My Teacher, by Adam Reid Sexton

April 11, 2014 · 3 comments

Over the summer after eighth grade, I wanted to learn how to play the xylophone. I didn’t own a xylophone, of course. And xylophones were not for rent at Frank’s, the local music store.

The high school I’d be entering that autumn owned one, though, in a case like a coffin on top of a Band Room cabinet. So without so much as a second thought, my band teacher (whom I’ll call “Mr. W.” herein, in deference to his privacy) strapped that case to his Yamaha’s sissy-bar and drove it up the street to my parents’ house. He apologized in advance for not giving me a ride. I didn’t own a motorcycle helmet.

I had taken up the snare drum three years earlier, at a time when I was very, very bored with school. Once a week Mr. W. set up a music stand in a room beside the elementary-school gym where athletic equipment was stored. There he gave fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders lessons in the flute (which was just for girls, back then), the clarinet, the trumpet (boys only), the trombone (tall boys), and (boys) the snare drum.

The standard pedagogical approach at that time, that place, seems to have comprised the following:

1) Hand each student a workbook.

2) Allow the student to work at “their [sic] own pace.”

Mr. W. allowed me to work at my own pace, but with enthusiastic encouragement that took a plethora of forms. He arranged for weekly lessons on the timpani, or kettledrums, with a high school student who knew how to play them. He tapped me for a snare-drum solo in the district-wide Spring Concert. (First he found a piece for band with a snare-drum solo in it, which couldn’t have been easy.) And then there were his surplus jelly donuts, which Mr. W. tossed me in their white bakery bag on his way out the door at lunchtime on the days he visited our school. (I stood by the door. I was on the Safety Patrol.) He challenged and rewarded me and made it all exciting and positive.

During the Fall after the Summer of the Xylophone, I came down with shingles. Shingles! On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the Marching Band was scheduled to appear in the local holiday parade; I gingerly donned my band uniform. Note that it was the shingles of band uniforms, in polyester of royal blue, with a pelican-emblazoned naugahyde bib and spats. It wasn’t out of any sense of duty. I didn’t want to miss out on the fun. Mr. W. carried that fun with him wherever he went, like a highly-infectious virus so benign it was beneficial.

Mr. W. made every student believe he or she was valued. Taken seriously. He shared with us his passion for and expertise in music old and new, with the result that by the seventh grade I was familiar with both avant-garde composer Charles Ives (the Concord Sonata) and avant-rock guitarist and singer Frank Zappa (“Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow”). True story: With money received for my fourteenth birthday, I bought a pair of white painters’ pants from the Gap and an LP of Ives’s Second Symphony from Sam Goody’s, a New York City record store. (“LP,” “record store”: I know. It’s been a while.) One Saturday in March of ‘76 a kid in white overalls walked the streets of Manhattan with a Charles Ives record in a bag under his arm.

I had a sort of breakdown in tenth grade, for a couple of years after which I could barely get out of bed much less succeed academically. Mr. W’s Band Room remained a refuge, a place where I felt awake and alive, valued and included. Until I snapped out of my funk at the start of senior year, this was the only aspect of school I could stand. While other teachers told me that I “looked like death warmed over” (my twelfth-grade English teacher – and he was right), Mr. W. persisted in encouraging me to audition for All-County This and That. To join the school Stage Band despite a highly-conspicuous lack of proficiency at the vibraphone.

When I finally left my hometown for college, I looked forward more than anything else to playing in various instrumental ensembles there: the orchestra, the jazz ensemble. The university’s marching band. Marching band, it turned out, wasn’t worth getting out of a sick bed for, much less wearing spats. It wasn’t even fun. It wasn’t Mr. W.’s band. Bitterly disappointed, I played for one semester and quit music thereafter.

Of course, one never quits music, really. Thanks to Mr. W., I have enjoyed decades (four, apparently – yikes) of recordings and performances to a degree that wouldn’t have been possible without his guidance. To think of my poor wife, and the girlfriends who preceded her, having to listen to me blather on about 5/4 time.

Meanwhile I wandered into teaching. I needed a job when grad school ended, and an adult-ed. gig was available. What the hell, right? I was going to write the Great American novel. I viewed my time in the classroom as a Day Job. I discovered that I loved it, though – loved sharing my knowledge, such as it was; loved the energy of the students, their questions and feedback. And always I kept an image in mind, of Mr. W. – his energy and positivity, his excitement and joy. His jelly donuts. I’ve never been afraid of trying too hard, thus looking uncool to my students. He tried as hard as he could, all day, every day, and (picture it: motorcycle, Zappa records, etc., etc.) he was the coolest.

Now I teach college students, teach them how to write and how to read like writers. After my wife and son, teaching is what I live for. It took me a while, but I finally figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up: my teacher.


Adam Reid Sexton is the author of numerous books, including MASTER CLASS IN FICTION WRITING. He teaches creative writing at Yale and Columbia University.

  • Sara Goff

    Sparking inspiration within a student, igniting passion is the hope (or should be the hope) of every teacher. Energy, positivity, enthusiasm, and never being afraid to try too hard are the necessary tools. Thank you, Adam Sexton, for reminding us what a teacher can be to his/her students — a beacon, a model, and even a lifeline.

    When I think back to the teachers who have made a difference in my life, I remember the confidence you gave me to step forward with my writing. I’m grateful for this chance to say Thank You!!

  • http://none aolavidez Olavidez

    Everyone I supposed has significant people in her/his life who helped shape what s/he is at present. Praise the Lord for giving us someone aside from Himself to shape our lives.

  • Cheri Peters

    A wonderful story. Hats off to Adam Sexton and Mr. W.

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