In my other life, I'm a middle school teacher; I spend most of my days surrounded by twelve year olds, trying to balance entertainment with mentorship, and curriculum with life lessons. Before that, I taught in a boarding high school, tutored gifted and talented kids in a tiny rural elementary school, ran a before-school program, and did public demonstrations at a science museum.
And before that, I was a dropout. And before that, I was a goofball, who needed a little good advice now and then, but couldn't really sit still long enough in the classroom to make any teacher want to defend me.
But Mrs. Carter liked me, though I don't know why. The way she looked at me - like I had something worth watching for - made up for the fact that I was always the understudy when we were picked for the school play, always the alternate for work with the poet in residence. I learned to rise to the occasion, and to focus on doing things well, instead of doing things best; I gained confidence in my abilities. And though after that year, I turned back into the goofball for a good long time, I never forgot Mrs. Carter. And I never forgot that look.
It's a well-kept secret in educational circles that it isn't just the good kids, or the smart kids who get voted "most likely to be a teacher", who come back to school to sit on the other side of the desk (or in my case, to stand atop the desk and gesticulate wildly to make a point). We come from all the cliques, from the woodshop wannabes to the cheerleading squad, from the lit mag proto-hipsters to the band geeks. But I can't think of any teacher I have ever spoken with who is not honored and thrilled and genuinely surprised when that rare student comes out of the woodwork to say "you mattered, and now I matter."
A few years back, at a five year reunion, this kid came up to me, and thanked me. He said I was the one who changed his life; that now he was doing what I had taught him to do, and hardly a week went by where he didn't think about what I had taught him.
And I looked at him, and smiled, and was secretly joyous. But all I could think about was that this kid was the goofball. The one who was always pushing the envelope. The one who messed around in film class, though he always came through with something pretty cool when the work was due. The one who spliced thirty second of a shower scene from a Penthouse video into his remade music video for Van Halen's Hot For Teacher. And showed it on the day the Academic Dean came to observe me in my first year of teaching.
And then I remembered Mrs. Carter. And I thought about calling her up, and thanking her. But Mrs. Carter isn't around anymore.
There are surprisingly few songs about the teaching profession which portray it in a positive light (though there are a couple of other memorable songs out there about teachers as sex objects, such as Police classic Don't Stand So Close To Me and Rufus Wainwright's The Art Teacher); of these, fewer still have been covered by folk artists. More common are songs about school as a part of adolescent or childhood experience -- songs where the teachers are there, unmentioned, just hovering in the background. But as a teacher myself, I know that no classroom feels safe unless the teacher has set a tone that makes it safe. Even without mention, as long as curriculum and classroom exist, a teacher is always there.
Today, then, in celebration of National Teacher Appreciation Week (USA), we bring you a set of quirky covers of teachersongs, and some schoolsongs which touch lightly and broadly on our experience of the classroom, that childhood stew of fear and freedom where our personalities were transformed.
Together, the songs make a perfect soundtrack to a google search for that one special teacher who reached out and changed your life. Write the letter, send the email, make the call: let them know they made a difference today. You don't even have to say thanks -- just letting them know that you remember them, and that you turned out okay, is a rare and precious reward.
- Petty Booka, Teacher's Pet (orig. Doris Day)
(from Ukelele Lady; more Petty Booka here)
- Matt Nathanson, Starfish and Coffee (orig. Prince)
(from For The Kids, Too; more Matt Nathanson here)
- Fionn Regan, Getting Better (orig. Beatles)
(live on BBC Radio 1; more Fionn Regan here)
- Mark Erelli, Lonestar (orig. Lori McKenna)
(Mp3 of the Month web release; more Mark Erelli here)
- David Wilcox, The Kid (orig. Buddy Mondlock)
(from How Did You Find Me Here; more David Wilcox here)
- Cry Cry Cry, The Kid (ibid.)
(from Cry Cry Cry; more here here here)
- Bree Sharp, We're Going To Be Friends (orig. White Stripes)
(website release; more Bree Sharp here)
- Jack Johnson, We're Going To Be Friends (ibid.)
(from the Curious George soundtrack; more Jack Johnson here)
- Art Garfunkel w/ Paul Simon and James Taylor, (What A) Wonderful World (orig. Sam Cooke)
(from Watermark; more Art Garfunkel here)
- Luther Wright and the Wrongs, Another Brick in the Wall (orig. Pink Floyd)
(from Rebuild the Wall; more Luther Wright here)