Monday, August 6, 2012

Teacher's Skills Are As Solid As Rock

 Philadelphia Inquirer | October 18, 1997
By Daniel Rubin

It's a glorious Friday afternoon, and the twenty-four third graders return from recess like Superballs shot from a cannon. They can't sit still for spelling. Social studies seems hopeless. The rookie teacher turns to a favorite weapon.

"OK, folks,"' says the gravel-voiced man in a buzz cut and rep tie, "it's time for Multiplication Rock." When the cheers die down, he has one foot on a desk, balancing a second-hand guitar he bought for such moments. The class starts chirping in unison math facts buried painlessly in the catchy tune.

"Two times two is four. Two times three is six." The teacher stays in the background, but he can't help throwing in a tasty chord or lick.
The third graders at Enfield Elementary have former rock star Tommy Conwell for their teacher.

He's Mr. Conwell these days - a 35-year-old beginner, and the Springfield, Montgomery County, school's only male classroom teacher. On weekends, he can be found playing around town with his band, the Little Kings. Weeknight gigs are a thing of the past. So are limousines.

Ten years ago, New York record-company execs were lined up outside his shows at the 23 East Cabaret in Ardmore, checkbooks in hand, hoping to throw money at the lanky blond rocker and local guitar hero.

"Conwell is all attitude,'' wrote an Inquirer reporter in 1987, "black boots, spiked hair, Billy Idol sneer, snarling guitar.'' He was also described as unfailingly polite, patiently signing autographs and drawing cartoons for fans, his respectfulness ingrained by the nuns of Bala Cynwyd.

Columbia Records reeled in Tommy Conwell and his Young Rumblers for big bucks, and they made two albums. Eventually, Conwell realized he was more of a performer than the songwriter the labels were looking for.

After MCA, his last big record company, dropped him four years ago, he thought about his prospects and decided that the money he had saved would allow him to go back to school full time. Last December, he graduated from Chestnut Hill College, where he was used to being the only guy in the room.

Now he's the only adult in a room full of 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds who have to raise their hands to go to the bathroom. The kids don't remember his salad days, but their parents do.

"The first thing their parents tell me is, 'I saw you at the Cabaret,'" says Conwell, who lives in Chestnut Hill and has a 3-year-old son. If he wanted some compartmentalization in his life, events conspired against him: On the first Monday of the term, his latest record - Sho' Gone Crazy! - got reviewed in the paper.

"The word gets around,'' he says. "Some of the parents are my age. When I first dreamed about being a teacher, I knew having a rock-and-roll past might be a positive or a negative. Some just might not like it. If that happens, then I'll have to convince them."

Screenshot from PRISM interview [Tommy Conwell and the Little Kings Live at the Chameleon, 1997.

His blond hair is now shorn to a dark nub he rubsconstantly as he decides which way to go with his students. He always wears a tie. Usually he's in a suit - "makes me look more like a principal,"' he says, cracking up. 

Some of the lessons from the music world have helped the novice teacher, who student-taught at Enfield last year. For social studies, he had his pupils write a song about Johnny Appleseed, sung to the tune of The Star-Spangled Banner. They made up one about Miss Rumphius - a character in a Barbara Cooney book - to the tune of Barbara Ann. 

Conwell's class is known around school as the one that gets to do the most singing. 

"I wish I could have him again next year,"' says Edgett Hilimire, 9, who was wearing a jacket and tie yesterday, like his teacher. The boy was also wearing punkish red nail polish. ("I love this kid," Conwell says.) 

"I've never really had a boy teacher before,"' says Emily Walker, 8. "It's sort of neat. It's sort of funner." 

Principal Warren Mata knew nothing of Conwell's roots when they met last year. Mata knew only that during the interview, Conwell handled every question designed to plumb his knowledge and resourcefulness. 

"He was incredibly prepared to be a teacher," says Mata, 42,who lived in Montana and North Jersey during Conwell's 1980s rise. "I wasn't here during the rock-star era of his life. To me, he's not that person. He's a person who has come well-equipped."' 

There is barely an inch of white space on the walls of Mr. Conwell's room, the surfaces covered by posters and drawings, lists and instructions. Step two in The Writing Zone tells how to make a draft: "Write a messy copy." 

The guitar stands in one corner, an upright piano in another with sheet music for "High Hopes'' and "Swinging on a Star.'' Against the far wall, Conwell has built a stage, with shimmering green curtains from his days on the road. 

Over the blackboard a bright sign says "Showtime." And over that: "You never know what you can do until you try." 

"It's great," says Conwell. "It's a great age and I'm very much in love with the kids. I'm just nuts about them. It makes it easy to come here every day. It makes it easy to work hard. The hours I'm putting in are just more than I would ever imagine, but it's not drudgery. It's inspired work. Your heart is in it. My heart is in it." 

He laughs as he says this. "I must say, I'm still a rookie, so I'm figuring it all out. And there's a lot to figure out." 

The real challenge, he says, is directing all the energy and ability levels he finds in one room. "As a musician, my biggest job has been to create excitement in the audience. Here, this is not the primary goal." He laughs again. 

"I have to manage kids' moods - there's a wide dynamic range. And there are times, many times, when everyone needs to be silent. Managing that is a trick." 

The way he greets his young rumblers after their midday recess suggests he's not having any jitters. 

"We don't shout. We enter quickly. We don't talk right now. Take a seat. Put your desk in position for a test. Take out your spelling notebooks," says the man whose diploma - posted by the door - reads Thomas Edward Conwell, bachelor of science. "We have work to do."

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