Baba Coleman

by Deborah Hare

Rhythm and respect

"Koojeechagooleeah" is a Swahili word for self-determination.

Baba uses this word to begin and end every class. Baba is a drumming teacher at the Neighborhood Music School in New Haven, Connecticut. My nine-year-old godchild, Keishon, asked if he could take drumming lessons with him. I signed him up immediately, thinking that every child should play a musical instrument. We were both nervous the first day. I was nervous because I hadn't been in the land of Volvo station wagons in a long time, and Keishon was nervous because he didn't know anyone. We didn't stay nervous for long because soon we met Baba.

Not wanting to hover, I let Keishon go into the drumming room alone. With ten minutes left, I go in and stand in the back of the room. There are five boys, two black kids, three white kids, all about nine or ten, with baseball caps on backwards, and great, majestic African drums in their laps. I start to grin. They beat away, keeping rhythm, and having fun. I am wondering why we don't do cool things like this in real school.

The drumming comes to an end. There is a call and response.


Each child stands up and Baba asks them to hold hands. He then asks them to say their good-bye. Adam, who is ten, volunteers to lead it. "I am somebody. The only time that I will look down on another person is when I reach over to help them up."

I am a teacher. Teachers have to be aware of the new literacy issues, the "No Child Left Behind Act," and how to administer standardized tests. Why are we so intent on testing our children? I look at these kids and I know that what they are doing with Baba will help them more than any of those things. I want to cry because I am so moved by this knowledge and by the fact that my godchild is finally learning something really, really important. He is learning how to be a good person, a good man. I want everyone to take drumming with Baba.

After they are finished speaking, Baba looks at each child. I mean he looks each child right in the eye. He tells them something they have accomplished in class that day, as well as something they can work on. Each child has immediate feedback that is honest and makes them feel good, yet provides them with areas for growth. Baba makes me remember what the point of teaching is - to give each child confidence, love and wisdom. He teaches his kids to concentrate by paying attention to the rhythm and not to what he calls "wanderin' in the mind." We teach kids to pay attention by yelling at them to "stop," "sit down," and take a meaningless test that will stress them out and end up only measuring how much education their parents have. One kid complains that his fingers hurt and another kid wants to know who said that. Baba tells him to mind his own business and that we can't grow if we are minding other people's business.

I ask Simon, who is in the third grade at Jepson Elementary School with Keishon, what he thinks of Baba. "Well," he says, "Baba doesn't like complaining, but that's okay, cause he's a sweet kind of guy, not a forceful kind of guy." I realize that Simon has just taught me about how to keep discipline in the classroom. We would get further if we made self-determination mandatory instead.

Koojeechagooleeah. Thank you, Baba, for teaching an old teacher some new tricks.

Page created on 8/17/2014 1:28:18 PM

Last edited 1/6/2017 8:39:10 PM

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