Age of Innocence
I like watching the Peenbeets for the same reason I used to watch Saturday morning television -- the cathartic fun of revisiting adolescence from the safehouse of adulthood. Songs like the Undertones' "Teenage Kicks," Supergrass' "Caught by the Fuzz," and even Big Star's "Thirteen," capture a similar pop yearning; they revive and romanticize the awkward feelings of adolescence by recasting its pain as poignancy, its hormonal highs and lows as exhilarating roller-coaster rides. Being a true believer of pop, it was no surprise that, when the time came to choose a teaching job after graduate school, I was drawn to that last Age of Innocence, the middle school. As a seventh-grade teacher, I got a vicarious thrill from watching students morph from runny-nosed children into sexually charged pre-adults. Initially unsure of what age group to work with, I was charmed by the "early adolescent" while teaching at a summer camp for gifted kids at the University of Virginia. As with most summer romances, this six-week whirlwind was fleeting but glorious, and in the first session of my a 10-day elective, "MmmBop to Punk Rock: Exploring Pop Music," I fell prey to my first student heartbreaker.
Anxious about my first solo gig, I pulled the applications of my 15 charges to get a head start on acquaintances. According to their essays, my course had been selected because of their loose affiliation with music -- violin and piano lessons, newly purchased guitars, MTV addictions. Then I came across an applicant whose "Proudest Moment" essay spoke, not of scout badges or honor rolls, but of the first time he performed a song he had written. With the instincts of a burgeoning star, he had stapled his school picture to his application. Floppy bangs, big eager blue eyes, carefree grin: a 13-year-old songwriter. My first teacher's pet.
Inevitably, Tim became the pop star of the class. Some knew more bands, others knew more chords, but Tim wrote songs. Two days into the session, he brought me his "work" tape. Two days later, he asked if I'd like to hear "the new one." In the hall, where he requested an uninterrupted audience, he picked a simple progression and sang without irony or guile a melody laden with romantic imagery: "Thought I saw you standing there, top of the stairs. On a night like before, a night of hope. Tonight I hold to the truth."
Simple, sincerity -- beautiful. It struck a pop chord more resonant than many adult songwriters. Experienced educators had lectured endlessly about appropriate teacher-student interaction, but they hadn't explained how to handle an emotional surge of pride when a student wallops you with a burst of fulfilled and infinite potential. Since tears seemed inappropriate, I tried to keep my cool as I would when meeting a musician backstage after a particularly great show. Stars always see though that mask, though, and Tim's smile beaming smile reflected his teacher's affirmation. The next step was obvious: selling it live.
The "Project Fair" was summer camp's demonstration that brains had indeed been enriched. Our class' product was far too raucous for the fair, so Tim and his new bandmates set up their gear in an adjacent hall, while his classmates hung flyers and poster art throughout the building. Following the basic tenet that learning situations approximate the real world, the crew loaded in a rented PA, the band did their sound check, and then everyone bounced around backstage -- the space behind the drum kit -- with nervous energy. As the other campers flooded into the cramped corridor, my students suddenly understood the power of the laminated nametags that had dangled around their necks all week, and they quickly fell into the backstage power play, arrogantly keeping outsiders away from the invisible line that divided stage and crowd.
Despite guitars slipping out of tune from the heat, the brief, shiny three-song set did in fact demonstrate that something had been learned; when talent is successfully showcased, everybody learns something. Especially the unflappably confident and charming Tim. When it was over, kids lined up for autographs, the girls keeping a giggling distance away from the lead singer. After the final fans bustled off, the band hung around signing each others' tie-dyed T-shirts with Sharpies. As Tim signed his final autograph of the day, exhausted in the corner, his departing counselor called out.
"Hey, you're not going to forget about us little guys when you're a big rock star, are you?"
He finished what he was writing and looked up at me as if I were the one who needed the answer.
"How could I ever forget you? This was my first band and my first concert, ever."
A few minutes later, as I watched him pack up his guitar, I tried to hand him the three-song set list that had been taped to the floor at his feet.
"Aw, you can just throw that away," he replied and headed for the door with his little boy bounce.
I folded the list and slid it into my back pocket, hoping that another warning from my elders would prove untrue: "Whatever you do, don't give these kids your heart, because every spring they'll take it with them when they leave."
Conventional teacher wisdom claims that no student ever replaces your first love. Always eager to refute conventional wisdom, I approached my new teaching job certain that I'd find surrogates for Tim. At a school for the gifted in Northern Virginia, the scenario differed: I had 150 kids instead of 15, I taught a core subject instead of an elective, and I had to tolerate daily advice from a crotchety bunch of veteran teachers. Still, though no Tim instantly walked into my life, a core group of music kids surfaced.
As they do at this age, the boys demanded the teacher's attention immediately. Loud and brash, they bombarded their novice instructor with their opinions, especially about music, their newest discovery besides girls. The most confident channeled information directly from their older brothers, most prominently, Neil and John, though their demeanors differed.
Silently sarcastic, consistent in his Rage Against the Machine T-shirt, Neil wielded Vonnegut novels like an accessory and smiled as if he got the big joke the rest of the room didn't. John, on the other hand, was an attention-seeking missile who barged into a room as if he owned it, always making pronouncements about a new band or a new trend or new haircut. His quiet sidekick, Kyle, traveled happily in his wake, grinning at his friend's audacity and quick wit.
On his own, Kyle became a far more brooding character. Lacking the middle school survivalist ability to mask suffering -- the recent separation from his mother, for example, or his nearly paralyzing shyness -- he wore his emotions on his soon-to-be-handsome face. Unlike his brazen sidekick, Kyle constantly sought advice, especially searching for music that "meant something," like that made by his hero, Kurt Cobain. He had just started writing songs and admitted bashfully that he had "all this stuff in my head," but could never get the words right.
If summer camp had been a breathless fling, the 280-day school year was a long-term relationship that required patience and stamina. In the final semester, I had the nerve to assign a project (work!?) wherein the students had to demonstrate a personal "truth" they'd discovered over the year. Pleasers, the girls dove right in. Complainers, the boys procrastinated. True to form, Kyle hesitantly set a goal -- completing his first song, lyrics and all -- and suffered throughout the process. Often lingering after school for advice, Kyle brought in draft after draft for guidance, frustrated because he couldn't match the intensity of his feeling with the music, nor could he articulate those emotions lyrically.
About two weeks before summer vacation, Kyle's buddy John strode into class wearing one of his now-signature Hawaiian shirts and crowing about an ad he'd run in the school newspaper announcing his band's performance at the school's year-end party ("his" band in the sense that Kyle had agreed to let him "manage" them.) Sticking to real-world teaching rules, I inquired just where he thought the band would play, where they might get a PA, who would load in the gear, when they would sound check, and whether he'd run this plan by his less permissive teachers? Cowed, but not defeated -- never defeated -- he returned a week later with okays all around and had even called the Teen Center to inquire about a PA. On with the show.
The crowd's response to the performance echoed the virginal confusion of the summer concert. When Kyle and company launched into Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the crowd stood stiff and bewildered, except for a cool kid named David who'd done his book report on Legs McNeil's Please Kill Me: The History of Punk Rock. The band was invigoratingly sloppy and punkishly amateur -- in short, fantastic. They whipped through their five-song repertoire, and after an unsuccessful attempt at karaoke, Kyle shyly told me that he knew Green Day's "Time of Your Life," but the band didn't. I immediately nudged him like a deer with her foal, but the panic in his eyes suggested I use more delicacy. So, I grabbed the mike and asked how many people would love to hear Kyle sing the beloved Green Day anthem.
When the uproarious support didn't compel him forward, I asked all the girls in the audience to come forward and convince Kyle to sing the song. Suddenly a swarm of girls in tank tops and short shorts filled out the front of the stage, and with one more final push, Kyle stepped up, started strumming his low-slung guitar, and delivered the song with all the vocal punch his plaintive voice could muster:
So make the best of this time and don't ask why, it's not a question but a lesson learned in time. It's something unpredictable and in the end is right. I hope you had the time of your life.
Life changed dramatically in those three minutes of terror-stricken bravery. Kyle instantly became, in the words of John, "Only the most popular guy in the whole grade!!!!" And yet, he was befuddled by the sudden attention, confiding that he didn't want to be "some kind of teen idol," but preferred to just, you know, hang out with his friends and work on his music.