The Cool Teacher

Back in the 90s, before I was a software engineer, I was an elementary music teacher in Moore, Oklahoma. I was starting to get into keyboards using an old book I had swiped from my dad which was designed for people who had been taught the classical method but could never just play from a chord chart.  I practiced often on my breaks in a closet which doubled as an office for me.  There, I had a keyboard and a piano with which to practice.  I’d bought a book called a fake book which contained dozens of songs with only the melody and chords.  I learn how to play 20 or so classic pop songs including Bill Whithers’ classic “Just the Two of Us”.

Around that time, Will Smith made a rap using “Just the Two of Us”.  It was a mega hit and all of the kids knew it.  And so, when I gained the confidence to begin wheeling my keyboard around to my classes, I decided to try out the song.

The kids, who were merely tolerating my lessons, lit up with recognition.  Suddenly, I was the cool teacher who could relate to them in ways that their other teachers could not.  They didn’t realize that it was based on an old song for old people.  Every time I came to a third grade class, especially, they demanded the song, and I happily obliged.  After three years, I was finally a hit.

In my last days of being a teacher before taking a job in Tulsa as a software engineer, the school counselor, who had heard through the grapevine of my recent success with the kids, asked me to come up with a song for the kids to chant at the district-wide anti-drug parade. I was hitting the big time now. And this is when I came up with the brilliant idea of using my hit song.

I began crafting anti-drug lyrics to “Just the Two of us”.  “Just the two of us, building big castles in the sky”  became “Every one of us, we don’t need drugs to make us high.”  I was to lead it in the school assembly to get them ready.

I’d already accepted the position in Tulsa, so I knew that it was likely that I would never march in the parade that year, and boy would they miss me, the most popular teacher in school.  The cafeteria was packed from pre-K to 6th grade.  I’d been afraid to teach the 6th graders the song because they didn’t like me.  My manner was more geared for young children.  But I felt that all of that was about to change.

My keyboard was plugged into an amplifier, and I was set up with a microphone waiting for my cue. I was about to become a rock star. The principal turned to me and nodded.  I hit the drum track and I was off.  I would sing through it once and then shout, “Everybody sing!  Everyone of us…”  But it didn’t come out right.  I messed up the words.  I hesitated.  And then it happened.  The big kids on the back row began to laugh.

That’s when I realized who I’d become.

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Around that same time, Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer were doing a bit on Saturday Night Live parodying middle school music teachers trying to be cool by playing the top 40 hits of the time on the keyboard in a ridiculously square style.  Of course, they were a joke to the kids at that school who regularly heckled the them.

I finished out the song, deflated.  My big idea had failed and everyone knew it including the principal who said at the end something like “Alright, Mr. Wilson-Burns, thank you for your hard work.  That was truly unique.”

I was comforted only by the fact that I would be leaving at the end of the week; a week in which I showed movies non-stop.

I learned an important lesson that week, kids can spot desperation in adults and they find it very unbecoming.  Being the cool teacher has it’s perils.  Today, when I teach kids in my church I don’t even try to be cool.  I’m much better at goofy.  Kids enjoy an adult who can be silly once in awhile, but what they really love is to feel that they can do great things.  And for kids to do great things, they need a great teacher who doesn’t care about being cool.

Oh, and don’t do drugs!

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