about how you can change people’s lives. However, when that mission is unrealistic it can be destructive, giving you an impossible guide against which you measure your success or failure. My mission was inside my own head and it took me a long time – 40 years in fact – to see that I wasn’t going to be successful.
It’s time to set aside my mission and move on to living my life; mission unaccomplished. And now…