The hip hop classic, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), is now over 20 years old. The album was recorded before either of my children, now ages 13 and 21 were born. But, during quarantine, I’ve had the pleasure of sharing it and listening anew with my 13-year-old daughter. Musically it’s a masterpiece, but there’s more than music here: One of the most compelling and original parts of the album occurs in snatches of talk between the songs. In these interludes, I’ve noticed my daughter’s attention become more focused. She listens intently as a conversation unfolds between a teacher and some middle-school students about one word: Love. This conversation brilliantly enacts not “miseducation,” (as the title of the album might suggest), but an ideal of pedagogical discussion. Whether you’ll be on zoom or masking up and entering a classroom this coming fall, if you’re planning to talk about language with your students, this discussion of the word love on Lauryn Hill’s classic album provides a potentially powerful model for doing so.
The conversation begins like this:
Teacher: Alright people. I’m going to write something on the board. Let’s spell it. First letter…
Chorus of Kids: L-O-V-E [a couple giggles]
Teacher: What’s that?
Chorus of Kids: LOVE!
Chorus of Kids: LOVE!
Teacher: How many of you know any songs about love?
Student: I know a lot about love!
Teacher: Tell me some titles, titles, I want some songs.
Student: Love! [Lots of giggles]
Teacher: There’s a song called love? There’s no song called love! Alright, what is it what is it?
Student: It go “loooooove” [more giggles]
Teacher: Okay. Anybody else…
Student: I will always love you.
Teacher: Okay, any movies about love?
Student: Romeo and Juliet.
Teacher: Ok. Did you know what that was about when you saw it?
The conversation then fades out and Lauryn sings a sad love song, “Ex-factor.” After that song and another, the “classroom” conversation continues:
Teacher: Okay, how many people in here have ever been IN LOVE? I know none of the guys are going to raise their hand. Heh heh. How many of y’all have ever been in love? I know none of the guys been in—we don’t get in love, right? Oh! Let this black man right here tell what his idea of love is. It’s not all the time we hear young black men talking about love. About your personal definition. Don’t tell me what Webster thinks.
Student (boy): You are willing to do everything for that person.
Teacher: Okay, everything like what?
Students: Side mumbling
Teacher: Let him talk, come on. If I asked him to talk about a fancy car, he’d be right on point, but we want to talk about love. You can do it! What do you think? You said you loved somebody, you should know why you love them, right?
Student (boy): The way they act. The way they carry theyself. Stuff like that.
Student (girl 1): They just stand out. It’s like sometimes it don’t even matter what they wear or what they look like. It’s like. It’s like. That one! You know?
Student (girl 2): Yeah [wistfully]
Student (girl 1): You know that you want to talk to him because he stands out. It’s like he got a glow or something.
Student (boy): That’s what I’m talking about.
Teacher: That’s deep. I thought that was a beautiful point. Anybody else want to deal with that?
Student (girl 2): And, sometimes like when they try to act funny in front of their boys and they get around and they say I love you—They can’t love you! Because love is- love don’t do that.
Student (girl 1): Love is not phony.
At that point, Lauryn sings one of her most famous songs, Do Wop (that thing), and then, the conversation resumes:
Teacher: Hey. We got some very intelligent women in here, man. Do you think you’re too young to really love somebody?
Chorus of Kids: NO!!!!!!!
Teacher: Let’s take it from me. I’m an adult. I say wait, you’re too young to be in love. This is silly. You’re infatuated with him. He got nice jeans. He wear fancy adidas.
Chorus of Kids: Laughing!
Teacher: I don’t know!
Student (girl): It’s a difference from loving somebody and being in love.
Teacher: Okay! You tell me. What’s the difference?
Student: You could love anybody. But when you in love with somebody, you’re looking at that person like- you’re taking that person for what he or she is, no matter what he or she look like or no matter what he or she do!
Student: You can fall IN love—you can fall OUT of love.
Student: You stop being IN love with them, but you is NOT gonna stop loving that person.
Student: Maybe sometimes they’ve never been loved before, or they never been in love before, or they never- they don’t know what the feeling is to be loved.
Teacher: You killed it. We can end the conversation with that, right?
In these small moments, between songs, this teacher illuminates what a great discussion with kids, about one word, might look like.
Now, you might be thinking—this is an ideal situation, and the conversation may even be scripted ahead of time. No wonder it’s so wonderful! Others have also wondered the same. In an essay in Medium about this Album, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, Alex Chochoclo writes:
“I always wondered whether the classroom dialogue recordings were scripted or not. I’d like to believe that they weren’t. Somehow, the experience of listening to young men and women talk about their opinions and experiences of love at such an early stage in their lives is endearing. I wonder what those same voices are experiencing of love right now and what they’ve endured over the last twenty years.”
As if in answer to Chochoclo’s essay, the New York Times also published an article that year, after tracking down the original teacher and some of these students (now adults) to follow up on these very same wonderings. The revelations of these individuals, and about the word “love” continue to flow in this multi-media article about what followed.
As the participants remember that day, recalling the conversation, they assure listeners that, while it didn’t take place in a classroom, it was entirely improvised—with the single goal being to have a conversation about the word, “love.” The teacher brought a couple of students he already knew to the recording session (which took place in Lauren Hill’s childhood home in Newark, NJ), and Lauryn’s team rounded up a few more neighborhood kids whom the teacher had never met before.
And who is this “teacher”? The students seem so attentive and forthcoming, eager to answer his questions. I have always wondered, is he also a hip hop star? No! At the time of the recording, he was an elementary school teacher in Newark, and a friend and neighbor of Lauryn Hill. Today, he is the Mayor of Newark, NJ, Ras Baraka.
And the students the Times talked to were—still are, in the Times-recorded interview from 2018—genuinely engaged in this discussion of love. Twenty years after the recording of their “class”, they had distinct memories of the event and of the substance of the conversation. One of them remarked, of the interludes between songs:
“That’s the best part of the CD! It kind of makes you laugh. And gets you thinking!”
One of the women surprised herself, looking back, at the wisdom of her statement about love, in 1998, when she said, “Maybe sometimes they’ve never been loved before, or they never been in love before, or they never- they don’t know what the feeling is to be loved.”
Listening back to the recording from 1998, she told the Times reporter: “I was wise beyond my years!” She was impressed with her own younger self, and the recognition she had then that someone who has never been loved may not be able to feel love for others. As she remarks:
“I honestly was thinking about….I had seen kids my age who didn’t have what I had, which was a loving family. And they would just do things that would be considered bad behavior. But, you know, it just dawned on me when that question was asked: Maybe someone doesn’t know how to love because they’ve never been loved before. They don’t know what it feels to be loved. So how can you possibly expect someone who has never been loved before to know how to love?”
Another participant, one of the boys in the love conversation, talked about how the meaning of the word, “love,” for him has changed over 20 years of his life. Now, he says, as a divorced man, as a man who had recently lost his ex-girlfriend to gang violence, “love” for him is a “gamble.” He then remarked, “1998 to now, which is 20 years—I’ve lost over 100 friends to gang violence.”
This conversation—and the return to it 20 years later—reminds us that words don’t define the world for us. Discussing the word love, did not center on identifying its universal essence, the definition. Instead, it illuminated how people bring meaning to that word through the events of their own lives. The love discussion became a way for all these adults to talk about much more than the meaning of a word, or even their own individual relationship to it. That discussion of whatever we mean by “love,” provided a medium to talk and hear about how others might experience the world—through their own relationships, through observations of families around them, from the experience of violence, and of loss. As one participant remarked:
“For me at the time the only person I loved was my brother and my mother. So I could relate to that and that aspect. But to know that being in love was something totally different and its coming from someone that was my peer. It helped be to understand that as I became older and got into relationships. Other people that I know haven’t even had those kind of conversations at home…”
This simple but surprisingly powerful conversation about a single word was still lively for these participants, 20 years after the original recording. While the “classroom discussion” on Lauryn Hill’s record is set up in her own home, with just a few neighborhood kids, and an obviously gifted communicator as teacher, it’s worth thinking how conversations about single words like this can bring out the collective knowledge in any classroom.
Teachers can start conversations like this anywhere, even on-line. Classrooms benefit from this talk about language—conversations that let a word take its meaning from those who are talking about it. Write a word on the proverbial chalkboard (or flash it on your Zoom screen, or post it in on a discussion board) and start a conversation. The word needn’t be “love.” Any word that matters at the moment, for your students, in your shared world, could launch the dialogue: “love,” “freedom,” “citizenship,” even “research.” The word research has been an illuminating springboard into discussion for my students. What is research? That question may not be as spicy as “what is love?” but it is a compelling question for grad students just embarking on research of their own. And just as it was useful for the kids on Lauryn Hill’s record to hear about love from their peers, students can also gain valuable insight from the experience their peers bring to words like “research.”
These are not discussions in which a teacher tells students a standardized definition. As former teacher and now Mayor Ras Baraka encourages kids, he asks for their “personal definition,” saying explicitly, “Don’t tell me what Webster thinks.” These conversations don’t call for the “proper” usage or recite expert opinion on the topic. Instead, talk about the word “love,” like talk about any single word, encourages students to talk about how the word means for them, in their world. Once students are invited to share their intelligence in this way, students seem to gain a confidence that comes from using words as tools for exploration, rather than displays of standardized knowledge being lectured into their heads. Who knows, 20 years later, our students, like those on Lauryn Hill’s record, may still be thinking about such conversations, reflecting how those words work in their world.
As teachers or students, do you remember conversations about words and what resulted? Please share your memories or other comments below!