Another Old Guitar

I have many guitars.  Too many, depending on who you ask.  But each one serves a very real, important purpose!  Of course I have the Fender Mustang my wife’s uncle gave to me.  I also have a bass guitar and a G & L Bluesboy Tribute (think semi-hollowbody Telecaster), a couple of Martin acoustics, and the beater.

The beater was a gift from a former coworker.  My first year of teaching, I bought a crappy, terrible-sounding Epiphone acoustic, the cheapest damn guitar I ever laid hands on.  It played awful, too, and I got rid of it after that first year of teaching.

I was able to get rid of it, in large part, because this coworker came in one morning carrying a guitar case that had seen much better days, probably sometime back before the BC/AD switch over.  There was a spot where a hole had basically been punched through the case, the handle was gone and replaced with a shoelace, and the whole thing basically looked like it had sat in someone’s attic for the better part of a decade.

“It sat in my mom’s attic for about a decade,” the coworker said.  “Do you want it?”

I shrugged.  “Sure, why not?” I replied.  “You can never have too many guitars.”  And hey, this was a type of guitar I didn’t have: a 3/4 classical guitar (a guitar three-fourths the size of a usual acoustic.  Classical guitars also differ from a standard acoustic guitar in that it uses a combination of nylon and phosphorus bronze strings instead of just six phosphorus bronze strings.  It also has a slightly-wider neck to accommodate the fact that classical guitars are meant to be fingerpicked, though that’s never stopped me from strumming like holy hell with a pick).

The guitar itself was in rough shape, cosmetically, but still played perfectly after I replaced the ancient strings.

The guitar became my school instrument, the one that I kept in my classroom and picked up to strum when the mood took me.  I’ve written dozens of songs with that guitar over the years, and it still sounds lovely.  But the case, which was falling apart and pretty worthless when I got the guitar twelve years ago, has recently started deteriorating even further.  The shoelace handle was actually breaking, one of the hinges detached from the body of the case, and the thing was just really falling apart completely.  So, over the weekend, I went out and purchased a new gig bag for it.  The fact that the gig bag is worth as much as the guitar itself was a bit odd, but what can you do?  The guitar is still good.  It’ll remain playable for years to come, assuming nothing horrible happens to it.  And with the new gig bag, nothing horrible should happen to it.

So, farewell, crappy classical guitar case.  You served me well, but the time has come for you to retire.  To the dumpster.

The Old Guitar

Let me tell you a story about a guitar.  It’s about more than a guitar, really, because most stories are about more than they seem on the surface.  I’ll probably go ahead and make the subtext really overtly-explicit text at the end, but let’s just jump into the story.

Back in late August 2010, my wife and I went to New York to visit her family.  It’s something we periodically do, taking time to see her grandfather and her aunts and uncles and cousins.  Her Uncle Joe had heard that I played guitar, and was excited to have someone to strum guitars with when we came up to visit.  I learned a couple of old ’60s and ’70s-era classic rock songs that I knew he liked so we’d have something to play.

After an hour or so of entertaining ourselves (and maybe the other people around us, though in my experience guitar playing at a gathering is usually mostly enjoyed by the folks holding the instruments), he tells me, “I got something down in the basement I want to show you.  I think you’ll really appreciate this.  Hang on a sec.”  He disappears into the house and returns a few minutes later with an old guitar case, battered and scratched but still serviceable.  “Open it up,” he said, a grin splitting his face.  I popped the latches on the case to reveal a Lake Placid Blue 1966 Fender Mustang.  Now, ’66 isn’t the most famous year for that instrument – the ’65s are probably the cream of the crop, the last year before Fender was bought out by CBS – but a ’66 is a pretty sweet instrument.  Sadly, it’s sat in the basement for decades, and the neck is so warped it’s unplayable.

It’s still beautiful, though.  All original.  With a little TLC, maybe a new neck at the worst, it’d be playable again.

And he gave it to me.  It was a remarkably kind gesture, and you could see the genuine joy and pleasure on his face.  He enjoyed giving that guitar to me almost as much as I enjoyed receiving it, I think.

I was right, though: the guitar wasn’t playable in that condition.  It needed a new neck, it needed some work on the electronics (it still needs a bit of work on the electronics and the switches, if I’m honest, but I haven’t found a good guitar tech to take care of it yet).  I got a new neck installed, and the guitar plays beautifully.  It was broken, but fixable.

And now we come to the subtext.  Well, maybe not subtext.  It’s more an analogy.  I’m about to get political (again), but it’s about something I care very deeply about: education.

I’m a big believer in public education.  I believe everyone has the right to a free and appropriate education.  That all children deserve equal access to the curriculum, regardless of disability or language barrier.  And so when I see people like Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, I get worried.  She’d gleefully dismantle our public education system and replace it with vouchers.  While it masquerades under the guise of “school choice,” what it really does is pull resources, students, and teachers from school systems that are already struggling, leaving the students and teachers who remain in the public school struggling more and more.  Folks like DeVos then point to those failing schools and say, “See?  I was right about public education!” even as they’re causing a lot of the problems.

There are other problems with the vouchers/school choice/charter schools paradigm that DeVos and her ilk champion.  It frequently creates a new system of segregation.  The charter schools, on the whole, don’t perform any better than the public schools.  And these private charter schools aren’t held to the same state standards and curriculum that public schools are.  Part of why folks DeVos like them so much is that you don’t have to teach things like evolution, or treat other religions and cultures with anything resembling fairness or open-mindedness.

Betsy DeVos thinks our public education system is broken.  And, as much as it hurts to say, she may be a little bit right about that.  The public system doesn’t serve everyone well.  It doesn’t do a great job of measuring student growth, or helping students do more than prepare to take big, dumb, standardized tests.  I’m all for accountability in school, but the standardized tests don’t really do it.

But is our system broken beyond repair?  Is it an unplayable guitar?  No.  It needs some work – maybe a new neck, maybe a little work on the electronics, a new set of strings – but you don’t throw the whole damn thing out just because part of it is broken.  You fix it!  The system isn’t perfect, but no system is.  It’s a damn-sight better than whatever nonsense Betsy DeVos wants to put in its place, I know that.