It’s been 49 years, but I’m just now realizing that my second-grade music teacher, Ms. Davis, must have been going through some serious shit in 1972.
Thinking about it now, I wish I could have helped her back then. Shown her some empathy, maybe. Perhaps I could have shared with her my horror-stories about repeatedly being pushed off the see-saw by Sean the Bully. Those tales of playground-woe might have helped Ms. Davis put her now-obvious heartache into some perspective. But I was only six years old in 1972, and I had no idea at the time how blue Ms. Davis was feeling, or how badly she needed a friend.
Today though, nearly 50 years later, I know for sure that the lyrics to the folky-songs Ms. Davis had my classmates and I sing during her twice-weekly music class were profoundly adult…and profoundly sad.
Every time one of these songs comes on the radio now I am instantly transported back to a stuffy classroom in a suburban Boston elementary school where I am watching Ms. Davis holding back tears with a big fake smile while she strums her six-string and teaches us her favorite sad songs.
What was going on in Ms. Davis’ personal life that she had me and my fellow six-year-olds singing “I Am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel?
Don’t talk of love
Well, I’ve heard that word before
It’s been sleeping in my memory
I won’t disturb the slumber
Of feelings that have died
If I never loved, I would never would have cried…
I am a rock
I am an island
Did I mention we were six?
Miss Davis had spectacularly-shiny black hair, parted sharply down the middle just like Joan Baez, and it hung past the waistband of her super-groovy bell-bottom jeans. She was probably in her mid-20s, her skin alabaster, and her acoustic guitar was almost as shiny as her hair. And, man, she must have had a horrible breakup that year.
One Thursday morning she taught us all the words to a metaphor-heavy one-hit wonder about a sexually-frustrated girl stalking her ex-boyfriend: “Brand New Key,” by Melania.
I rode my bicycle past your window last night
I roller skated to your door at daylight
It almost seems like you’re avoiding me
I’m okay alone but you got something I need
Well, I got a brand new pair of roller skates
You got a brand new key
I think that we should get together
And try them out, you see
I been looking around awhile
You got something for me
Oh, I got a brand new pair of roller skates
You got a brand new key
I ride my bike, I roller skate, don’t drive no car
Don’t go too fast but I go pretty far
Whoa. Poor frustrated Ms. Davis. And poor us, we second-graders, now that I think about it.
I can’t listen the Yacht Rock channel on the radio in the year 2021 without feeling like maybe I was witness to Ms. Davis’ slow-motion musical/emotional breakdown in 1972.
Some of the other songs I remember Ms. Davis teaching us later in the school year may have reflected her evolving emotional state. She must have wanted to run far, far away from whatever failed relationship was causing her distress, because thanks to our weekly classroom sing-alongs I still know every word to “City of New Orleans” by Arlo Guthrie.
Good morning, America, how are you?
Say, don’t you know me? I’m your native son
I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done
Dealin’ card games with the old men in the club car
Penny a point ain’t no one keepin’ score
Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
Feel the wheels rumblin’ ‘neath the floor
That’s some heavy shit for a six-year-old. Evocative.
If memory serves, Ms. Davis was from somewhere in the mid-West. And being so young while working as our music teacher in New England, she must have missed her family and her home terribly.
Another super-sad song that she drilled into our tiny little heads was this one, again by Simon and Garfunkel:
Home where my thought’s escapin’
Home where my music’s playin’
Home where my love lies waitin’
Silently for me
Every day’s an endless stream
Of cigarettes and magazines
And each town looks the same to me
The movies and the factories
And every stranger’s face I see
Reminds me that I long to be
I really liked singing about cigarettes and magazines back then. I still do.
So, thank you, Ms. Davis, for the maudlin musical education. Your struggle — whatever it was — likely set the sad-sack stage for my later love of bands like the Cure and the Smiths. And I still adore Simon and Garfunkel.
I hope you eventually found your happiness, Ms. Davis. Or someone with a nice new roller skate key, at least.