In my last post (what seems like ages ago now!), I tried to argue that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights, is a special type of story that engages important themes related to vocational discernment. Specifically, I was interested in the interplay of the particular work one does, the place where the work is done, and how that work supports the flourishing of individuals and relationships in a community. In that post, I also promised to return to another story told by Mr. Miranda — not Hamilton — to support my claim that Miranda is a remarkable modern explicator of vocation. If not the greatest! But first, allow me a brief detour to explain how Miranda’s short musical, 21 Chump Street, captured my enthusiasm as something useful for engaging students with vocational discernment.
It was an otherwise typical Friday morning in March (2016!) while I was driving my daughter to school. The weekly installment of StoryCorp on NPR moved me to tears when Francois Clemmons told the story of how Fred Rogers had approached him in the late 1960’s to ask him to play the role of a police officer, Officer Clemmons, on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. In Mr. Clemmons’ words:
“I grew up in the ghetto. I did not have a positive opinion of police officers. Policemen were siccing police dogs and water hoses on people,” he says. “And I really had a hard time putting myself in that role. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all.”
I was born in 1974, so the 1960’s is less than a blur to me. Consider, though, that Clemmons first appeared on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in an episode that aired on August 1, 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated less than four months earlier on April 4.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention would begin in Chicago before that same month of August ended. Mr. Clemmons’ trepidation is understandable, but, considering the social context of that period, assuming that role was nothing short of heroic.
Clemmons’ description of a scene from an episode that aired on May 9, 1969 was the part that moved me to tears. Mr. Rogers invites Officer Clemmons to cool his feet with him in a small pool and then proceeds to dry his feet with a towel. A half-century later, I don’t know how many of us can appreciate the significance of this act — notwithstanding the obvious connections to Maundy Thursday. For a powerful counter-example, consider the heightened tensions across the South after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 when it came time to actually integrate beaches and swimming pools.
What does Clemmons’ story tell us about vocation? First, it serves as an excellent example of two people, Francois Clemmons and Fred Rogers, living into their callings. As difficult as vocation might be to define, anytime we find an example of others working for reconciliation, peace, and justice, we have to lift it up. Alabanza!
But the question I am more interested in is whether or not the story of Francois Clemmons and Fred Rogers might impact the vocational trajectories of those who hear it. If Ruskin’s query for the merchant — what is your due occasion for death? — is too heavy for our modern sensibilities, does this story about two extraordinary people assuming relatively ordinary roles to challenge systemic injustice through their work help the rest of us reflect on how our work might affect others? An even simpler question might be, “how does this work affect my neighbor?”
When I shared my question with a colleague who teaches in the humanities, the response I received was less than encouraging. Of course Clemmons’ story had resonated with me: a middle-class, middle-aged, white, (need I say liberal?) NPR-listener. It was scripted to resonate with someone exactly like me. Would the story work with today’s millennials? Probably not.
Enter — finally! — the solution to this intergenerational mismatch: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s retelling of the true story of high school senior, Justin Leboy, and the series of events that unfold when a very pretty girl shows up in his class one day. 21 Chump Street is Miranda’s musical version of a story that originally aired on the Valentine’s day episode of This American Life in 2012. Both the TAL version and Miranda’s musical interpretation are less than 15 minutes, so it’s probably best to just listen at this point. The following is a brief synopsis of the five songs that make up the musical soundtrack:
- “What the heck do I have to do to be with you?” asks Justin. Naomi, the very pretty girl, doesn’t exactly say yes or no when Justin asks her to the prom.
- “My assignment, to pose as a senior, and find out who’s buying, who’s selling, mostly pills and weed.” We learn that Naomi’s role as an undercover police officer has its challenges, but there is significant motivation for doing this work. After all, “…kids need to learn there are consequences in life, and if I am doing my job, and I am doing it right, I am making life safer one school at a time.” In response to Justin’s question from the first song, Naomi commits what many will consider to be an ethical breach with a question of her own: “Do you smoke weed?”
- “I got you, girl, don’t sweat it.” Justin, the love-struck honor roll student, relies on his cousins to procure a small amount of marijuana for Naomi.
- After a tense exchange sequence in the classroom, Naomi attempts to pay Justin for the drugs. Justin replies, with some very memorable singing, “I don’t want your money, I got this just for you… Keep your money, there’s nothing I won’t do for you.”
- “Justin had made an irreversibly bad decision.” We also learn a little bit more about Naomi’s backstory and how drugs had adversely impacted her family. As difficult as her work is, it must be done. In the end, Justin pleads guilty to a felony.
If I am doing my job, and I am doing it right… what, exactly, am I doing? It shouldn’t be a difficult question! But how often do we ask it? How often can we ask it? The power of these narratives is to engage the listener in a deeper discernment about what their work might ultimately mean to other people. Does this work, and how it is finally executed, build or subvert community? Are the people who are touched by this work made more whole, or does this work advance the cause of some at a terrible cost to others? For Mr. Clemmons, the answer to both questions should be clear. But still, the fact that it was hard for him to assume the role of Officer Clemmons suggests that achieving these ideals is never trivial — even when the task at hand is simply modelling a better world on a soundstage.
How much harder can it be to achieve these ideals in the real world? The story of Justin and Naomi illustrates exactly how hard it is. Is vocational discernment all about finding a job that we love and then never working a day again in our lives? Somewhere between this simplistic version and Ruskin’s, we should be able to find some fertile soil. We clearly need good story-tellers for any of this to work, and Miranda’s popular success certainly qualifies him as a good story-teller. You have to ask yourself, though, of all the stories out there to tell, why choose these? In the Heights, 21 Chump Street, and, of course, Hamilton, all engage with vocational discernment, but the message is both subtle and incredibly honest about the perils one is likely to encounter on the journey.
Jeff Brown teaches engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. His essay, “Unplugging the GPS: Rethinking Undergraduate Professional Degree Programs” is part of the collection Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2017). Click here for more blog posts by Jeff Brown.