SONGS ARE STORIES, I write on the board in sunny yellow chalk. I’m about to teach a workshop on advanced songwriting, which seems improbable as I don’t know anything about writing songs.But I’ve been assured the girls I’m going to teach already understand their musical mechanics, and I can use my storytelling knowledge to teach them about writing lyrics.
I am a counselor at Girls Rock! Chicago, a day camp for girls aged 8 to 16. The campers spend a week putting together a band, learning instruments and writing a song to perform, as well as attending workshops about topics like body image, bullying, and social media. I volunteered to be a counselor because I was enthralled by the notion of young girls being encouraged to make noise. I spent my youth fantasizing I could be a rock star, which was in major conflict with my worth as a girl in my house. My mother gave me the message I was probably pretty enough to marry someone important, which was the goal, or maybe smart enough to have an impressive “career”, which was the consolation prize, but most likely not pretty or smart enough to have both.
I officially hated all of these options. I turned to the dark haired ladies of rock and roll to guide me. Chrissie Hynde, Joan Jett, Ann Wilson; they were my official consultants through adolescence, at least on a fantasy level. But in reality I still toed the line, doing what everyone expected of me, all the while keeping my mouth shut. I I took the camp counselor gig determined to teach the girls what I didn’t know at their age; that they could grow up to be anything they wanted, that they didn’t have to put up with the same shit that I did.
I find out my "advanced” designation for this workshop turns out to be no reflection on their songwriting expertise, it just means they’re the oldest girls at camp, the 15 and 16 year olds. The girls shuffle into my classroom, all wearing the current apathetic teenage girl uniform: tank tops with bra straps showing, jean shorts the size of underwear, Converse low tops and Adidas. Some have colorfully streaked hair, many have braces, all have the same sullen expression as they settle in and turn their eyes my direction.
I explain that although I am not a musician (cue audible disdain), I have experience writing and telling stories. I tell them a story, by definition, is “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.” But I expound that stories can be more than entertainment, they can be used to educate and make connections with other people. Like happy songs can spread joy and sad songs can make you feel less alone when you’re feeling down. Can they give me an example of a song that makes them happy? Blank stares. A song that makes them sad? Nothing. Can they tell me a song that’s had any effect on them of any kind. Any. Effect. Of any kind.
Finally, I say, “It’s going to be a really long and painful hour the way things are going. Anyone want to humor me?”
One green haired girl takes pity on me and raises her hand. “How about that Sarah McLachlan song they play on the commercial? You know, the one with the dogs? It’s pretty sad, but mostly because of the dogs.”
I agree. Sarah McLachlan's “Angel” combined with the doggie downer is a serious bummer.
Anyone else? No?
I then launch into talking about songs that are calls to action. Songs that inspire, songs that make people really think about things. I mention having my mind awakened by Patti Smith and Liz Phair and Ani Difranco. Anyone have a call to action song? Nothing? Okay, what might those songs be about?
One girl raises her hand and says, “Getting pissed off?” I start waving my hands, “YES! About what?” “I dunno, things that aren’t fair?”
I write on the chalkboard, ANGER next to a big arrow pointing to the word UNFAIR.
“Okay, what else might you be pissed off about?” “Getting screwed over by a guy?” Sure. Same girl says, “I write most of my songs to get even with guys who’ve wronged me.” “Well," I tell her, "that certainly worked out for Adele."
I write REVENGE on the board in big letters. The adults in the back of the room now have their arms crossed. Another girl mentions she is upset about the state of the American political system.
I then launch into a semi-coherent ramble about when these girls go to write songs, they need to keep in mind their words can affect people. I tell them “You should recognize that even before you can vote, you can start changing the things you’re pissed off about if you take your responsibility as an artist seriously. Know that your art can shape the future. It’s not so much about becoming rich and famous as it is about being SEEN and being HEARD."
The whole room stares blankly at me, but I am strangely unstoppable.
“Women are 51% of the population,” I tell them. “This means YOU ARE NOT A MINORITY, so do not accept being treated like one. If you write a song or a poem or a story about sexism or politics or relationships or whatever, and you share it with other people, and they talk about it, THAT IS WHAT CHANGE LOOKS LIKE. ”
With that, I run out of steam and I feel like a goddamn lunatic. I look to one small wiry girl with a blonde streak in her dark hair and a sour expression who is the only person in the room who hasn’t moved a muscle during the entire class. Coming down off my rant, I turn to her and say, “You’ve been awfully quiet. Can I ask you to share something you’re angry about? A song you like? No wrong answers, whatever you'd like to contribute.” She stares at me and says unwaveringly, “NO.” “No?" "NO."
Who does this kid think she is? I was a snarkasaurus at her age too, but I never said NO to an adult. Fuck this shit.
I wrap up with some half assed speech about how girls have come a long way from being “with the band” to being “in the band,” and they all look at me like “Duh, lady. Can we go play our instruments now?” I glance at the clock and mercifully, my hour is over.
It’s 2:30 on Monday afternoon, the first day of camp and I cannot believe I have to spend four and a half more days with these bratty bad asses. Great plan, Eileen, tell me again why we’re not drinking Pinot Grigio and reading the New Yorker during our leisure time like a normal middle aged broad?
I head out to discover what band I’ll be working with for the rest of the week. Great, more teenagers. On guitar is a familiar face: Sage, the girl who just said NO. Sage is a pint sized powerhouse; what she lacks in stature, she more than makes up for in attitude. Melissa, one of the camp’s founders, will be our band coach, who the girls respect enough to break their sulky expressions to greet her with a one second smile.
As the teens don’t need much from me, I spread my love around camp talking to the younger girls who are yanking each other around by their friendship bracelets and writing songs about unicorns. When we meet for Tuesday’s band practice, I tell Melissa that Sage didn’t want to participate in my songwriting class. She says, “Consider yourself lucky if she stayed through the whole thing. But she’s so much better than last year. She’s interacting with the other girls a lot more, and I’ve actually seen her smile a few times.”
The day marches on and my girls are making progress putting a song together. I find out Sage didn’t go to Tuesday's afternoon workshop at all. Eventually I track her down, she’s hard at work with her laptop open, writing furiously in a notebook.
“Everything going okay?” I ask. “Yeah,” she replies.
Wednesday I attempt to physically coerce her into participating by walking her all the way to the workshop door when it’s time for it to start. She tells me she has to use the bathroom, and I know she won’t reappear until band practice. When I discuss it with Melissa, she tells me she doesn’t believe in making Sage do anything she doesn’t want to do, that she’s been coming to camp for years and she just prefers to work on her music. Every time that I find her, she shows me she's working hard, writing down ideas for lyrics, working on arrangements on her laptop, and when she comes to band practice, her work really shows.
Thursday I see Sage bright and early in the hall heading towards the morning assembly. She smiles and waves “Hi,” which throws me for a loop. She shows up at a silkscreening workshop, much to my surprise. When they ask her to take her turn making a design, she shakes her head, no, she doesn’t want to. As the other girls go to town with the paint on the canvas, Sage sits in the corner with her laptop and goes back to working on her projects. I feel like I’m supposed to tell her to either participate in the workshop or leave if she’s going to do other things, but she knows she's free to go, yet she hasn’t.
Then I have to ask myself, why am I so concerned about how Sage spends her time?
The truth is Sage is my hero. At 16, she’s already at ease with choosing her own adventure. She puts what she feels is important before the expectations of anyone else around her. I grew up believing that to be considered attractive to others, you also had to be accommodating. I thought that being pretty and being agreeable were interconnected. It took me forty years to get where Sage is at; to recognize that my value did not lessen when I deviated from what other people wanted me to do. Sage’s unapologetic spirit is what makes her beautiful to behold.
At Friday’s band practice, Sage melds what she’s been working on with her bandmates’ ideas, and the results are fantastic. She comes to me with an open box of Chips Ahoy and says, “I’ve found the secret to curing stage fright is cookies. Have one.” I tell her all the work she’s done on her own has paid off, and the song is spectacular. She smiles and says, “Do you really think so?”
I see before me more than a bratty bad ass, I see a girl who is getting comfortable seizing her power. I take a cookie and tell her, “Yes, I do, Sage. I really do.”
On my way out the door to catch the bus home, I take in the hundreds of post-it notes the girls have affixed to the walls over their week at camp, making pronouncements like I ROCK BECAUSE I AM DIFFERENT and I ROCK BECAUSE I AM LOUD and I ROCK BECAUSE I AM A GIRL!
In these post it notes, in these young women, in these five days, I'm so grateful they were able to show me what change really looks like.