David Bowie, Difference, and Basic Writing

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In nearly thirty years of teaching and writing about Basic Writing, I have observed that one significant theme remains the same. Institutions that offer courses called Basic Writing, or other developmental courses like Stretch or ALP, have marked a select group of students as “different” or “other,” based on test scores, directed self-placement, or some other process or measurement or academic sorting.  Students often resist this label, and many respond with frustration that can derail even the most carefully planned course and the most compassionate of teachers.

Once I learned of my ADHD diagnosis and researched lifelong impacts of ADHD, my own ages-old identification with difference began to make more sense. In mourning the death of David Bowie, I grappled with his influence on my conceptions of difference, and I considered how to foreground those conceptions in the spring semester Stretch course.

When David Bowie died, social media exploded. Like me, some commentators had experienced deep loneliness in isolated 1970s suburbs, explained the impact of David Bowie’s music in our lives.  “He made it okay to be different,” Madonna explained to her fans at a concert in Houston, as she introduced her cover of his iconic song, “Rebel Rebel.”   

“Rebel Rebel” debuted at 85 on the Top 100 Billboard Charts on June 1st, 1974, at the end of my disastrous sophomore year in high school. My geometry teacher had promised me a D- if I agreed to never again take another math class. I kept that promise. In 1974, geometry was the highest math I would need for college, and the D- would show up as a pass grade because I had elected to take the course pass/fail.

I also failed driver’s education. That summer, while other teenagers were earning their driver’s licenses and making plans for the freedom that would come from commandeering their parents’ cars, I looked forward to a summer of babysitting, reading whatever I could get my hands on, and writing my heart out whenever I could. But I had no mobility and my social life was nonexistent.  The 1970s did not provide sex and drugs for all of us. But then there was rock and roll. Top 40 AM radio saved me, as it did many others.

“I was weird,” I explained to my Stretch classes. “My teachers told me I wasn’t trying hard enough. I wasn’t living up to my potential.”  It would take more than three decades to learn about my ADHD, which had a different name in 1974, and which was not often diagnosed in girls. Instead we were told we daydreamed too much and needed to pay more attention.

David Bowie offered an alternative that I could dance to. It was “Rebel Rebel.” Here are the lyrics:

You've got your mother in a whirl

She's not sure if you're

A boy or a girl

Hey, babe, your hair's all right

Hey, babe, let's go out tonight

In the chorus, his love spoke directly to my broken heart:

                         Rebel, rebel, you've torn your dress

Rebel, rebel, your face is a mess

Rebel, rebel, how could they know

Hot tramp, I love you so

As a young girl with undiagnosed ADHD, I had found my lifelong anthem. Thirteen years later, in the autumn of 1987, when I taught my first basic writing class, I would find my calling. All these decades later, the music reminds me to dismiss deficit models, and instead to honor differences— including my own— as deep sources of resilience and of strength.

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.