In 1998, I was teaching music at two elementary schools in Moore, Oklahoma; one in the morning, the other in the afternoon. I had wanted to be a high school choir director coming out of college, but there were no high school positions in central Oklahoma. I settled for elementary music. I had a lot of experience working with kids in the church world, and so I believed I could be successful in public education.
Although I had my strengths, I was not an effective early childhood educator. I rarely used a curriculum. My lesson plans were scant. I taught songs, played games, and showed movies. My greatest accomplishments were the choral programs I gave for the parents at night. I was a terrible classroom manager.
Coming into my third year as a teacher and I was making less than an assistant manager at Arby’s. It was disgraceful. I had my chance to give Governor Keating what for about it, but lost the nerve. He came to my classroom for a photo op. I had it all planned out. I was going to shake his hand and lean in to his ear and say “Show me the money!” which was a very popular catch phrase at the time. Instead, I introduced him to the kids and lamely shook his hand. But as if my salary weren’t low enough, I got a form letter in the mail from Moore Public Schools. It began,
Dear Mr. Wilson-Burns,
We are pleased to offer you a raise of -1 dollars.
I was dismayed, to say the least. Although they had raised my salary, they had also raised my insurance premiums so it was one dollar less than a wash. I began thinking back to my step mother’s family reunion just a month before out at a Girl Scout Camp in Bartlesville, Ok.
Sitting around in the gathering hall to get out of the Oklahoma heat, I played Uno with my wife’s Uncle Scott. He began talking to me about his work as an IT manager for CitGo in Tulsa. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, but something he said caught my interest.
“If you ever decide to change careers, there’s a consulting company in Tulsa that we are using to fix our Y2K issues. There is a 400,000 programmer shortfall in this country for fixing Y2K. They will hire and train anyone who can pass a computer programming aptitude test. You don’t have to know anything about programming or computers. It tests the way your brain works. You’d make a lot more money than teaching!”
I didn’t think much of it at the time. I was a music educator. I had long since given up on the notion that I could be good at anything else. But after receiving my “raise”, I began to wonder if I might have what it takes to do something else.
After the letter, three things happened that precipitated my transition to IT. I was working with a third grade class in my afternoon school. I was teaching them the American folk song, “John Henry”. There was this kid. He had a sweet manner, but he was a constant disruption to my classroom. He was also enormous. Let’s say his name was Jacob. I do not remember why this happened, but in the middle of my lesson, he and a the scrawny kid both got up and Jacob began chasing the little kid. I managed to catch Jacob from behind, but he took me down with him to the floor. I dusted myself off and sent him to the office.
After class, I went to see the principal. She was a sweet, but hard woman close to retirement and she was ready to go to bat for me. I explained the situation and told her that I wanted to use a new discipline technique. I don’t remember what it was called, but it involved working with the kid to determine an appropriate consequence. He suggested that he would sit out of my class for 3 days and do extra homework. I thought that was splendid and he was true to his word.
Then after school a couple of days later, the principal called me to her office. She was on the phone. She put her hand over the receiver and whispered, “This is Jacob’s mom. She says that she’s on the way to the school to beat your lily white ass with her cane.”
After she hung up. She said, “David, I think she means business. She feels that your cooperative discipline technique is sadistic….like making a kid pick out his own switch. She’s only a block away and, well, you’ve seen her. She’s a lot bigger than you, and she’s very upset. Here’s what we’re going to do. You going to go to the staff restroom and lock the door. I’ll handle her.”
I survived, and in retrospect it seems odd that she referred to my ass as lily white. She was as white as I was. My conclusion is that she was referring to my educational and economic status.
A few weeks later, I was taking a class of 4th graders out to my prefab classroom. I turned around and this kid was strangling another kid with a rope that was hanging from a nearby poll. It was terrifying. I spoke very sharply for him to let him go. For a moment our eyes were locked. He was standing behind the other kid holding the rope around his neck. There was something about the look in his eye that made me think he was capable of murder. To my relief, he dropped the rope; however, he immediately picked up a rock the size of a baseball and aimed it point blank at my head. My thought was, “I do not get paid enough for this shit.”
Finally, I was learning to play keyboards and often took one into classrooms with me. I learned “Just the Two of Us”, and it was a huge hit because of Will Smith’s new rap version of it. The counselor found out about the success of this song and others like it. Previous teachers had never been able to connect with the kids like I had with songs that were more relevant to them, so she asked me to help with Red Ribbon Week.
My idea was that I would take my famous song and change the words to have an anti-drug message. I set up the keyboard in front of the assembly in the cafeteria. The counselor and the principal did their best to stir up the kids over Red Ribbon Week which would culminate in a town parade.
When it was my turn, I hit a few chords and said something into the mic. I don’t remember what I said, but it definitely ended in “It’s going to take everyone of us!” I started the drum loop and sang with gusto.
I switched “Just the two of us. We can make it if we try.” to “Every one of us. We don’t need drugs to make us high.”
The back row of 6th and 5th graders understood something that the little kids didn’t. This was a classic music teacher pitfall: trying to be the cool guy. They began to laugh audibly. My fingers slipped and I began playing wrong notes. I tried to rally with an “Everybody sing! Everyone of us!” But it was too late. I had taken it too far. In a flash, I thought of Will Ferrell and Ana Gastayer on Saturday Night Live. I had humiliated myself. I had become the music teacher that I promised myself I would never become.
That night, I must have had a long talk with my wife, because I dusted off my resume, got the number for Systems Programming and Resources, Inc (SPR), and set up a phone interview. The interview was brief. I locked myself in my bedroom with a glass of water to avoid distractions. I was called the next day with an invitation to take the test in downtown Tulsa.
I tried not to get my hopes up, but I had this feeling that I could do this. I splurged and bought myself a pair of Johnston & Murphy dress shoes. I couldn’t afford it, but I considered it an investment. It would be on a weekday morning so I drove to Tulsa the night before and stayed at a Motel 6. My stomach was churning the whole time.
The test was given at the Mid-Continent Tower in downtown Tulsa. It was an impressive building with a beautiful green copper top. I remember thinking how fancy it was and how fancy I felt for walking in with $135 shoes. The test was multiple choice, and my wife’s uncle was right, it did not require computer programming skills at all. There were flow charts and logic questions. I gave it my best shot.
For the next few days, I could not focus at school. I showed movies and nobody complained. I remember one day showing a movie and thinking how I just did not give a f— about this job anymore. I knew in my heart that I would get the programming job. Then I got a call over the class intercom. “Mr. Wilson-Burns, you have a call in the office.” My pulse quickened. I believed that this would be it, and I was right. I don’t remember anything about the phone call, but I passed the test by 1%. A 51%. They offered me the job at 33% higher salary than my teaching job, and another significant raise if I passed the class. I gave no notice. I would be starting immediately. I wrote out my first ever resignation letter and dropped it on my principals’ desks. There were very few words exchanged. Maybe they were happy to see me go. They wished me luck.
This became a time of deep transformation for me. I was engaging my brain in new ways. I was learning how to get along with people outside of music education. And I was making money. I do still teach. I direct choir at church and I teach private voice, and although I sometimes wish I was teaching high school choir, I have never regretted taking a chance on software engineering.
For the record, if it weren’t for guys like me, Y2K would have been a global disaster. Trust me on this. I saw the code!