Last week I spent some long hours in an old Volvo, driving across the flat beige heart of this country from Colorado to Chicago. The first stop and one of the main impetuses behind this adventure was Lawrence High School in Kansas, and the Room 125 Productions film studies classroom of Mr. Jeff Kuhr.
Jeff and I have been connected through a series of kismet-laced events that started the same week that The Head and The Heart played that first house show for me in November 2010, a few days after Jeff met them across the street from his house in Lawrence and decided on a whim to ask the band if they’d come play some songs in his classroom and talk about their creative process, while his students filmed and learned.
That initial classroom visit has led to 21 other bands and artists coming into his classroom – folks like The Civil Wars, Damien Jurado, Night Beds, Drew Grow & The Pastors’ Wives, Bryan John Appleby, Kelli Schaefer, The Local Strangers, Nathaniel Rateliff, Small Houses, Hey Marseilles, Shenandoah Davis, and The Devil Whale (you could say we have some overlap). Many of the questions these kids come up with would make any serious interviewer jealous, as they shoot past the trimmings to focus in on “the thing behind the thing,” as Drew Grow said when he visited.
This is an uncommon classroom, and a teacher unlike any I ever had in high school. In addition to assigning prep listening homework to his students before each artist session (and having them come up with questions and film the sessions and do the post-production), Jeff composes an eloquent and probing introduction to read to the class that day.
When Jeff read this one last Monday for Mike Clark, all about faith and beauty and struggle in art and in our lives, the recognition I felt in his words made those stupid hot tears well up in my eyes (they’ve been doing that more than usual lately). Even as I write this, it does the same, and makes me think that this course’s content might be some of the most important things these kids learn in high school.
“Again, it’s about recognition,” Jeff said, “and the best art does this — we recognize something, maybe familiar, maybe foreign, but it sets us seeking, questioning, not the great out there but the great in here. And when that happens, when that really happens, you’ll know. You’ve been shaken, you’ve lost your cool, things will never be the same.”
“I’m thinking of a moment like the one the poet Rilke describes in the poem ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo‘ where upon seeing that piece of art, its power engulfed him, saying to him, ‘you must change your life.’”
“To me, Mike’s music is a reminder of all this, the soundtrack, I suppose. The music, maybe, for courage, for action, for doing something about your shakiness, your oh shit moments, come what may. It’s the music for losing your cool and taking chances, of faith and love and longing — music that reminds you that there is something more, something beyond surfaces and screens.”
Here’s the way Mike answered that:
(the first of five videos total; the rest coming soon)
Spurred by Jeff’s brave capacity for rumination on Things That Matter (one of my very favorite traits, incidentally) and being back in that uncertain space of high school, and hearing Mike talk about his finding music and deciding to change his life — it was a deeply affecting day that helped remind me why I love and need songs like this, and engagement with people like this.
I am appreciative for those passing periods, the pressing past each other in the halls; the sweet uncertainty of confronting ourselves in the other and feeling, for a minute, that rush of recognition.
Jeff is doing good work with those kids. They probably know a lot of things I’ve forgotten. Whatever they pursue, whatever any of us pursue, if we chase that recognition and challenge Jeff talks about, I think we’ll be heading in the right direction, whether that’s to Paris or grad school or a cabin built in rural Alaska. As I walked out the door, I noticed a Friday Night Lights quote tacked on the classroom wall and indeed — with clear eyes and full hearts like that, we can’t lose, not one of us.
I’m real glad that someone like him is running a classroom like that, and you should spend some time in the archives of the videos these students have filmed and produced to help these artists tell their stories.