I hate to inject too many personal anecdotes – music related, emotional, or otherwise – into these writings but what you are doing and how you are feeling at the time of reading and writing something I do believe affects how you intake the words pretty heavily, and I often feel this effect is understated, so I don’t want to diminish its power.
I almost always read and write to Sirius XM Radio – the Springsteen station – and as a result, my reading is guided by a thumping downbeat and often an Americana lyric of troubles in the heartland, described by a man and his band I used to like a lot, until 83 shows later and the obsession is far and above normal.
That said, as I read ‘Election,’ appropriately set in New Jersey, where Springsteen is from, and which forms the backdrop for nearly every song I listened to as I read, the school is readying to vote for class president. This is of course unique and a niche environment, but like a few of the other stories, this story is as old as writing itself: it is about power, it is about loyalty, it is about emotional confusion, and the feeling of depth across many levels of life. That’s what’s interesting – even the unique tenets of the story make it more tethered to the stereotypes of the few genres it fits within. Just like Springsteen’s music – standard, average by classification and genre, but leagues above and beyond with lyrical ability, songwriting, composition, and that thing that sets both the records and the shows apart: performance. The book, then, is like a performance in that way.
There is a U.S. Presidential going on. It’s 1992. Springsteen was on his one and only tour (at that point) with a ‘different’ band. It’s a detour from the norm; so is the book.
Our character, Tracey, is like me at the elementary school and middle school age. It’s what I tried and half-failed at in high school, and really, what I am now – she’s too ambitious for her own good, driven, a smart girl, that is not liked but likely largely misunderstood and largely for reasons that she doesn’t allow herself to be peered into – a key facet of many of these stories, and one which I hope to explore far further: Teachers, students, people in the classroom environment have difficulty opening up, particularly about deeper and emotional things, and this can be the strongest takeaway from a class, so this poses an inherent wall, an omnipresent barrier, that should be worked on and fixed.
Tracey, for all her confusion, we learn has a heated sexual affair with her former teacher, and her mother serves as a character that could be in one of the more twisted Springsteen songs: she finds out and, of course, ruins the teachers marriage and career. This is part of the Americana story – hope, faith, dreams, dreams rewarded, and as Bruce writes, ‘dreams thwarted.’ There has to be a downfall at some point.
Working all day in my daddy’s garage
Driving all night, chasing some mirage; Pretty soon, little girl, I’m gonna take charge
Former teacher Jim McAllister encourages his ‘pet’, a student named Paul Warren, to run.
Well the dog’s on Main Street howl
‘Cause they understand
If I could take one moment, into my hand
Mr. I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man
And I believe in the Promised Land
In turn, Paul’s outcast lesbian sister, Tammy, begins a full-throated effort and campaign to be school president in retaliation to her ex-girlfriend who is now dating Paul. Our teacher, Mr. McAllister, loses his job as part of this mounted defense – and I hear Springsteen singing, “Man turns his back on his family, he ain’t no friend of mine.” This is a story about doing either what you believe is right and still losing for it, because that’s what our society has allowed. Or it is, like several of the other songs in the catalog, open to more interpretation – what happens when our sense of right and wrong are both misguided and it is also society’s fault? If I’ve been told by teachers since I was four that stealing is okay, am I legally bound when I’m 16 to the law? To using that as a defense? What about as a 19 year old, with even stronger lessons put into me?
In 2012’s ‘Wrecking Ball,’ album, the statements in the songs ring bold and loud; they actually pose questions themselves. The album’s leadoff single, “We Take Care of Our Own,” is really more of a question: Do we take care of our own? Do teachers in this book believe in helping kids, or are their heavier egos at play? Is that always a bad thing?
I’ve been knocking on the door that holds the throne
I’ve been looking for the map that leads me home
I’ve been stumbling on good hearts, turned to stone
The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone
That road of intentions going dry is the perfect metaphor for this book, and for why it was smart to assign and read: The teacher has a role to play and when he or she doesn’t, or otherwise alters that role to significantly – good or bad – it alters factors in the otherwise stable environment that don’t allow the society to function ‘as planned’ around them. Just ask Springsteen.