“Recess” and “Good Bones”, or selling the world to my children

There’s more beauty in this world than you can guess

Recently, with the help of someone on Micro.blog and Apple Music, I have turned my family on to the music of Justin Roberts. His band plays children’s music in a power pop style. His music is really catchy, and his lyrics are wry, funny, very kid-friendly (my daughter sings them all the time), and sometimes also play to the parents on emotional level as well.

My favorite Justin Roberts song, by far, is “Recess”. Like the best power pop songs, this song has more hooks and ideas in it than most albums do. The lyrics are cleverly and consistently written from the point of view of a bored kid stuck in a classroom, waiting for the recess bell to ring:

Can’t you hear the blacktop callin’?
Classroom clock is stuck or stallin’
There is nothing that will pass the test
Unless it’s recess

In the second and third pre-chorus endings, the lyrics expand out beyond the tedium of the elementary school classroom to the wonder of the outside world:

One more dotted I
One more crossed T
Then we’ll be runnin’ free
There is more beauty in this world than you can guess

That last line resonates powerfully with me. Seeing the beauty in this world is something children do naturally. I think we forget how to, as we get older, and our knowledge of history and current events expands, and our experience of life evolves from dreaming of what our lives might be to actually living them day-to-day. Our dreams get smaller and more finite as time passes. As we get older still, we relearn to see the beauty, in a different way—with a wonder that is tinged with sadness. As an adult, I see that the splendor and joy of the world is counterbalanced by its disappointments and horrors.

The world is at least fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative estimate, though I keep this from my children

The line “There is more beauty in this world than you can guess” always makes me think of the contrasting sentiment expressed in the poem “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith:

Good Bones
BY MAGGIE SMITH

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

This is a profoundly powerful poem that I read in college and have never forgotten. As an adult and a parent, I return to it often. It has always made me feel, in some way, like a teenager who concludes, upon first entering the adult world, that I have been sold a bill of goods: nothing is as nice or easy or fair as my parents and mentors (and, let’s face it, TV and movies) told me it would be. This poem distills all the disappointment and disillusionment that experience and maturity bring into seventeen simple and somewhat humorous lines. I love how it ends on a note that is somehow both cynical and hopeful: “You could make this place beautiful.”

Selling the world to my children

It’s my job, as a parent, to sell the world to my children. I want to tell them the good—now, while they are young—and the bad—later, when they are older. In both times, now and later, I have to remember that Justin Roberts and Maggie Smith are both right about the world. It contains all the beauty that has any meaning. It also contains all the horrors that have ever befell anyone. The most important thing I have to teach my children is that they can make it better—they just have to try, even after the veil of childhood innocence has fallen, and they see the world for what it really is.