PASSING TIME, PART 7: Extracurricular Fun, Part 3–Folk-Funk Visits the Hickman High School Little Theater

 

bobby-rush-and-us 

Sometimes great things fall into your lap, and you have to be ready for them.

In 2009, my wife and I had just returned from a trip to Memphis, and on the way down and back, we’d listened to a heap of Bobby Rush tracks. Bobby, a native of Homer, Louisiana, is the inventor of what he calls “folk funk”: music too funky for blues, too bluesy for funk, and designed for very down-to-earth people. He has also been incredibly durable. One could argue that not only his recordings but also his performances are more vital now than they were thirty years ago; currently in his eighties as of this writing, he shows no signs of slowing down. We’d barely unpacked when my phone rang. The caller was an associate of the Missouri Arts Council, and she’d gotten my name from an acquaintance who’d mentioned that I’d arranged rock and roll concerts at my high school.

“Would Hickman be interested in hosting a blues artist for a concert next month?”

That would seem to be a no-brainer, but as fans of the graphic novel and film Ghost World know, the wrong band or artist can give an audience the blues rather than relieve it of them. I wasn’t going to be held accountable for a Blueshammer-styled band, nor, I must be honest, a painfully sincere “bloozeman” of any stripe. Thus, I had to put on the brakes.

“Well, it depends upon whom. When we do these things, we like to do ‘em up all the way, and I’d hate to, you know, do up something anti-climactic.”

“Have you heard of Bobby Rush?”

I didn’t know whether to shit twice or die.

“Can you hear me ok?”

“Yeah, sorry, I was just a little overcome there. Hell, yes, we’ll do it! Give me the details!” Usually, I asked for the details before agreeing, but, in this case, I would have been a fool.

“Well,” she said, “It’s free of charge to you and the audience; a grant’s paid for it. Bobby’s got his own band and gear—you’d just need to provide a basic PA and monitors. And we’d like to schedule it for the evening so kids could bring their families if they wanted to. I tried to pitch this to Jefferson City Public Schools, but they wanted nothing to do with it.”

“You snooze, you lose. And this will be a huge loss for them. We’re A-OK on the equipment. And evening is great. But, regarding the kids and their families—is Bobby bringing the girls?”

I am sure this is a question anyone trying to book Rush is going to get asked. Bobby frequently performs with three triple-mega-bootylicious dancers to whom he often makes leering but strangely warm and charming reference throughout his shows, and a) I seriously hoped he was travelling with them, but b) I wasn’t sure the snug stage had room for them, and c) I was not sure a transition from high school performance stage to chitlin’ circuit showcase would be altogether without bumps (take that as you will).

She chuckled. “Oh no, he doesn’t have the girls on this leg.” I breathed a sigh of disappointed relief, as well as applied a mental Bobby Rush-like chuckle of lechery to her phrasing.

 

The next day, the kids of the Academy of Rock, our music appreciation club, and I revved into PR gear. We made and posted flyers, we networked the hallways and school nooks and crannies, and we set up visits to the American history classes, where we planned to show a brief “teaser” segment on Rush from Richard Pearce’s “The Road to Memphis,” an installment of Martin Scorsese’s The Blues series. Because I have been a serious nut about music since I heard “Then Came You” float out of a swimming pool jukebox, I have always been careful to find a solid justification for connecting any school use of it to curriculum—probably too careful, but I am like a Pentecostal preacher when I get going, and may the Devil take the curriculum. In this case, the justification too had fallen into my lap: it happened to be Black History Month, and, as dubious as I consider the concept (I prefer Black History Year), I was happy to exploit it. I was also happy that, in my long experience at Hickman, I’d seldom seen a major event staged that directly and intentionally appealed to our 25% black population. Not that I could take credit for anything but saying “yes” to the proposal; in fact, that could accurately serve as my epitaph: “He said ‘Yes’ to life.”

We also got word out to the local press—who were underwhelmed as usual, for the most part—and the Columbia music community, which resulted in my fellow music maniac Kevin Walsh and his young pal Chase Thompson showing up to make a film—as yet unreleased, but I have a dub—of Rush’s appearance.

The day of the show seemed to arrive in an instant. We promptly set up the stage and PA—but, for some reason, the monitors, not exactly top of the gear list in complexity of use, were malfunctioning. We tried everything we knew (admittedly, not much), to no avail. At least we had a computer properly jacked into the PA to record the show, which Bobby’d happily agreed to let us do. Still—one of the few things we’d been asked for we couldn’t deliver. I was also nervous about the turnout, as we had no way of knowing how many folks would arrive, since admission was free.

Bobby and his band (also known as the crew—they hauled and set up their own equipment, which is no unremarkable habit, especially for road vets) arrived right on schedule, and, after finding him and introducing myself and my wife Nicole, I cut right to the chase: “Bobby, our monitors are screwed. That’s about all you wanted, and we messed it up.”

“Phil, Bobby Rush got this! You OK! Been on the road for sixty years and ain’t nothin’ like that ever stopped us! You all just sit back and relax and let Bobby Rush take care of business.”

I couldn’t argue with that. Would you have?

We did as we were told and took a seat. The space was an old-style “Little Theater,” capacity 150, with nice track lighting, comfortable seating, and just enough stage for a five-piece band (Bobby had seven). I am assuming it was originally built for student theatrical performances, but, in the ‘Oughts, it was just as frequently a concert venue. As I write, I feel a pang of sadness in not being there to continue using it.

Bobby and his band genially integrated our small crew of students into their own set-up and soundcheck—they’d also quickly jerry-rigged the monitors and had them working—and were thrilled to find that we planned to have one of the kids run sound for the show. This had been our philosophy since the club was formed in 2004: move over and let some students do the popcorn! An element of risk always threatened proceedings as a result, but that’s life, learning happened, and it’s more fun riding on The Wall of Death, anyway.

I had been in a bit of a nervous trance when I suddenly broke it, looked around, and noticed that the house was almost packed. Not only that, but the concertgoers were predominantly black—with a considerable number of parents and grandparents among them. As is my wont, I quickly twisted my joy into worry as I began to recall certain bawdy Rush routines that might be revisited that very eve.

bobby 2

Photo by the great Notley Hawkins!

I needn’t have worried. Bobby Rush had this. 75 at the time, he must have set the record for pelvic thrusts in one show. The crowd went wild. He told raunchy stories, including one featuring his minister father. The crowd hollered. He plum-picked his sly repertoire: “Uncle Esau,” “I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya,” “I Got Three Problems,” “Henpecked” (“I ain’t henpecked!/I just been pecked by the right hen!”), “Night Fishin’,” “Evil,” “What’s Good for the Goose.” The crowd exploded. He produced a pair of size-75 women’s undies to demonstrate his taste in derrieres. The crowd went bonkers, and the grandmas stood up and shouted amen. He accused our sound man of being a virgin. The crowd—and our soundman—went nuts. He talked about visiting Iraq, about his prison ministry, about struggling up out of the Great Migration to Chicago, about being on damn near every black music scene for fifty years—and about coming through it all to vote for a black president who actually got elected. And the crowd hung, hushed, on his every word, as he delivered a brilliant, deeply personal history lesson we hadn’t even asked for. Even the jerry-rigged sound in that little room was hot as fire and deep as a well, with Rush playing harp like he was possessed by the ghost of Sonny Boy Williamson and snatching a guitar away from a band member to play some razor-sharp solo slide. As I continued to nervously scan what had become a congregation, I was thrilled to notice that the older the person was whom I spied, the wider his (or most definitely her) grin was. The students? They had clearly never seen anything like Bobby Rush before. Our soundman was so mesmerized he forgot to check the recording levels, so our aural document of the show is way into the red.

bobby-autographs

Photo by the great Notley Hawkins!

I know it’s a cliché, but it was, for damn sure, a religious experience. The audience, I think, was more drained than Bobby at show’s end, but not too drained to be shaking their heads in wonderment and giggling with glee. Several of those older folks swung by to tell me, “More of this, please!” The principal who’d drawn event supervision—lucky man!—asked me, “How in hell did this happen, and when’s the next one, ‘cause I’m calling dibs?” Of course, I’d liked to have met those demands with serious supply—but witnessing a bona fide, down and dirty, authentic-but-for-the-booze-smoke-and-BBQ chitlin’ circuit show at a Bible Belt high school, I’m afraid, is a once in a lifetime experience. God, I do love grants and art councils.

Nicole and I walked Bobby out into the February night, his arms around both of our shoulders. His eyes and jeri curls were shining, but he hadn’t seemed to have broken a sweat. “I want to thank you all for having us,” he offered, humbly. “I don’t know who had more fun, us or them!”

I quickly replied, “No, man, thank you! That show was so good you’d think you were playing for the president! And we’re just a high school in Missouri!”

He shook his head, smiling.

“I told you, Phil…Bobby Rush got this!”

Expository Listening, Expository Thinking: A Writing Lesson that REALLY Worked!

Today at Stephens College, where I teach freshman comp with a pop music focus, I executed one of those rare lessons that works on every level you hope it will. Feel free to steal and/or adapt it!

My students’ next essay assignment is to focus in on a music-related topic they’re interested in, then choose the appropriate expository mode for exploring it. On Tuesday, we reviewed some of the expository modes I’m encouraging them to try (comparison/contrast, problem-solution, description, definition, cause-effect, classification), but I sensed some anxiety and disconnect. As of last night, partially due to being hella busy this week, I still didn’t have a solution for that condition, so I just slept on it, then woke up with this (funny how that happens to teachers):

In class, we are going to listen to (and watch) four excellent singers–Billie Holiday, Anita O’ Day, Jamilia Woods, and Dolly Parton–in action.

As you listen and watch, you are going to think about the following expository modes of analysis and writing, and jot down corresponding observations you make in your notebook or on your device:

Description (external) – What does the singer sound like and how does she present herself?

Definition (internal) – Who or what does the singer seem to be?

Classification – How would you classify the singer, according to official and unofficial terms of classification?

Cause –> Effect – In listening closely to the singer, what effects do you feel as a result of her performance? What specific aspects of the performance cause those effects?

Comparison/Contrast – How are these singers similar? How do they differ?

By Sunday night, transfer your findings in coherent, expanded, and more specific form to the associated discussion board, and be prepared to respond meaningfully to one fellow students’ post.

We began with the above clip from “The Sound of Jazz”–the famous last hot flame from the doomed Billie Holiday. I prompted them by reviewing the above modes, then played the track for them. Afterwards, just for modelling’s sake, I asked students to share some of their observations:

Description: “soulful,” “relaxed,” “rhythmic.”

Definition: “A woman who knows pain.” “She has experienced a lot.” “She is a singer who connects with her band and the audience.”

Classification: “Blues singer.” “No! Jazz singer!”

Cause–>Effect: “She was glowing!” –> It mesmerized me.” “She was getting in tune, effortlessly…”–> “It left me in awe.”

I could not have responded more accurately myself. From the evidence, my idea seemed to be working. I’ll know for sure when I see the discussion board posts and the essay rough drafts.

The other tracks I played them (I need little reason to show the first to every class I teach, regardless of subject).

Jamila Woods’ scintillating and brand-new Tiny Desk concert, which I can’t figure out how to embed.

 

PASSING TIME, PART 6: Extracurricular Fun, Part 2–Pierced Arrows Invade Hickman High School and Justify Their Legend

Fred in LT

Note: I did not teach this lesson.

“…they won’t wear your t-shirts now….”

Local H, “All the Kids Are Right”

Through a good friend, I had heard of Dead Moon in the mid-’90s: “They’re garage rockers, but their lead singer’s about 50 and has been playing since the ’60s.” I had checked out their album Trash and Burn, which was lean, mean, raw, and wiry, with vocals that reminded me of Bon Scott’s, but, at the time, I was being deluged by so much music and stuff-o’-life that the rekkid got lost in the shuffle, even though it spoke directly to things that matter most to me about rock and roll. When they played a club here around the same time, I knew about it–but it was on a weeknight and, being a good-boy teacher for the moment (I was erratic in that area, at best), I skipped it. To what will be, I am sure, my eternal regret.

Fast forward to the mid-‘Oughts. I am sure most owners of record collections numbering 5,000-plus will relate, but, one weekend, sniffing around for something to listen to, I fetched Trash and Burn from where it had been hiding for a decade, slid it into the player, and stood back as it lit our house aflame. Both my wife Nicole and I exclaimed, in spontaneous chorus as old marrieds often do, “Where has this band been all our lives?” With the Internet now at our fingertips, we delved deeper, and found out about a documentary about the group called Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, and immediately ordered a copy.

As will happen, I swear, to anyone who watches this film, we were stunned, then joined in lifetime loyalty to Fred and Toody, “The Coles,” as they are known to cognoscenti. Married for almost 50 years at this writing, successfully applying the DIY ethic yearsway before it was hip in the rock biz to everything from home improvement to instrument repair to music production and distribution to child-rearing, functioning as pretty-damned-equal partners in singing, playing and writing, these two dyed-in-the-wool rockers not only defined the rock and roll life in a way that didn’t get you looking at your shoes, but also served as a textbook case of true family values. I am not going to describe it; you just order the film, podnah. We have been pushing it on every vulnerable soul for seven years.

Concurrent to this discovery, at the Columbia, Missouri, teaching gig that was subsidizing my record collection, I was experiencing some surprising turns of event with an extracurricular club called The Academy of Rock, which a student of mine and I had founded in 2004. A couple of enterprising students had suggested that we try to convince bands who came through Columbia for shows to stop by our meetings and chat about songwriting, the rock life, and anything else fun. The worst that could happen was being told “No,” so onward we went, and, literally before we knew it, Amsterband (the future Ha Ha Tonka), Cary Hudson (former Blue Mountain and Neckbones), The F-Bombs (a local punk band), and–I had marks all over from pinching myself–eventually, The Drive-By Truckers and The Hold Steady had played–played, not stopped by to chat–in our school’s Little Theater, for free, with deep-ass Q&A, friendly autographing sessions, and invitations to come to their shows with guest-list privileges. So, when Nicole and I discovered that The Pierced Arrows, the Cole project that rose from the ashes of Dead Moon, were playing The Record Bar in Kansas City, we decided to go and maybe strike up enough of an acquaintance to ask them to swing by Hickman.

True to everything we had heard about them, Fred and Toody sat with the rabble through both of their opening bands’ sets, drinking beer, smoking, and obviously engaging with the groups’ music. Between sets, I tip-toed over to Toody, and begin shooting the shit. When I told her about our club and our (by now) tradition of bringing in bands, she enthused, but said, “Well, we’re heading for Europe next week, and we’ll be there for a few months, but, if you give me your phone number, I’ll get in touch with you when we’re back in the States.” Returning to terra firma after a shattering Pierced Arrows set (for the uninitiated, the only real difference between Dead Moon and The Pierced Arrows is slightly heavier guitar and slightly steadier drums) and hitting the prairie pavement back to Columbia, I turned to Nicole and said, “Well, we did get to meet them, we do have Toody’s phone number, and the show kicked ass–but surely after two-three months they’ll forget about us.”

Wrongo. Almost three months to the day of that show, Toody called me out of the clear blue sky and asked, “Hey, we have a day off coming up between Columbus and Kansas City, could we [YES–“could we?”–I shit you not] play at your school then?” I was so gobsmacked that about 10 seconds of silence followed before I Marv-Alberted a “YES!” into the receiver. We quickly agreed on details–we’d pay for their hotel room and food after the appearance, since they’d have to hit the road immediately following for the Kansas City gig–and I proceeded to pinch another red mark onto my arm.

The day before the band was due to play, I was moderating a Socratic seminar for my British literature students in our school’s office conference room when my cellphone began buzzing. I don’t get phone calls much, especially during the day, so I sneaked a look, and saw it was Toody. I put the temporary kibosh on the seminar–do you blame me?–stepped outside, and took the call.

“Phil, we are so, so, so sorry we are late! I think we can set up in ten minutes once we get there [they were 30 minutes outside of town] if you can still make it happen!”

“Toody–it’s not until tomorrow.”

“You’re shitting me! [Turns away from phone, shouts “It’s not ’til tomorrow,” is met by jubilant screams from the rest of the van’s occupants….] Fantastic! We are tired and hungry and need to decompress…but, hey, come by the hotel room and say hi!”

 

I am not making this up.

 

Nicole and I swung by to see them, but they were obviously beat, so we just gave ’em some dining recommendations and double-checked the details. We were particularly careful about the latter; when The Hold Steady visited, they arrived an hour after they were supposed to, and at the very moment that, in front of a packed theater, I was running out of steam stalling the crowd with their biographical details–sanssoundcheck and sans anxiety, since they drifted in on a cloud of cannabis cologne. Fred assured us they’d be on time for a soundcheck, so we left them to get their rest.

I had arranged to have a substitute take my afternoon classes the next day, and, late that morning, as some Academy of Rock club members and I were setting up the PA in the theater, my phone began buzzing again.

“Hey, Phil, we’re here.”

“But Toody, you didn’t need to be here for another hour-and-a-half!”

“Oh, that’s OK! We want to meet some of the kids and hang out if it’s OK […if it’s OK????].”

“Well, hell, I’ll send a couple of ’em to come get you.”

We spent the next 90 minutes not just sound-checking but actually hanging out and talking about everything under the sun, with Fred giving some of the school’s theater tech kids, who were helping us, tips about rock and roll sound. For example, since he had lost 70% of his hearing by that point [no big deal!], he preferred to have two monitors on each side of him, facing each of his ears. That was just one of the many things the kids learned from him in that very information-rich hour-and-a-half.

The performance? Titanic. Also, easily the loudest in Hickman’s history (the DBTs and Hold Steady had played unplugged–but you don’t unplug Fred Cole). We recorded it, but, unfortunately, we screwed up Fred’s vocal levels; it’s still power-packed and worth a listen, though (see below). The band played all of their then-new album Descending Shadows, plus the best of their previous record, Straight to the Heart.

After the sixty-minute show, they then took student questions, which–if they weren’t already excellent, which most were–they would cannily reconfigure for the best possible responses. I would recap it, but, if you search intelligently, you can read the Columbia Tribune cover story about it. The amount of wisdom shared in the nearly three hours they were in the theater was mind-boggling, and, even when the bell rang to dismiss students for the day, they were not yet done.

Toody

I sidled over to Fred, Toody, and their awesome drummer Kelly Halliburton, who matched them word for word, note for note, gesture for gesture in sheer rock-band fan-care, and said, “Well, district rules forbid us from getting gift certificates for visiting ‘educators,’ but here’s $40 to go eat some pizza and drink some beer at the local-favorite pizza joint. Let me draw you up some direct—-“

Fred: “Hey, just bring some of the real big fans and come eat with us.”

“You’re serious?”

“As a heartattack! Just let us have one of the kids to navigate!”

As it happened, one of the kids was already thoroughly inured to the ways of The Coles through our having forced Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story on him and his having avidly explored their discography. (Oh yeah: we also took him to the aforementioned Pierced Arrows shows in the guise of our nephew, since it wasn’t all ages and the manager had given us permission–don’t try that one at home, fellow teachers!)  So we sent him along, and, people, I have never seen a student happier. He even got to bum a cig off of Fred!

At the pizza joint, we bought several pizzas, the band knocked back a few pitchers, and we had a total blast. To the end, though, the Coles and Mr. Halliburton were fan-centered. I had expected dinner to be a barrage of questions from the kids about rock and roll history (Fred goes back to the mid-Sixties through his involvement in The Weeds and The Lollipop Shoppe, and knew Janis Joplin well), but, instead, the trio queried the kids about their lives, their tastes in music, their experiences in bands, and…just life.

PA + Kids

That kid on my right was a ninth-grader. As I drove him out to his folks’ house, neither of us could keep from shaking our heads in amazement that, along with rocking our asses off, they lived up to their advance notice and more. And as he told me,”I can’t believe they came to my school!”–it wasn’t his yet, but it would be the following year–I realized that it was probably the finest moment I’d ever experienced (could probably hope to experience–and, no, it ain’t been topped yet) as a public school educator. Beyond the educational impact, the encouragement the Coles’ chemistry and commitment gave Nicole and me, who have approached marriage unconventionally in more than a few ways, continues to resonate.

Fred had successful heart surgery earlier this year, and just turned 66 last week (Author’s note: Mr. Cole passed away in 2017). I am sure, however, that he will be back on the road with The Pierced Arrows soon, and, if they come to your town–go. They are about rock and roll, but so much more. Be sure to bring t-shirt money, whether you are a kid or not.

PASSING TIME, PART 1: The Violence of Chuck Berry

Chuck

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.

Wait—what??

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.