The Cool Teacher

Here’s another repeat, although you may never have seen it. I posted it at Gather.com during the brief period in 2005 when I was trying to expand the reach of my original blog there. I’ve made a couple edits to fix some writerly tics I had then that annoy me now.

The other day at the public library, I picked up The Langley Schools Music Project. You might remember hearing about this CD when it was released a few years ago: In 1976, a music teacher in rural British Columbia, Canada—by his own admission, more musician than teacher—decided to teach his kids a few pop songs, record them, and press them onto vinyl so the students could have a keepsake. (Not unlike hundreds of other music teachers did back then, and still do today.) The recordings went the way of most school music vanity projects—into nearly instant obscurity—before being rescued 25 years later. But even now, you can hear the students’ pleasure at being able to sing the same stuff they heard on the radio—but also the joy that comes from making music, no matter what that music is.

As I listened, it struck me that what music teacher Hans Fenger had done for the Langley Schools kids was actually fairly common: He’d created the kind of junior-high cool-teacher project many of us experienced at some point in school—a project that we remember for the rest of our lives.

We all knew at least one “cool teacher,” in junior high. He or she was the one who seemed more like us than other teachers, who often seemed to come from a world utterly foreign to the one we inhabited. It was hard to imagine them having private lives, and we usually didn’t want to know. But not the cool teacher. We knew he or she had a private life—and we were often quite interested in it, and speculated about it. If we asked about it, the cool teacher was usually candid enough to give us some information, but decorous enough to avoid saying too much. The cool teacher wanted to make learning fun, but we never felt like he was faking it, or trying to get us to swallow a bitter pill by hiding it in candy. The spirit of fun flowed naturally from him. Fish swim, birds fly, cool people make everything they touch seem cool without having to think about it.

My cool teacher was Mr. Bartels, seventh grade English. He wasn’t much older than we were—perhaps only a year or two out of college in the fall of 1972. We knew he was cool because he had a mustache and almost never wore a tie. And he acted cool, too. Compared to elementary school, junior high ran at a faster pace and expected a lot more of us. Some of the teachers scared the hell out of us. For example, the other seventh-grade English teacher, with a stern face, stern beehive hair, and stern wardrobe, and in whose classroom silence was not just golden, but necessary to survival. But Mr. Bartels was loose and friendly; he let us talk after the bell and crack wise in discussions. It’s almost redundant to say that the girls fell in love with him and the boys wanted to be like him.

(By now you may be thinking you had the same teacher, only in a different city, place, and time. I’m not surprised.)

The coolest thing Mr. Bartels did was to teach a unit on rock lyrics as poetry. At age 12, I was already a voracious radio listener and record buyer, so this was what I lived for. Every day, he would hand out mimeograph pages (run off not on white paper, but on pink or blue or yellow or orange, which was to us further confirmation of his innate coolness) containing the lyrics to stuff like Buffy Ste. Marie’s “Universal Soldier.” We’d listen to the songs and follow along, then discuss the lyrics and what they meant. (Not always entirely what they meant, however. One of the lyric sheets he gave us was for Brewer and Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line,” which we managed to discuss without ever exploring the issue of just what a toke was.) What the rock lyrics unit did for us was to confirm that something we cared passionately about really did matter in the world at large—which was not necessarily what early-70s seventh graders were used to hearing from their teachers.

But Mr. Bartels gave me something more important with one of his other assignments. He required us to keep a journal. “You can write anything in it you want, but you have to write two pages a week.” For some of my classmates, this was absolute torture. I, on the other hand, had always liked to write, but had never had an audience. This assignment was like opening a valve. I soon found could turn out two pages in a single 50-minute study hall—stories, poems, jokes, parodies, my own favorite song lyrics, whatever I felt like writing at any given moment—in part because I knew somebody would finally be reading it. My ability to fill entire notebooks soon became a bit of a joke to Mr. Bartels and some of my classmates.

Today, nearly [40] years later, I’m still carrying that writerly spirit with me. . . .  And I sometimes wonder if I’d have [it], or would be able to write for a living at all, if it hadn’t been for the cool teacher in seventh grade.

I have no idea whatever happened to Mr. Bartels. (If I’m recalling correctly, he’d moved on before I graduated from high school, and I lost track of him.) Veteran teachers say that one of the most satisfying parts of the job is when a former student comes back years later to say thanks. That’s what I’m doing here.

One response

  1. […] grade. I was going to manage the basketball team, mostly because I liked the coach, who was also my English teacher. I had probably begun writing a sports column for the school newspaper. But what frames the period […]

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