Recently, on Twitter and Facebook, I promised to write an 800 word essay on any subject for readers willing to write a 100 word review of my book How To Be Unlucky on Amazon. The first person to capitalize on this promise was Greg Wilbur, who asked for an essay on harmony in the classroom.
During my first several years as a teacher, my wife would occasionally pick me up directly from school and ask, as soon as I got in the car, “How was work?” I never had a great answer for this question. Going from philosophy teacher to husband in a split second was disorienting and vexing. At school, I was lecturing all day on subjects like divine simplicity and just war. My wife, on the other hand, was at home changing diapers and caring for sick toddlers. At 3 o’clock, she wanted someone to talk to, and I wanted silence.
In my earliest years as a teacher, talking all day about theology and politics came with more than the usual number of challenges, for I was Orthodox, and I was teaching in an ecumenical school, and I was constantly fearful of saying something which would prove offensive, divisive, or needlessly provocative. How does an Orthodox man teach St. Augustine’s City of God in the deep south without making someone suspicious? I often wanted to say, “Look, I didn’t pick this book to teach. It was part of the curriculum before I arrived.” Augustine was a minefield.
In these years of teaching, I was looking for some kind of harmony between home and school. I was also trying to make up for a lifetime of slacking off, ennui, sloth, and senseless boredom. Five years into my career as a classical educator, I still thought of “teacher” as a mask I wore for seven hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year. There was no other way.
During these years, I was still very much beholden to pop music. When I moved from Idaho to Florida to begin my work as a teacher of great books, I shipped over two thousand CDs, very few of which escaped the “pop” designation. At the time, I owned no classical music, and only a handful of CDs which were instrumental. On my first day behind the lectern, I owned a single CD which I could play for my students in the classroom: Solo Piano I by the incomparable Chilly Gonzales.
I could not expect most readers to know Chilly Gonzales, for he is a somewhat obscure figure in the contemporary music scene, although I believe him to be the wittiest and most clever musician alive. Over the last fifteen years, Gonzales has concentrated much of his career on the piano, though his earliest paychecks came producing rap and electro albums which are not really worth a second listen. Since 2004, Gonzales has released three Solo Piano albums, each of which borrows liberally from inspirations as diverse as Satie, Chopin, and jazz great Bill Evans. His music is bookish, whimsical, and very well-studied. Gonzales has a long-running series of YouTube videos called “Pop Music Masterclass” wherein he explains, while sitting at a piano, how current radio hits borrow from classical melodic strategies to create satisfying earworms. What is more, Gonzales is sly, heavy, and swarthy-looking, with a hypnotist’s eyes, and he has a habit of only dressing in a black tuxedo and white scarf, thus styling himself after the instrument he studies. In brief, this was obviously a man to whom I could entrust my ears. Somewhere in Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo comes to a city so well-constructed, that the man who walks the streets but once comes away with a perfect memory. I could only describe Solo Piano as having a similar power over me. For someone who grew up listening to New Order and Madonna, Chilly Gonzales was the sound of studiousness. Study made sense only when I discovered music which I both enjoyed and which well-accompanied study. Perhaps I was a slacker when I was younger simply because I had not learned to love music which bore a spiritual testimony to the value of the academy. Growing up, I worshipped Aphrodite. Chilly Gonzales was my introduction to Apollo, though.
In my first year of teaching, I often played Solo Piano five or six times a day, restarting the album at the beginning of every class. I never tired of it, nor have I, for ten years later, I still listen to it several times a month. Upon the Gonzales rock, I built a taste for the music which I played in the classroom, and, in so doing, created for myself a way of harmonizing bridging Gibbs the teacher with Gibbs the husband. Today, I live on the campus of my school, my commute is a mere ten second walk, and I have little problem reconciling the classroom with the living room. Today, I perceive very little difference between who I am behind the lectern with who I am at home. I have become the teacher mask.