3 min

Queering the classroom

This summer, I experienced one of the highlights of my year. I participated in a project in Toronto entitled Parkdale Public School vs Queen West. It is an event that took place over a period of two years and dealt head on with the issue of gentrification. The project gave the students of Parkdale Elementary School the opportunity to learn about and from different artists in the city. In addition, the project brought the youth to the centre of the action in a rapidly evolving neighbourhood. It was all an effort to involve the children and ensure that they not be left behind or bulldozed over in the development of the area.

The 647 kids are a massively diverse crew obsessed with Playstation, teddy bears, fairness and running the world. This school is the same school that sadly has been in the papers frequently because of the murder of Katelynn Sampson on August 2. This project connected me to the school and made the loss of the child devastatingly real. In a time when shocking headlines are big business, projects like this bring people together in positive ways to develop real connections.

The school’s music teacher was incredibly relieved by this project. Despite having taught at Parkdale Public School for over 15 years, he still must teach at 11 other schools due to a lack of funding. The students often suffer because their music teacher is required at an assembly at a school across town. When he was part of the class, his rapport with the students was loving and stern. He knew how to speak to the youth, to get them to achieve the goals in place. His experience shone. He was pleased to have musicians come and teach music when he was unable to be there. It kept the youth engaged and gave them an opportunity to explore various styles of contemporary music.

Founded in 1993, Mammalian Diving Reflex has created new work, organized community events and contributed to theoretical and practical advancements in performance. One of their most popular projects, Haircuts by Children, was exactly what it sounds like. The project, simple and daring, became internationally renowned and was programmed in NYC, Vancouver, Milan and Sydney. This project also started with Parkdale Public School’s Grade 5 classes. The momentum and inspiration grew to be Parkdale Public School vs Queen West. It involved 10 “rounds” in which students worked together with local musicians, chefs, filmmakers, art critics, entrepreneurs and hotshot DJ’s. Kids from the school were DJing parties and preparing food in popular restaurants.

Blocks Recording Club was approached by Mammalian Diving Reflex to facilitate the music component of Parkdale Public School vs Queen West. Blocks Recording Club is an artist-owned worker’s co-operative based in Toronto, for which I am also a board member. Our goal is to work together as a musical community and help each other record and release music that we as a community generate. The group has abandoned working under a record executive in an effort to take more control of the artwork and its distribution. Members include Final Fantasy, Kids on TV, Katie Stelmanis (all of whom are queer artists) as well as punk legends Fucked Up and Bob Wiseman (formerly of Blue Rodeo). The group is varied in the music it creates but is unified by a vision. Blocks Recording Club was approached by Darren O’Donnell of the art project Mammalian Diving Reflex to teach the music class of Parkdale Public School once a week, culminating in an evening in which an orchestra of children would back three Blocks artists.

Friends and I formed Kids on TV in 2003 in Toronto. The music explores the worlds of punk, no-rave, electro, booty house acid, soul, and experimental rock. Our work references many elements of queer history and the artists who inspire us. Kids on TV taught two music classes at Parkdale every Wednesday morning for a month. Bob Wiseman and The Phonemes (the other Blocks Recording Club artists involved) also taught once a week. Working with the school’s senior string section, we saw this as an opportunity for the group to have an orchestra of youth backing us on a song.

The song we chose was a Kids on TV original titled “A Song For Holly Woodlawn.” The song talks about the Andy Warhol Superstar being told that she needs to appear poor in order to collect a welfare cheque. Holly Woodlawn was poor and needed financial assistance but enjoyed dressing in glamorous second-hand finds. Holly always showed up to collect financial assistance as dressed up as she could be, often dolled in ostrich feathers. It was a significant moment for me to be in front of a classroom full of 11- and 12-year-olds and have one boy in particular synopsize the lyrical content of the songs they were learning by saying, “One song is about love, one song is about growing old, and one song is about a tranny.” It was definitely one of the more exciting moments of my own educational experience. Queers on the curriculum are the way of the future.