His name was Mr. Avon, but we called him Drummer Guy. He was a substitute teacher.
Drummer Guy wore his hair in a ponytail, which my friends and I found repulsive and intriguing, simultaneously. We decided there was nothing fundamentally improper about a man wearing a ponytail; it was just that his was greasy and looked unwashed. It was gross, yet we couldn’t stop talking about how gross it was. Some of us even threatened to grow our own and then start a jam band. None of us did.
For us and for most kids of about twelve or thirteen, substitute teachers are like proxy governors sent in to restore order to unruly nations; their efforts are futile and they won’t be around for long, anyway. But you still have to admire anyone who tries.
Drummer Guy was one of those who tried, in his own way. He’d let everyone file in, then he’d shut the door and say something to the effect of, “Class. Mr. or Mrs. ______ left me some notes for some stuff to work on.”
At which point everyone would groan, because days with a substitute teacher are supposed to be non-work days. But then he would always say something like, “I don’t think it’s gonna happen. So we’re gonna to watch Cream’s farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall instead. Cool?”
None of us knew what kind of cream he was talking about—whipped, or maybe sour?—or who Royal Albert Hall was, so we just nodded.
Cream, it turned out, was Drummer Guy’s favorite band. We usually spent about fifteen of the forty minutes of class watching a Ginger Baker drum solo, which was cool, but at the same time kind of shocking. What did late-60s power trios have to do with earth science, anyway?
Fortunately, Drummer Guy would always spend the last ten minutes of class explaining exactly how the video we’d just watched related to the class subject. It was pretty impressive how he developed these comparisons, however tenuous, between rock drumming and subjects such as geometry, German verb conjugation, and the Mason-Dixon line.
For the aforementioned earth science class, for example, he explained that one must strike the drum with a certain amount of force in order to create sound waves. The harder you hit the drum, he explained, the more the drumhead would vibrate, which would send longer, louder sound waves into our ears. The explanation was clearly lifted from Wikipedia and he was in the wrong branch of science, but still—he really seemed to think he was teaching us an important lesson.
Drummer Guy subbed a lot and for a lot of classes, which I never really understood. Our teachers were always annoyed when they’d come in the next day to find that instead of working on whatever it was we were supposed to be working on, we’d spent forty minutes listening to “White Room” and “Sunshine of Your Love.” Still, he continued to make regular appearances when our teachers were out. Public schools can’t be choosy about subs, I guess.
My most vivid memory of Drummer Guy is from my freshman year of high school. I believe we were supposed to be discussing Steinbeck’s The Pearl, but instead Drummer Guy produced a DVD from his messenger bag (he seemed like more of a Kerouac kind of guy, anyway). Drummer Guy was telling us all about the bitter rivalry between Baker and Jack Bruce when he realized the DVD player wasn’t working.
Now this was interesting. Had Drummer Guy ever subbed without assistance from a digital video player?
To his credit, Drummer Guy was prepared. He asked to borrow a pair of drumsticks from a kid who had jazz band the following period. With some ill-disguised trepidation, the kid handed the sticks over.
We hung on the edge of the moment. And then drummer guy began to play.
He played for, as I remember it, half the class period. The tabletop was his snare, a textbook was his bass, and the sink faucet was his high-hat. He really was very talented.
When he was finished, Drummer Guy passed the sticks back to the kid, adjusted his ponytail, and asked, “Any questions?”
There were many, but no one asked them. And all I can remember thinking is, I guess it’s better than real school.
Every once in a while over the course of the following years, one of always brings up Drummer Guy. Remember that time he took Sean’s drumsticks and started freestyling? We all did, of course. And, looking back on that day and all the others that he subbed for us, the oddest part was what he chose to teach.
Because it was a choice. He had a lesson plan, he had instructions on what to teach and how to teach it. Yet Drummer Guy, Mr. Avon, decided that wooden sticks striking hollow drums was a subject more worthy of our time.
In a way, I suppose it was pretty cool that he tried to share his passion with us. He did try, at least, which was more than could be said of us, who just wanted the period off from learning.
He taught us a lesson without realizing it, I think: try something, anything, and keep trying it. People won’t forget.
Also: in the absence of a drum kit, tabletops are a decent substitute.