I find myself returning to the Roadside Graves’ No One Will Know Where You’ve Been at least once a week, which considering all the music piled against the walls in my apartment is a pretty huge feat. The Metuchen, New Jersey-born band fly beneath some radars, but those of us who find and love them are pretty rabid (as this live video would suggest). For this week’s Day Job, John Gleason, storytelling front man, lyricist, and unplugged guitarist, took my questions about what he does for living, and instead of responding to each, wrote a series of mini-essays. Very scholarly, which makes good sense: The man’s a primary-school teacher.
After John offers his insights about sitting down to read with a class of seven and eight year olds on a daily basis, take a listen to two tracks from No One, “If California Didn’t End” and “Radio.” They were John’s suggestion: “Just thought it would be nice to show both sides of the band — a story song and a rocking song. Kinda like being a teacher and a singer.” We’ve posted about the boys in the past, so you can head that way for additional sounds.
Full disclosure: John and I are old friends, and the Roadside Graves played my wedding. But that shouldn’t matter: You’d never want a shitty band playing your wedding no matter how much you liked its members. Another warning: There’s a Juno spoiler in John’s responses.
This is my sixth year teaching in a public elementary school. I received a Masters in elementary education from Rutgers. I’ve taught first, but am currently teaching second grade. There are twenty-four students in my class and basically they’re with me the entire school day except for their daily special (Art, Library, etc.) and lunch. I am their Health, Reading, Writing, Math, Handwriting, Science, Social Studies, and Technology teacher.
I’d rather teach reading and writing for the entire school day. In addition to our reading program I read aloud to my students twice daily, usually an illustrated book in the morning and a few chapters in the afternoon of a more advanced text. I should have been a librarian. I sit in my grandmother’s old rocking chair and the students sit on a rug and pillows during read aloud time. That’s easily my favorite part of the day. I choose the author/illustrators each week and attempt to integrate the stories into the other subjects. For example, if we read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein in the morning I’ll might make reference to it and tie it in with math or another subject. I’m also allowed the freedom to create my own writing assignments for the students. In the past few years the students have had a chance to write interpretive poems and stories based on works of art. Last year we focused on Magritte. Usually the writing is more imaginative when the art is simple and does not show much action. Magritte’s painting of a red rose filling an entire room stirs up quite interesting poems. A few years ago a first grader wrote a poem based on a Chagall painting and the boy titled it, “The Bird Flies East From Texas.” The poem ended sadly for the boy believed the bird had to leave his family because they were starving and could not feed him anymore. The student was only six.
Teaching works. It’s not a calling. For some, yeah, but I became a teacher for simple reasons. I wanted a significant amount of time to myself each year to travel, write, gamble, play music, and spend time with my family. Even more selfishly I wanted to improve on all the shitty teachers I had to endure. It was never a question of which teacher inspired me to choose education; rather, here’s a pile of teachers, dead weight in my past that should have been better. Yet, the simplest reason of all was girls. Walk into an Elementary Education graduate school class and you will understand.
Once you establish yourself with a class, school, and its parents you can shut your classroom door and teach. It’s a profession that allows me to be alone. The students and I have our own community and language, as soon as an administrator or another adult walks in we return back to teacher and student. I know my students understand this. It’s evident in the pride they take in their work, their complete honesty, and our mutual respect and trust for each other. I realize that may sound lofty for a bunch of seven and eight year-olds, but it’s true. They can sniff out teachers who are fake. Our piano player teaches music and [guitarist, backing vocalist] Jeremy [Benson] has taught English, and is currently earning a Ph.D in Education.
Best And Worst And Funniest Moments
Funniest teaching moment was when one of my kids raised his hand during our read aloud and told the class that he found a bone in his butt. He was referring to the bone underneath all that cheek fat. And he was serious, like he just discovered a new dinosaur. Oh, and how every year I have to explain to the class that even if you put your hand in front of your face the rest of us can still see you pick your nose. Best moments for me are when I visit a student’s home. Once a year if invited I’ll visit their home and literally “hang out” with them. This usually involves playing video games and having dinner with the family. Worst moments tend to come at the end of the year, and it hits me on the last day of school, I always feel I’ve let some kid down. One kid that could have benefited more, but didn’t, and it’s my fault.
Teaching And Music
Music interferes with teaching as much as teaching interferes with music. I can’t blame one against the other. I always thought I could balance them both equally. I remember in high school reading that the Guided by Voices guys, or maybe just one of them, was also a teacher. I thought that was the coolest — respectful by day and urchin by night. That was inspiring.
Lately I’m not so sure. I could be a better teacher. I could write better songs. Fear of failure I guess. Maybe ADHD? Have you seen Juno? I mean, Christ that movie was depressing. Jason Bateman’s character leaves his wife to live in a loft in the city to play music. And his wife says, “Aren’t you cool.” That stung. And you’d think I’d sympathize with him, but she’s right.
My students know I’m in a band. I don’t play Roadside Graves for them though, seems silly. I do write songs for them. I wrote them a sick folk song about opposites! They are instantly excited when I bring in my guitar or use a puppet to teach. And of course I force them to listen to music I like. For every time I play “Found A Peanut” they have to listen to the Clash or Tom Waits. The teachers know too, but being from New Jersey I’m sure they assume we are a cover band that plays the beach bars.
Being A Male Teacher
For a few years I was the only male teacher in our elementary school. I believe the reason is split between society’s expectations of a “man” and men’s own expectations for themselves. Which I guess is the same frigging thing. I had a few parents admit to me after the end of my first year that they were not enthused with their child having a man as their first grade teacher, but I had proved them wrong. I understood their reserve. I’m not the ideal father figure, but I believe a few kids over the years have been placed in my room because I’m a man and I have tried damn hard to be a positive male figure in their lives.
My first Back to School Night was telling. A father, tall and burly, asked at the end of the night if I had a girlfriend. Did he have a niece to set me up with? I doubt it. I explained, blushing, that at the moment I did not have a girlfriend but was currently trying to find one. That brought a laugh, but looking back I can only assume he was trying to figure out if I was gay or straight. Elementary teaching, especially at the K-2 level, is and has been predominately a female profession and stereotypes continue to play their part.
My Own Poetry/Writing
In high school I wrote poetry. I’m still not sure why, but I wrote enough that my school allowed me to leave every Wednesday around noon to go to an arts school to write, at the time that was enough to keep writing. But to be honest I hate poetry. Actually it’s the way poets read that ruins it for me. I prefer singers to poets.
There is no one particular way that I write a song. Sometimes I have a subject, for instance I’ve been trying to write a song about the girls you see at the make-up counters, but those songs tend to be laborious and forced unless I allow them due time, to sit and work on them months at a time. Then there are the story songs. The story songs usually don’t have a chorus and begin with the words, “There was…” I write those in my attic and I follow the story as it comes with no prior motivation, inspiration, or clue about the character’s fate. Then there are shower songs. Shower songs originate in the shower with a melody and a chorus. Recently I couldn’t get “I’ve seen the valley in the rain” out of my head and after a few showers the song was written. There are other ways, but the ideal song tends to arrive without any effort. Jeremy, fellow band member and songwriter, will play a piece of music on the piano or guitar and within a few minutes a song is written and usually will not be revised. The difference between songs and anything else I may have written in the past is paper. I never write a song on paper until it’s finished and has been sung and played to a degree of annoyance. A lot of songs don’t make it to my notebook because I grew tired and disinterested in playing them.
Leonard Cohen, Mickey Newbury, Tom Waits, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson and many others continue to inspire and at times make me want to quit, but I admire the way Roger Miller wrote above all, goofy and sad, sometimes in the same song. He had the ability to make the listener smirk, almost as if you should enjoy being depressed, and paid close attention to the little moments. I doubt I’ll ever think of something as clever as “The Last Word in Lonesome is Me,” but I’ll keep trying.
No One Will Know Where You’ve Been is out on Kill Buffalo.
[L to R: John Gleason, Mike Deblasio, Rich Zilg, Jeremy Benson, and Dave Jones. Not pictured: Drummers Colin Ryan and Andrew Soto. “Picture taken inside an airstream trailer in Birmingham, Alabama at the Bottletree, best place we ever played.”]