Reflections on The Death of A Teacher
At age thirteen, I took up playing guitar.
I didn’t take music class seriously before that, so my music teacher held some disdain for me. We were directed to the keyboards and asked to learn and play “Fur Elise” again, and again, and again. I do not have any problem with Beethoven, but I think even he would have grown tired of playing the same thing so many times. I preferred maths to music at that point, which led to me achieving nothing in lessons, frustrating the teacher, and being demoted to bookwork. Just as I thought I’d reached the end of my tether, I came up with something.
The idea of learning something non-classical seemed like a breath of fresh air.
When I asked my teacher if I could begin guitar lessons she simply directed me to the room at the end of the corridor, across from the P.E. office. I knocked on the door with a window covered by a scribbled-on timetable. The noise inside the room paused and I opened the door. I had interrupted a lesson. I gave an uncomfortable explanation and asked if I too could take lessons.
I’d seen him walking around school before; he had dark, well-groomed hair, a modest beard, quick, intelligent eyes (Yet he always wore sunglasses (not indoors, he once explained to me how strange and annoying he found people who did that)) and an air of confidence, without arrogance about him.
I had lessons for two and a half years before Jack told me he was leaving. I wasn’t upset because I’d stop taking guitar lessons. I was upset because I was fifteen and he was cool. He had a beard, he taught me “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and he brought Subway sandwiches to school. Being thirteen years old, I found all of these things to be equally impressive.
During lessons he often felt like a friend more than a teacher, as I’d sometimes learn no songs at all, instead talking to him about Alkaline Trio, or whether the buildings outside stopped existing when you stopped looking at them, or how he dropped out of university to be in a band. I remember laughing a lot and watching (when we eventually got round to playing guitar) with half annoyance and half awe when he played the guitar part from a Foo Fighters song without a single mistake.
It was all inspiring, all of it. Someone who had played guitar since they were my age and who had made a living out of it. Funny, and intelligent, and talented. Was this what people called a “role model”?
This was all unconscious at the time, of course I wasn’t thinking about that. I had 15-year-old issues (also known as non-issues) to deal with.
Three years later, I had all but forgotten him. Every now and then a quote would come into my head about guitars, or school, or how awful Korn are, but I forgot these quotes were from him. They were just words with an origin I never cared to consider. I remembered that Jack had taught me guitar, but not a huge amount else. I suppose I didn’t appreciate everything as much as I should’ve. I’d sit on the sofa, lazily playing a Cadd9 chord, a G, a D. Always losing picks. As far as I knew he’d become a hairdresser somewhere not too far away. I bet he still played guitar. But nevertheless he rarely entered my conscious mind.
My music taste had changed. No more pop-punk, no more nu-metal. Folk music, Americana, jazz instead. Maybe this made me drift further from things he had said to me. Though I do remember him showing me the E7sus2 and B7 chords when I asked if he knew any jazz.
On the night of March 2nd, I was listening to a piece of music, sat in my bedroom, in fairly high spirits. A friend I hadn’t talked to for a while texted me, asking if I had heard about Jack. I asked him to explain. He told me that Jack had died a few days before, aged 34.
At that point I turned off the music, sat back in my chair with my eyes wide, and took a breath.
And those links in my mind came back.
The first chords he taught me: Cadd9, G, D.
I still seem to write a lot based on those chords. I can make those chord shapes without a guitar. They feel comfortable, and familiar.
The green heart-shaped guitar picks he used, that he’d give me when I forgot mine, which I kept and then lost.
I do have a green pick. It’s not heart-shaped but it’s probably my favourite.
The one (and only) time I told him I wanted to “shred” and he broke down laughing.
It may be part of growing up, but now I can’t stand guitarists who play fast for the sake of playing fast.
The guitar he played, a Fender Big Apple Stratocaster, black with a tortoiseshell pickguard.
I don’t know if it’s a coincidence that I find myself drawn to guitars that look similar.
I spent that night sat downstairs watching Comedy Central. The parts of programmes I’d usually find funny had a muted impact on me. Preconscious connections continued lighting up in my mind. More things I thought I’d completely forgotten.
The guitar pickup he sold me that I used for a while and still have somewhere.
It sounded good when I last used it. Warm.
The copy of “The Zombie Survival Guide” book by Max Brooks that he lent me…
I loved it, I bought myself a copy and eventually gave it to my Walking Dead-loving sister.
…And the copy of “House of 1000 Corpses” he lent me on DVD.
I loved that as well. I think the high level of gratuitous violence contributed to that. 15-year-old me again.
The last song he ever taught me: “Up In Arms” by Foo Fighters, that I still remember note for note.
I still can’t play it as well as he did though, with as much fluency or style.
It was like something covering the thoughts had been pulled away by what happened. If he was still alive and I had thought of him, none of these things would have occurred to me.
The only career path I can now imagine taking is music, in some shape or form. A music teacher, a performer, a producer, anything. If I’d been stuck with a formalist grade-piece teacher I may have given up on guitar, the classical-averse teenager I was. But Jack taught me the songs I wanted to play, and a lot more.
I feel like the half-an-hour every Wednesday I spent in the music room changed the path of my life in a way I can only scratch the surface of. I keep recognising pieces of his influence quite out of the blue. And I think I’ll continue to.
In the light of this happening, I’ve been asking myself if there are (or have been) other people in my life that have done something seemingly insignificant, but who have had a profound impact. I’m beginning to see how people I talk to every day, as well as people I’ve met in the past, affect me as a person. It leaves me wondering if I am entirely composed of pieces of external influence, if I am just a patchwork of experiences, if everyone is this way.
The one thing I’d like to have had the opportunity to say?
Thanks again, Jack.