(further adventures of a musical youth…)
During my fifth grade year, my parents made a decision that would forever mark my life. They were somewhat disillusioned with life in Clifton, Colorado, and were contemplating a major shift. They weren’t sure where they wanted to settle down long-term, and my dad was at an in-between point in his business life, so they came up with a radical idea to pull me out of school for a year and travel around the country to see if there was any place else they would rather be, taking in the sights and educating me in the process. My dad, being the iconoclast that he was, wasn’t happy with any of the ‘recreational vehicles’ that were on the market at the time, so he bought a 1948 Brill bus that had formerly been a Greyhound liner and proceeded to do his own conversion.
I was due to start going into sixth grade, but the bus wasn’t quite ready. My folks didn’t really know what to do with me since they had decided to pull me out of school that year and I didn’t want to start sixth grade at our local public elementary school if I wasn’t going to finish the school year there. I had always been one of the youngest kids in my classes due to my birthday being in the fall, so by missing a year I would go back into the next grade being slightly older.
The solution came in the form of a certain math teacher named Jan who lived with her partner Mary-Ann in the mobile home complex. We had some very interesting characters living in the development. There were the people with the pet spider monkeys whose home smelled worse than a zoo. There was an elderly couple who were avid gardeners who taught me a huge amount about botany, and pointed out the Jimson Weed (datura), my first hint that there were plants that could alter your state of mind. There was a fellow who was enormously proud of his Texas Instruments electronic calculator that he had paid several hundred dollars for, a miraculous improvement over the mechanical adding machine my mom had always clanked away on in her office.
I had become quite friendly with Jan and Mary-Ann, somehow intuiting that they were on a different wavelength than most of the folks in the conservative Western Colorado culture. They owned a large German Shepherd and I would often accompany them on their afternoon walks along the canal banks up into the dusty alkaline desert foothills of the Book Cliffs nearby. At the time it seemed perfectly normal to me, but looking back I realize just how over-the-top these two truly were. Jan would wear a cowboy hat and around her waist she carried a holster with a .22 caliber revolver in it which she would use to shoot cans for target practice. Mary-Ann would hold the dog on the leash, and practice cracking the 6-foot bullwhip she carried in her belt.
They were both teachers in local schools, who discretely kept their six-shooting-and-bullwhip-cracking ways to themselves. Being in their 30’s, they were some of the youngest folks around, and due to the fact that they were both teachers, they were home by 4pm in time to take our leisurely afternoon strolls. Once we were far away from any houses she would let me take turns shooting cans perched on rocks for target practice.
When it became clear that I wasn’t going to start sixth grade at the local public school, and that there were going to be several weeks where I would be at loose ends while the other kids were in school, we needed a solution, and Jan came to the rescue. How about me going to the school where she taught sixth grade and joining her class for the interim? Great idea, and it just required the OK from the school administrators, and this happened to be the only private Catholic school in Grand Junction.
I remember going there with my mom to meet the head Sister in charge, and being regarded rather skeptically as I hung off the railings and generally lounged around the lobby. But the deal was made, and in spite of her suspicion that I was ‘hyperactive’ (the term in those days for what we now call ADHD), I was allowed to attend for the first six weeks or so of the school year, and much to my delight was given special permission to skip the daily Catholic Mass and simply read in my own private study hall instead.
I knew Jan to be a rather unorthodox person in general, but I’d never had a teacher like her before. She had an ability to teach math in a way that made it fun and interesting, almost like imparting secrets and shortcuts to us that were ‘against the rules’ but gave us the ability to reach the right answers and succeed on the tests which was the real goal anyway.
The one thing that she did in her class that made a huge impression on me and most certainly helped her students succeed was to relate math to music. On the first day of school she checked out one of those old metal box institutional record players from the audio-visual department and set it up permanently on a ledge by her desk. She brought a selection of records from home, mainly classical, but with a few jazz and rock-and-roll albums as well for special occasions, and would hush the class when it was time for our exercises, put on a record, and allow us to work out our math problems with music in the air.
Instead of the distracting sounds of scratching pencils, squirming bottoms, and scraping chairs, we were immersed in the sounds of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart & Vivaldi. Sometimes at the end of class we would be treated to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to send us on our way with a bounce in our step. I remember the headmistress peeking in the door and scowling, but it seemed like her students were getting results, so as far as I know Jan and her musical math class were allowed to continue.
Decades before Baby Einstein, this rebel teacher taught us that music was for more than entertainment, it was an aid to educational entrainment as well. I’ll never forget the hush that would descend over the classroom when she would approach the turntable and place the needle on the record. For me, it was another glimpse of the power of music and the magic of records to create an atmosphere and provide a carrier wave for learning.
(to be continued…)
Much love till next week!
Director of the Dance First Association
Publisher of Conscious Dancer Magazine