Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book Review: Seven Days of Possibilities

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Seven Days of Possibilities
Author: Anemona Hartocollis

Author's social web page: (she also has a Twitter page)
Date: 2004
Publisher: Public Affairs (Perseus)
ISBN: 1-58648-196-7
Length: 307 pages
Quote: “By the end of the year, they would all have received one day a week of music instruction for one semester.”
Johanna Grussner, a young Finnish-Swedish singer whose “growing pains” wouldn’t go away, took a job teaching music in a New York City school while waiting for her big break as a jazz musician. As she bonded with her urban, multiethnic students, she wanted to share her small-town Scandinavian background with the kids. So she did. In 2001, 24 select students and a few other chaperones, including Principal Sheldon Benardo, went home to Aland with Grussner.
Possibly it was the fact that Grussner took a lot of winter gear home that gave Benardo the idea. Maybe she planned to retire because her legs always ached; maybe she didn’t think New York winters were cold enough to require as much winter gear as she had; maybe she wanted to share recent New York fashions with friends on the island. Anyway, almost immediately after the group returned to New York, Benardo terminated Grussner’s contract.
It’s also possible that Grussner had put extra energy into the teaching job she’d always considered temporary because she’d met, and parted with, an American man, and her “growing pains” had been diagnosed as muscular dystrophy. 
Was it reasonable, just three years after the event, for Hartocollis’s book about this true story to proclaim that the music “Changed Their Lives Forever”? Certainly the trip was a memorable experience for the students. As of 2004, one problem student had shown enough talent and interest in music to be admitted to special music programs, but had dropped out and been put in pre-military school instead. One student had entered a magnet school for actors, one a magnet school for science, and one a prep school. One daughter of an ambitious immigrant had moved into a posh suburb. But how can we know what will “change people’s lives forever” after three years? If these students were to have a reunion in 2051, then we’d know what had changed their lives. The blurb writer, probably not Hartocollis, has been guilty of hype on this book’s behalf.
The following blurbs do not qualify as hype: Buzz Bissinger’s description of Seven Days of Possibilities as inspirational and tragic; Jonathan Kozol’s assertion that it has dramatic energy “richly interwoven with history and racial politics”; and Samuel G. Freedman’s calling it a story of “a troubled public-school system that has rewarded political operators and punished teachers who dare to innovate.”
Then again...what, exactly, is the tragic element in this book? That the public schools lost Grussner? That Grussner was subjected to the indignity of being dismissed from a job she was planning to leave anyway? That Grussner has muscular dystrophy? Or that New York’s music schools have given up hope of training young musicians in the classical traditions, and settled for just praising the kids who can imitate various styles of folk music, which is supposed to be what music students do for fun without explicit encouragement from teachers?
I am of course pro-folk music, but I “studied” folk music in the manners appropriate to its own tradition—singing around campfires, wearing out records, jamming with neighbors. If I’d had the money, the talent, or the drive to get into a formal music school, I would have expected classical instruction. And if I were a New Yorker, reading Hartocollis’s naive-sounding documentation of how city taxes are subsidizing schools to offer kids formal training in folk music, which is supposed to be defined by its freedom from formal training, would not have done my blood pressure any good.

Seven Days of Possibilities is recommended to (1) anybody who’s read Sally Salminen’s 1937 novel Katrina, which is also set on Aland, and wants to read about what the island is like now; (2) teachers who want to be inspired by reading the true story of an indisputably talented and enthusiastic teacher; (3) people who enjoy true stories about middle school students.

To buy it as a Fair Trade Book, you send salolianigodagewi @ $5 for the book + $5 shipping, and we send Hartocollis or a charity of her choice $1.