(The following is an excerpt from a memoir I am writing about my career in public education. Music had a lot to do with it, believe me.)
I have taught many unusual lessons in my career. This one was not only successful (though even the best lessons are only partially so), but its history also incorporated a lot of the best and not a little of the worst of this profession.
I was teaching middle school at the time and was graced with a bunch of seventh graders who were game for anything interesting I proposed. They would go on to make me look great many, many times that year. In this case, their lesson grew out of a screw-up on my part.
Striving to realize our school’s challenging goal of integrating curriculum, our instructional team had tried to design an opening unit focusing on the idea of “culture.” For three weeks, each teacher—math, science, social studies, reading, writing, and special education—would design his or her instruction so that it addressed that common theme, with the unit output being a single assessment of learning, as opposed to five separate tests. Theoretically, it still sounds neat to me—in fact, it drew me away from my previous job just for the chance to try it. In reality, it’s a bitch to pull off. Just trying to talk about it caused my first teaching team to implode.
At this point in my middle school tenure, however, I was surrounded with comrades willing to give the idea a shot. We planned our culture unit very meticulously, and, of course, I, likely the most enthusiastic among us, zipped through my part of the unit quicker than necessary, quite possibly leaving a few students in the dust in the process. So, confronted with an additional three lessons to write before my fellow teachers were finished, I decided to give the young’uns a dose of Missouri culture and rock and roll, as well as an opportunity to be creative.
I have often said, only half-joking, that I teach to subsidize my record collection. But I have always reinvested what I’ve gained from music in the stock of U. S. public schools’ pop culture curriculum (even though that exists only in my mind), and, in this case, I thought it would be valuable for my students to study how one great rock and roll writer reflected his rich and complicated culture. I prepared, with one eye on Fair Use guidelines, a handout highlighting some of Mr. Chuck Berry’s most revealing lyrics (“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Back in the U.S.A.” among them), prefaced the lyrics with a quick artist bio, then guided the class through some close-listening of his music. As we proceeded, I led the kids in discussing what we had learned about U. S. culture circa 1955-1964, and advised them in taking a few notes. Then, over the next two periods, we put our shoulders to the wheel of the task: either write a song of your own, reflecting current U. S. culture, in Chuck’s style, or write a song about Chuck’s version of U. S. culture in your own style.
We had a blast, and, I must say, their work was very perceptive, witty, and—what do you know?—indicative of their having learned some valuable things! A couple students even brought guitars and played their songs. What we’d done leaked outside of our classroom (not surprising, in that my classroom was open to the hallways!), and we soon learned that our homeschool communicator’s college roommate had been Chuck’s lawyer at one point—and had his phone number.
One of the kids excitedly blurted, “Hey! Let’s send Chuck some of our songs!” You don’t say no to such a proposition, and soon the ex-roomie lawyer was on the horn to Chuck, asking him if he’d be up for reading some 7th graders’ tribute-songs to his bad self. Almost immediately, we received word back from Berry: send them on! We did a quick read-around, whittled our stack of 150 songs down to the best 30—we didn’t want to swamp ol’ Johnnie B. Goode!—slid them into a “vanilla envelope,” and put ‘em in the post. I didn’t really expect to hear from Chuck again; one of my long-time philosophies regarding ambitious enterprises is to expect absolutely nothing, which intensifies the exultation if things work out.
The next thing that happened was not a working-out.
A week after the culture unit’s conclusion—it worked nicely, but we were never to replicate its success beyond squeezing a birds-and-the-bees discussion into a “plant life cycles” unit—came our school’s “Back to School Night,” a late summer public ed staple during which parents are invited to meet their students’ teachers. These evenings usually prove a bit of a dog-and-pony show on our parts, but they are seldom high intensity, and, though the parents who most need to come don’t (usually they can’t—they are working), we usually at least mildly enjoy the opportunity to communicate to the grown-ups what we’re up to.
I didn’t expect to be called to the principal’s office. Via intercom.
When I stepped into her office, in front of Dr. Brown’s desk sat what I presumed to be a parent. On the parent’s lap lay her daughter’s English folder, open, with the Chuck Berry handout removed and unmistakably on display. I thought, “Oh shit—she’s a journalism professor and she’s got a copyright complaint. I knew I should have picked up those handouts after we finished writing!” I stood at attention, ready to be, perhaps justly, upbraided.
“This man does not have the moral fiber to be teaching my daughter!”
I take copyright seriously, but, well—wasn’t that a bit strong?
But this wasn’t about copyright. I could not have possibly guessed what it was about.
Remember that “quick artist bio”? I know what you’re thinking: no, I did not mention Chuck’s Mann Act scrape and accompanying prison stint, nor his naked photos with equally naked groupies, nor his tax evasion escapade, nor his exploits with video technology. Nor did this mother look those biographical tidbits up. (All idols have feet of clay, anyway.) Her concern was this: I was promoting violence in this unit.
She said that. Yes. And it was in the bio ‘graph I had written, branded into my memory since:“Berry’s machine-gun lyric delivery in songs such as ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ (see below) influenced none other than Bob Dylan, one of this century’s greatest songwriters.” She read that aloud, from the handout, to my principal and me, with supreme confidence and righteous indignation, as if it were irrefutable proof I was a warlock.
Actually, I think that is exactly what I said. I looked at Dr. Brown—an excellent administrator I had purposely followed over to this particular school, and a human whom I was desperately hoping valued loyalty at the highest level—and stared in disbelief. The mother stood, read the passage aloud again, and punctuated it with this outburst: “It says right here—‘machine-gun lyrics’!!!” (As you can see above, it didn’t quite say that.)
I confess to being a lifelong smartass, but my reply was simply self-defense: “Do you understand figurative language?”
“Don’t try to slither out of this!” At that moment, I was the closest I have ever been to deeply understanding Kafka. And “slither”? Really?
Keeping my far eye pleading with the principal and my near one defiantly on my judge, I patiently explained the point behind the lesson. No sale.
I looked directly at my boss and said, in quizzical defeat, “Well, you could move her daughter to another team.”
The parent exploded. “She’s not going anywhere!”
I was stunned. I reflected for about an eighth of a second and said, to them both, “This is ludicrous. I have sane parents to speak to. Do what you must. I cannot explain more clearly what my valid and very moral intentions were. Goodbye.” Turned on my heel, went back to my class, and pictured two die spinning through the air.
That absolutely wonderful administrator, Dr. Wanda Brown, refused to budge in giving me full support—that’s one of the reasons why she still hangs the moon for me. The parent pulled her daughter from regular classes for homeschooling (I am sure, much to the daughter’s embarrassment), though she continued to send her over to us in the afternoon for French classes (that’s bullshit, if you ask me—you teach her French, lady). In spite of the whackiest—and wackest—parental guidance episode I had ever witnessed in my career, I proceeded to have a better year than Frank Sinatra’s in the song. The story of the Chuck Berry unit, however, had not yet concluded.
Spring. That lovable homeschool communicator rolled into my classroom—he did, in fact, roll—and motioned me over.
“Chuck’s coming to play at a local high school next week. [He lives in Wentzville, Missouri, just down I-70 from Columbia.] He loved the packet of songs, and he’s authorized you to bring over the ten student writers you think would get the most out of hearing and meeting him. I’ll take care of the bus.”
As the generation of teachers prior to mine would have exclaimed, “My goodness!” (That is not what I said; I repeated the title of a well-known Funkadelic title exclamation, but my moral fiber is too strong to repeat it here.) Though selecting the ten students proved an exercise in pure agony, we were soon filing into the choir room of the local high school, where the kids were given a front-row seat—
a mere five feet from the man himself, at that moment swiveling on a stool, his guitar on his lap.
My natural high was so intense, I cannot remember much of Berry’s talk, other than that Chuck gave rap lyrics his seal of approval (good man, and my kids beamed). However, when the afternoon turned to Q&A, I received an electric charge greater than a cattle prod’s when one of my students, Sekou Gaidi (whom I must name for posterity’s sake), stood to ask a question. Sekou, who often underperformed for me despite frequently being the smartest person in the room (including me), had actually been inspired during the Chuck Berry unit and written a killer song. He was also a combination of a cannon packed a shade too loose and Sun Ra (a jazz genius who uttered many a head-scratcher in his day). I admit, as the charge passed through me, that I was holding my breath.
Chuck: “Young man, what would you like to ask?”
Sekou: “I don’t know who in the heck you are”—Unadulterated claptrap! He was laser-focused through the entire three-day lesson!—“but my mom wants you to autograph this book.”
This request was delivered dry as toast, with arm toward the stage, Chuck’s recent autobiography at its fingers’ end as if it were trash recently plucked off the ground. Sekou’s expression? Slot-mouthed.
Three beats of silence. Excuse me while I break to present tense.
Chuck—Chuck Berry—is staring (glaring? I couldn’t tell!) at Sekou, then a pudgy, bespectacled little seventh-grader wearing mauve sweats. I am covering my hands, shaking my head, fairly sure that this is one of Sekou’s jokes, stunned by his unholy audacity if I am correct, and dreading what might rush into the resulting vacuum of silence.
Into the void rush explosive guffaws, straight out of the gut of The King of Rock and Roll. Then out of the audience’s. Then out of mine. My team teacher is laughing so hard she’s tearing up, and my wife Nicole, who’d come along and would later get her own copy autographed, is staring at me in stunned, gaping delight. In fact, I am tearing up a little right now, staring at this screen, mouth agape as I recall it.
Thus properly ends one of the best lessons I ever taught, embedded in the history of which, as with all the best lessons, are other very important lessons. I can only be thankful that the lessons did not come at me with machine-gun-like rapidity.