The Music Teacher

On a warm day in the Fall of 1981, Linda Gunn arrived at Casterlin Elementary School near Blocksburg, California, a town located in the southeastern corner of Humboldt County.  

I was standing where I usually stood on a sunny day, amongst the wild chamomile under the cottonwood trees that ringed the staff parking lot.  I liked this location because I could see what the staff were doing and I could also look out at the playground, snatching a minute here and there to run and play with my friends when I felt so inclined, but like much of the time I spent at that school, I often sat or stood under or near those trees, musing about how much more profound my day could be, if only it involved something more than just recess and the hum-drum recitations and memorizations of some of the material we were required to consume in third grade.

And then Linda arrived.  She pulled up to me in her Volkswagen Beetle.  I could see the large guitar propped up in the passenger front seat as she slowed to a stop.

When I walked up to the driver side door to meet her, she quickly opened the door, saying, "hey there my friend what's your name?"

I replied, "I'm Orval.  I really like your guitar."

The scent of lemon and spice and patchouli and sunshine wafted from her Beetle.

"Alright," she said, but when she said it she snapped her fingers and cocked her head to the side.

I knew I was going to love her.

"I'm Linda Gunn.  Nice to meet you, Orval."

When Linda exited the Beetle, I could see that her outfit matched her bubbly demeanor.  She was wearing a paisley print bohemian top, maxi skirt, and Birkenstock sandals.  Her hair was a beautiful mass of spirals, parted in the center, and curbed to the sides of her temples by two long silver barrettes. 

I'd never seen an adult like this at Casterlin Elementary School, so unlike the prim and proper teachers of my school who usually fancied themselves in polyester pant suits or flowery ensembles that channeled the daywear of our beloved former first lady, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt.

Not Linda Gunn.

I asked Linda, "may I carry your guitar?"

"Alright," she said again, only this time she slowly drew out the word, as if she were savoring the vowels.  She punctuated her response by smiling broadly and quickly clapping her hands together twice before slipping a macrame' handbag over her shoulder.

"Orval," she continued, "can you bring me to Connie?"

I nodded my head as she pulled out her guitar and situated it on me, adjusting the shoulder strap before snapping her fingers and saying "alright" again, in that long, intimately drawn out way.

Huge smile.

*    *    *

After meeting with Connie, Linda situated herself in a corner of the gymnasium.  Only those students from each class who were interested in music would meet with her.  Of course, I was already obsessed with her, and I was still wearing her guitar.  Politely, and with much dramatic emphasis on the importance of her guitar, she deftly lifted it from me and situated it onto herself.

Then, she introduced herself to us as she described how we would sing and she would play her guitar.

I will never forget the message of the first song she taught us:

the whale, the whale

the citizen of the sea

she has the right to live and so do we 

and then she sings her song

and the whalers come along

with their harpoon

and then she's dog meat

in a can

She repeated this song several times.  And then she had us sing along to it with her guitar accompaniment.  I absolutely loved it.  I asked myself: How can a whale become dog meat in a can?  I made a mental note to ask my parents about this when I went home that afternoon.

She taught us a few other songs that morning.

I was totally enraptured by the messages of these songs, but none of them was more impactful than the song about the whale.

At the lunch hour, Linda had us sing the songs we'd learned to the entire school.  I was watching my teacher, Connie.  She was eating from a can of tuna, one of her favorite meals as we began to sing.

the whale, the whale

the citizen of the sea

she has the right to live and so do we 

and then she sings her song

and the whalers come along

with their harpoon

and then she's dog meat

in a can

And then I saw Connie walk to a nearby trashcan where she dropped her can of tuna.  I don't know if she'd finished eating it before tossing out the can.

*    *    *

Later that afternoon I asked my dad about whales and dog meat and how I didn't understand the connection.

He explained it to me.

I loved Linda even more for it.

Linda Gunn continued to see us every week for the remainder of the semester.

The Christmas play came and went, and when the new year arrived, we were greeted by Sam, our new music teacher.  When Sam introduced himself to us, he showed us his electric keyboard.  He began to sing with his introduction, "Jack be nimble. Jack be quick. Jack jump over the candlestick."

I walked out.

Years later, I looked up the lyrics to that song.  Linda supplied a more succinct and immediately impactful version of the song that differs significantly from the original.

Dog meat in a can.

I'll never forget that.

Comments

  1. You describe Linda in such detail. I can see why you were so enamored with her. I'm sure she made an impact on many students. I wonder what Linda is up to now?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Jill. I reconnected with her on Facebook. Retired. Enjoying life 😊

      Delete
  2. I could most certainly picture her on my mind.

    I also had a really amazing elementary music teacher, which is at least part of why I became one :) I love hearing stories about how music teachers affected people's lives.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This Linda sounds like quite an eccentric lady! There have been many music teachers that have walked in and out of my life and most have left a lasting impact. I could sense your instant curiosity with her from the way you wrote in your reactions to her. Lovely piece.

    ReplyDelete

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