I didn’t truly understand that teachers are real people until I had school-aged children of my own. During my entire youth, teachers weren’t so much people as they were a spectrum of Sapiens-like humanoids crafted specifically for employ in the educational field. It rarely, if ever, dawned on me that they were regular people just like everyone else, with regular lives and regular struggles and regular pasts and regular futures. They even had regular, and not so regular, quirks.
I think the formality of the profession, at least in mine and previous generations, had a lot to do with it. Teachers didn’t even have first names back when I was a kid. They were all Mr. Smith or Mrs. Johnson or Miss Kirfuffledorf. Nowadays there’s hardly a surname to be found among them. Miss Brittany or Mr. W. are the norm giving children the perception that teachers are friends rather than supervisory overlords. And don’t get me started on work clothes. The suits and ties and the floor length skirts and blouses have given way to khakis, jeans, and, much to my conflicted bewilderment and delight, yoga pants. It’s safe to say I would never have known any teacher of mine sported a tattoo of any kind whereas now sleeveless shirts expose decorative ink for all to see. I’m not here to judge any of these changes. I’m just pointing out that things are a lot different and teachers no longer look or feel like the unforgiving automatons of yesteryear.
There were hints, mind you. Especially in high school. A crush on a young substitute teacher sure felt real. As did running into teachers around town or while working your afterschool job. And then there were all those rumours. The sordid ones, yes, but also ones that seemed too bizarre to be true. And yet…
Kids whose parents were teachers parent had unique lives. Like double-agents without the secret identity, they were conduits tying our real world to that mysterious, mythological world in which the teachers resided outside of school hours. This was no doubt a burden, never more so than if that parent was a universally disliked teacher. But it also exposed them to tantalizing truths with tangible evidence. Truths that gave these singular kids great power and, like Spiderman, great responsibility.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the English department at my high school in the heart of rural Southwestern Ontario. One particular English teacher, for whom eccentric barely does justice in describing, was beloved by generations of students despite tormenting and baffling each and every one of them. Even Malcolm Gladwell, perhaps this teacher’s most famous former student, speaks highly and lovingly of the man.
He was my homeroom teacher in Grade 12 and that year I saw the full breadth of the man’s peculiarities. Every item obsessively placed on his desk. The pencil sharpener handle always in the downward position, with class being momentarily suspended if it were found otherwise. A passion for literature, an unexpected flair for teaching the subject, and demanding expectations of the students.
Most memorable to me was the fact that he would critique the students reading the morning announcements. Right there in class, if an announcer mumbled or spoke too colloquial, he would admonish them to the entire class despite the perpetrator not even being present. My best friend and I were one of the morning announcement crews that year and I’ll never forget the time I returned to class and was rewarded with a compliment for my diction while announcing that morning. There were few honours higher I can assure you. And if he were to read this post today, I’m damn sure he’d have plenty of corrections for me to make. Some marked with red ink while others noted with an exasperated moan.
He also had a wonderful sense of humour. This often took the form of flamboyant performances during staff routines at school assemblies. It wasn’t even telling jokes but rather his very presence and commitment to the parody that trumped anything the coolest teachers did. And we loved it.
He also had a secret. A secret that could only be kept so tyrannically safe in a world without internet; where evidence was often unattainable and teacher’s kids knew what lines not to cross. We no longer live in such a world and what was my loss then is your gain today.
There had long been rumours that this English teacher had a musical past somewhat tangential to what most of us would define as popular music. There had also long been rumours that recorded evidence of this “music” existed at the home of one of our classmates whose father was also an English teacher at the same high school. In our later grades, when house parties became a fixture of weekend mischief-making, this classmate, a friend of mine, would host the odd soiree when his parents were out of town. Inevitably, as the night wore on and the under-age drinking lubricated our collective curiosity, our attention would turn to trying to convince our friend to bring out the alleged album containing the vocal stylings of our infamous English teacher.
We were basically asking our friend to reveal to us the holy grail. He never did. Or at least he never did when I was there. Or at least he never did that I can remember. This is the problem with high school parties. This is also the problem with being 46. Suffice it to say, I don’t think I ever saw or heard this record album.
But it’s a different world today. Evidence is far easier to obtain than having to badger a friend into showing you something he’s not supposed to. Today the internet does all the badgering for you, all in a matter of seconds. I’ve now seen and heard that holy grail. It and a whole lot more. Perhaps the most shocking revelation of my Youtube search is discovering that not only had my grade 12 English teacher recorded some decidedly strange music before he was my teacher, he had continued to do so while he was my teacher. He also did so after he was my teacher and, he continues to do so to this very day. Fantastic! You have no idea how happy all that makes me.
Today, as we head into the final month of the year, some thirty years since I was a shy, pimply, but well-spoken (at least one time, anyway) high school kid, I’m kicking off your weekend with the weirdest music you will ever hear. I can’t even explain this, really, so I’ll let Wikipedia do it for me:
“The term “spasm band” or “noise band” refers to a band that uses homemade instruments. Indeed, most of the instruments are modifications of other instruments, or wholly invented by the members. In addition to the homemade instruments, members are encouraged to improvise. The range of the improvisation is such that instruments are not tuned to each other, tempos and time signatures are not imposed, and the members push the ranges of their instrumentation by engaging in constant innovation.”
Yeah. So … brace yourselves!
This is the visceral “What About Me?” by the Nihilist Spasm Band from the 1992 album of the same name. I would like to highlight that 1992 was exactly one year after I graduated high school. There’s a possibility I inspired this song?
Thanks for being real, Mr. Exley.
And a bunch of other stuff just because.