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December 2007

Question of the Week: 2008

by Susan Henderson on December 31, 2007

I know you all want book deals. You want to be skinnier, richer, all of that. But what do you plan to do in 2008 that will make a difference in the world?

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Wednesday, Anthony Marais will be here, and to cut me a break, he‘s going to do the interviewing. Stop by and join the conversation!

{ 49 comments }

Weekly Wrap: Our Favorite Teachers

by Susan Henderson on December 21, 2007

My greatest teachers were not the ones in my classrooms. I had every intention of coming here today and talking about two people who shaped me at very critical times in my life – one was a little girl with a brain tumor, who I babysat for a decade; and the other was my high school janitor, who was a poetry lover, an opera fanatic, and my confidante. (That’s him on the far right.)

I was sitting in bed, starting to write about these two really amazing and influential people in my life, when I got an email. The title said, from the guy on your right. And it occurred to me that my favorite person (other than my kids) also happens to be a teacher. So, today, I thought I’d introduce you to Mr. Henderson.

This is Mr. H playing flamenco guitar. But he is no music snob because, if you request Mika, he’ll play that, too.

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Mr. H and I met when we were both 19 and sophomores at Carnegie Mellon. (Back then, it was Carnegie-Mellon with a dash in between.)

Me! Mr. H! (Also, Jon Walker, the drummer in his college band, The Turgid.)

When we first met, Mr. H was a set design major and into math, physics, Roman history, Einstein, Hegel, D&D, Bouguereau, The Stranglers and the Tom Robinson band. He wore fake, leopard spotted shoes, suspenders, and a derby hat. He dreamed of being a freelance designer, which we later discovered is like dreaming of being unemployed. Or worse, being employed but not paid.

Now, Mr. H is a kick-ass tenured professor (and freelance designer). To get a flavor of his teaching style, I’ll tell you one of his class rules. If you are his student and your cell phone goes off in class, you are counted as absent. If you answer the phone, you fail the course.

What skills does he bring to his students? Well, he paints…

He’ll even paint elaborate floors…

And he draws…

And he makes movies…

And sews…

He teaches all of these things – and, of course, design, and how to interpret a script.

He also teaches a props class. For the final, his students have to create a meal from a different time period. These are baby mice (known as “pinkies”) dipped in honey and poppy seeds. Mr. Henderson always eats a sample of each person’s project because that’s part of the grade.

And he teaches stage make-up. For this class assignment, his students had to create their own prosthetic make-up. This one made herself into a swan.

This is all fine and good. But if you ask our kids, the coolest thing he does is make scars and wounds.

These are more class projects. His students had to come up with a specific disease or injury and do their own make-up to show it. I am not posting the photo of the student who made small pox out of Rice Krispies because I know some of you read my blog while you’re eating…

Once, when it was career day at the elementary school, Mr. H and I were invited in to talk about our jobs. I went first and talked about my love of reading and the process of writing and editing. And then I asked the children if they had questions.

“Did you write Harry Potter?”

“No.”

“Did you write The Cat in the Hat?”

“No.” This was only funny maybe the first or second time and then it wore off.

Finally the teacher stepped in to help – “Mrs. Henderson, tell us what books you did write.”

Too embarrassed to tell the truth, that there was no book to buy, I answered cryptically, “They’re not really for children.” This forever after branded me as an assumed writer of erotica.

Then Mr. Henderson entered the classroom to discuss costuming actors for plays. He used Green-Hand as an example of an actor – creating fake bruises and scars on him to look like he’d been in a fight.

He was supposed to wash off the bruises but he went home on the bus all beat up. I asked him, “So, how do you think it went today?”

“Great,” he said, “Everyone in my class wants to be a costume designer.”

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I’ll end with one my favorite stories concerning Mr. H. It was when his band was playing at a little tavern, and a whole bunch of his students showed up. And when they started to remove their coats, we saw that several of the girls were wearing little crop-tops that had I love [Mr. H] written on them.

I wish I had a camera that day because you should have seen his smile. And I just know when he’s a very old man with no teeth and he tells the same story over and over again, that’s going to be one of them.

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Thank you to the super-lovely Paul Green for visiting this week. Thank you to everyone who played and commented. And thank you to everyone who linked to LitPark the past couple of weeks: Media Bistro, Comedy Central, Roy Kesey, Oronte Churm’s Inside Higher Education, Kimberly Wetherell’s She Shoots to Conquer (*new blog alert*), and Robin Slick. I appreciate those links!

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Paul Green

by Susan Henderson on December 19, 2007

Paul Green is the subject of the documentary, Rock School, a not always flattering portrayal of a passionate teacher, trying to give kids the gift of rock and roll. Paul and I talked at a restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen with an iPod recording between us. Paul had complete freedom to push the off button whenever he liked.

You know when you have a near-three hour lunch and hardly eat that there’s some good conversation going on. And even though most of our conversation ended up being off the record, there’s plenty here to introduce you to a music-loving geek, who made the most of a tough beginning and found the vision and the work ethic to create one of the most unique, exciting teaching experiences out there.

Read the School of Rock manifesto.

Thanks to my amazing, O. Henry award winning webmaster, Terry Bain, I’ve embedded audio clips throughout the interview so you can hear Paul for yourself, especially some fun bits that are not here in print – his thoughts about The Orchid Thief, what he thinks of my shoes, what I think of his hair, ways to increase your chances of getting laid, that kind of thing.

One of the problems with two chatterboxes having a long conversation is that, if you’ve been hoping to keep something hidden – say, your complete lack of classic rock knowledge – you’ll eventually get busted and have to scramble around a bit (hopefully not with food in your mouth, but, yeah, okay) to try to paint yourself as at least a partial rocker.

But enough intro. It’s time to meet the incomparable Paul Green.

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Photo credit: Scott Weiner.

How ’bout we start with your life story?

Well, that’s, you know, that’s a long story. Uh… my dad died when I was very young.

How old were you?

Five. But I don’t really remember him. He and my mom were separated. I was raised by my mom, who was a mess. She was a victim of pretty horrendous child abuse. A drug addict. Always sick. So I technically raised myself from the time I was nine or so.

Moved out when I was fifteen, moved in with a couple of college students. My life really just like 180 for the better at that point…

Now, stop with the fifteen-year-old. Who was this fifteen-year-old like?

He was right on the cusp.

When my mom moved back to Philadelphia, we moved to a very white, working-class neighborhood, very not me. And as soon as I started hanging out in downtown Philadelphia with the punks and the hippies and all that, I started to find my people. …Started hanging out with all these Hispanic rocker dudes and their friends (and they’re my friends to this day). And we were a very talented lot – very good musicians, and I was a writer and all this kind of stuff.

…I was dirty, had dreadlocks, used to wear the same thing, which is black jeans, boots, a white tuxedo shirt and white jacket all the time. Walk around with my little writing book. Smoked lots of cigarettes. Did lots of drugs. Love drugs. Love girls. Kind of for all the wrong reasons, though. You know what I mean? …[But] I always say, it’s better to regret the things you have done than the things you haven’t done.

Somewhere along the way, got a work ethic, which I never had. You know, I was the laziest kid in the world. But, just being on your own and not wanting to go home, you eventually just learn how to work and make money and all that kind of stuff. But it took a while.

Did you run away, or you just told your mom you were leaving?

Just told my mom and my aunt and my granddad I was just leaving. And my mom was on social security, and when I turned 16, she was going to lose one of the checks, but if you become emancipated, you can prevent that, so I kind of cut a financial deal with her. And at this point, she was drunk all the time.

No picture of dreadlocks, but we sure do have a fine prom photo.

So, when you were a kid, dreaming of being a rock star and playing air guitar in the mirror – who were you?

I was like corny stuff, you know? The Beatles. I’d just put on the radio, you know. I was playing air guitar in the early eighties, so Men at Work and that kind of crap. I remember really liking J. Geils Band a lot. I always used a tennis racket for air guitar.

I just used the air.

Yeah. I guess I didn’t have that level of imagination.

Do you think of yourself as a teacher or a musician?

A teacher. I was always a pretty good guitar player.

When did that change? When did you stop dreaming of yourself being a rock star?

Slightly before I started teaching. Don’t get me wrong; I can play guitar, but I always thought of myself more as a writer. And I was on my way to law school when this took off. I had already mentally moved on to academia, you know? So, if this hadn’t taken off, I’d hopefully be teaching law somewhere.

Describe how Rock School happened.

Well, community college happened first. And do you ever find something that was made for you? This program was made for me. I had always considered myself somewhat of an intellectual, always fairly well-read for my age, always prone to grand pronouncements. So this honors program was just heaven. It was challenging, and they’d force you to write. They’d print out your papers and hand them out to the entire class, and just tear them apart.

You know, School of Rock is the honors program, but adapted for rock music. They taught me how to teach, which is, care for the person, show them that you actually listen to what they say, and then beat the living snot out of them. And two, that the key to education is to find that point that you can push someone, right before they’ll turn you off. And they really got that. There were a couple times when I was quitting and I didn’t want to hear what they had to say. And they were just community college teachers anyway. But then you get over that bullshit. And it really is bullshit and self-defense. And you just let yourself learn. With the School of Rock, I never wanted good musicians; I’ve wanted good students. You know? Take a minute, and just listen.

You had this kind of family in the first School of Rock, you know, real small numbers, and now you’ve got this corporation. So how is that moving from to the other?

It never really moved for me because I always kept my small community inside of it. As soon as the Philly school got so big where I didn’t really have personal connections with all of the kids, I started All-Stars, which is just my way of taking 60 kids who really want to learn, and giving them access to me and giving myself access to them. So, as long as the All-Stars exist, there’s always 60 kids who are with me way too much. You know what I mean? Way too influenced by me and me caring about them more than I should, you know?

What do you think you offer as a teacher? What’s your gift?

Without being weird, I have almost a supernatural ability to read people, which is actually a blessing and a curse, because I’m also massively co-dependent, so I can tell who needs to be pushed, who needs to be pulled, who needs a hug. …It’s a con-man game, you know? It’s finding those right buttons to push.

And it’s learning as you go. My ego is large but flexible. I’ve made a couple of big mistakes and learned from them. And then, as a business man, my best assets are, I take the losses much harder than I take the wins. When something really great happens, it’s gone – you know what I mean? – like, almost as soon as it happens.

From the Rock School film premiere.

In what ways have you felt hurt or misunderstood by the press, and particularly how you were featured in the documentary?

I wouldn’t say “hurt,” but definitely misrepresented. Very early in the movie process I realized that I would have to brace myself for what was to come. The movie is basically 9 months of my life condensed to 90 minutes and played for drama. There is very little of the background and mundane stuff…simple teaching, hanging around the school, etc, that really balances the picture. Yes, I can be a jerk, and that is there on film. But I also try to be so much more.

From the documentary: Teaching C.J. Tywoniak.

Tell me something about you that might surprise me.

I’m an avid reader.

Who’s your favorite author?

At different times of my life, I’ve had different people. Who do I think is the best? Whose prose impresses me the most? Karl Marx. That mother-fucker could write. Probably the greatest rhetorician ever. This side of St. Paul.

I read almost no fiction.

Really? Oh, that’s got to change.

Nope. Probably won’t change. Every art form has its trappings. And, in order to enjoy that art form, you need to forgive it its idiosyncrocies. Except for the great works…, I just can’t forgive fiction its idiosyncrasies enough to enjoy it.

You know, I can read a David Hume treatise. Probably the person I’ve read the most over the past three years, believe it or not, is Sir Winston Churchill. And I know he’s pompous and boring and all that, but for me, it’s a much more enjoyable read. I read The New Yorker every week. If they do a story about paint drying, I’ll read it, you know? I love good non-fiction writing. Of course, I love Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. I read To Kill a Mockingbird over the summer, which was fantastic.

So, when my book comes out, you won’t read it?

Depends. I’ll try. If it starts, The screen door swung closed at the front door of 23 Huntington Street and inside there was a chill air, no, I won’t read it. You know. Like, I hate that. The first paragraph of almost every fiction I’ve ever read just loses me, you know? I think it’s so forumulaic, it’s beyond, you know? You know what I’m talking about, right? So, modern fiction’s almost right out.

C.J. and Paul today.

When you think of your place in rock and roll history, at the end of your life, where do you hope you fall?

At the very least? Touch some kids’ lives. I mean, rock school makes incredible friendships. And, you know, showed people that creativity and courage and diligence in whatever you do, works. Pipe dream: I control rock and roll. You know? I own that shit.

Meaning what?

Meaning, you know, 17 different acts from our school make it. And because we believed in them and they trust us, we’re able to dictate how music’s done ten years from now. And, um, change it, put more control in the artists’ hands. Put the spirit of creativity and artistry back. Aim for the top while never losing focus of the bottom.

If you could change radio, what would you want to change about that?

Take some chances. They don’t take any chances.

What would you like to see someone take their chances on?

You know, music’s so beat right now. So, so, so beat.

It’s predictable.

Yeah, but even beyond, it’s just beat, you know? I mean, it’s a long – once again, you’re not going to get any real grand pronouncements because it’s such a multi-faceted issue – but it’s something I sit at my desk and work on all the time, you know?

I think that if people returned to making quality music again, everything else will follow.

What is quality music?

There’s just an inherent quality. Philosophically, I’m a real Platonist. Do you know what that means?

No, ’cause I only read fiction.

Yeah, I just made that shit up. You know, I don’t believe in any sort of relativism. I think there are truths. In fact, I’m almost positive there are. And I think there is such a thing as quality, and that the trained eye and ear can recognize it. And that there’s quality in the music in The Beatles and Led Zeppelin and Hendrix that far surpasses really anything that’s out there now. I think people stopped demanding quality.

What accounts for this?

Part of the problem is modern technology. That’s why I hate modern recording equipment. When the possibilities are limitless, the imagination is severely limited. You know? Because you spend so much time thinking about what you’re not doing that you forget what you are doing.

Some of the best recordings ever were done a four-track recorders. And all of the best writing ever, almost without exception, was done on typewriters or handwritten, where they actually had to take a minute and think about things and be careful about the words on the page, you know?

Paul and Julie Slick (among others) watching Eric Slick on stage with Eddie Vedder in Seattle. By the way, Julie and Eric, 2/3 of the Adrian Belew Trio, have just released the album, Side Four Live. Check it out!

So tell me, the fifteen-year-old who left home early, do you feel like you grew up fast or do you feel like you never reached adulthood?

Both. I grew up really fast in so many ways, and then in other ways, you know, …I take really good care of my family, I earn a decent living, I’m very responsible, those sorts of things. But at the same time, I’m not going to fall into that looking-back track. You know what I mean? I’m going to enjoy my life. …The grownups I’ve seen, I don’t want to be part of that.

Able to patch things with your mom?

We made our peace.

What do you want for your own kids?

Happiness. Before I had kids, people asked, “Are you going to talk to your own kids this way?” No. That’s not my job. My job is… happiness. And there’s all kinds of paradoxes. You know, most great art comes from unhappiness, but I’m not going to make my kids unhappy just to make great art.

Tell me about the role of music in your life, aside from work. If I saw you listening to your favorite music, what would I see?

Music is my life… the vibrations of the universe connecting us all to each other.

I would be in the car, and if I was with myself I would be singing along, or playing air drums, or rewinding a part to hear it again. If I was not alone, I would be pointing out a bass line, or drum fill, or giving biographical info for the song. Always teaching….

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Paul conducting Mike Keneally (Zappa guitarist), Eric Slick and others at NAMM in California.

I’d like to end with this quote because it packs a lot of wisdom into something short and simple: “I’m not saying you’re going to play music for a living, but if you work hard at this age, you can do a job you love.”

Thank you for being here, Paul!

{ 18 comments }

Question of the Week: Teacher

by Susan Henderson on December 17, 2007

Tell me about the best teacher, or teaching experience, you ever had.

And a bonus: Start up your iTunes, your iPod, whatever, and now hit shuffle. Tell me what 5 songs come up first. No cheating! You cannot re-shuffle to try to make yourself look cool.

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Wednesday, Paul Green will be here. Paul is the subject of the documentary, Rock School (see the film clip below) and the inspiration for the film, School of Rock, starring Jack Black. His music school trains kids 8-18 in the fine art of being in a rock band, and if you want to know how the school can change your kids’ lives, just ask Robin Slick, who introduced us!

Find more videos like this on www.truveo.com.

Sometimes you interview someone and know you’ll be friends for the long haul. Paul is one of those ones. Hope you’ll be back to meet him!

{ 93 comments }

I'm taking one more week off, sorry.

by Susan Henderson on December 9, 2007

I just finished my book edits today and was so surprised by how it felt to be done. I expected joy. Pride. Maybe even tears for what an exhausting and emotional trip it’s been. But I just feel numb and edgy. These were hard, hard edits, and they brought me about as low as I can go. I had to dig deeper than ever to find the stamina and the belief in myself. And when I didn’t have it in me, I borrowed heavily from my most amazing agent, who really did save me from giving up.

Anyway, I’m going to leave LitPark down for one more week, though I’ll be floating around in the comments section again. We decorated the Christmas tree today, and I bought makings for a gingerbread house. I just want to slow down this week and spend time with my family.

Next week’s guest will be well worth the wait!

xo

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