“Down beside where the waters flow,” confesses the speaker about the place where he murdered his sweetheart, “down by the banks of the Ohio.” He explains why he did it—she wouldn’t marry him and promise to be only his—and I presume he laments his act. But he doesn’t say so, so the song would not do for my class of adolescents, who were studying the third conditional and the use of wish for regrets.
I had also considered another song on the same Joan Baez album, a folk song called “Lonesome Road.” In this song, unlike “Banks of the Ohio,” the singer does regret what he’s done. What was his crime? He never says, though presumably he is in prison, where the food is so unappetizing that he wishes he’d never been born. That phrase about wishing to have never been born was the one I wanted because I thought it would strike a true note for my students, all 15- or 16-year-olds. I recall my own teen years as a time of turbulent emotions, and I would wager that I often thought and even said in anger to whomever I was seething at that I wished I’d never been born. And that even without having to endure the cold corn bread and salty gravy that the speaker describes.
But I rejected that song, too. It had meaning for me, just as the other did, because I had listened to these songs and others like them all through my youth and adulthood. But the songs meant nothing to my students. I could imagine their faces like reflecting glass, showing nothing of what was going on behind the smooth front.
So I settled on a song they might know, by Queen. A movie about Freddie Mercury and his band came out a few years ago, and I was counting on the students having heard of it or even seen it. “Do you know who Freddie Mercury is?” I asked, wondering even as I spoke if the past tense or present was a better choice. Several knew the name and one identified him with his band. So far, so good. I told them I was going to play a song. “It’s called ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ just like the movie about Freddie Mercury.” Had any of them seen it? I looked around. No one said yes, no one said no. No evidence, even, of students searching their memory for the title. This was par for the course with this class, from whom getting a reaction was like pulling teeth. “Okay. Listen,” I said, and played the opening on my tablet.
The opening words make no sense to me, and even less if you only catch half the words, as might be true for the students. But the tune might set off bells. “Have you heard this song before?” One student almost nodded, but then ducked his head.
“What did you hear?” I asked the others. “Any words?”
Fantasy, someone said. Landslide, someone else said. So far so good. I played the next couple of lines after a false start I apologized for. “As you can tell, I don’t do this that often,” I said to excuse my bumbling.
Still only one of the students recognized the song. I explained that the speaker tells what bad thing he did and then has a lament, a rather ordinary one, and I asked them to listen for those two pieces of information—what he did, and what he wishes. “Listen.” I pushed play again. “There!” I said, triumphantly. I paused the song. “First you heard the act and then the wish. What does he say?”
Instead of the students repeating what they’d just heard and me congratulating them on their good ears, a student gave a snigger. Another did too. “Listen again,” I instructed and backtracked before hitting the play button. “Sometimes I wish I’d never been born at all,” sang Freddie Mercury.
I don’t know if they heard the words or if hearing would have done them any good. I don’t even know if they were listening. I was going through my paces, and they were too, keeping everything in, behind their masks. Not the kind they had to wear in class for two years during the pandemic but the kind they had learned as adolescents to put on. But something was getting out. The snigger was now a couple of giggles. I looked up. A girl was hunched over, a boy was wiping his eyes. He couldn’t be crying, could he? I didn’t think so. Which left laughter as the explanation.
“What are you laughing at?” I asked, looking around. Six students, one smiling knowingly, one avoiding my gaze as he got his face back under control, one looking at me innocently, one girl looking down, one shaking her head and exchanging a look with another, and one birdlike in her sudden movements, bright eyed, brows raised, looking straight at me.
“Are you laughing at the lyrics?” I asked. “Have you ever said those words? I wish I’d never been born? Maybe when you are reproaching a parent. Kids do that. I did.”
Guffaws now. “What’s so funny?” I asked, half laughing myself just because they were. But no one told me. I was not invited into the joke. Perhaps I was the joke, and they were laughing at me. “Go ahead and laugh,” I said, “it’s good for you.” When something good finally happens, you go with it. So we didn’t make use of the language for speculation that had been the content of an earlier lesson, and I didn’t ask the students to remember a time when they had reproached someone with such a dramatic, game changing wish. Instead, they quietly sniggered until the song concluded and I dismissed class. It was a happy sound. I wasn’t bewildered because I had quit trying to understand. When something nice happens, you go with it.
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