The Teacher and the Rock Star

For those of you that know me, you know Wonder by RJ Palacio is one of my favorite middle grade novels. It’s a book every elementary school kid should read or should have read before middle school.

One of my favorite lines from Wonder comes from Auggie:

“I think there should be a rule

that everyone in the world

should get a standing ovation

at least once in

their lives.”


When I first started teaching public school in the Bronx in 1994, I used song lyrics for Language Arts.

I was lucky enough to connect with some incredible and incredibly generous musicians, and at times, Class 6-405 and Class 6-413 at the West Farms School looked like MTV Unplugged. Wyclef Jean, John Popper, Lauryn Hill, and Dave Matthews all visited our fourth floor classroom.

One set of musicians stood out: Jim Creggan, Kevin Hearn, Tyler Stewart, and Ed Robertson, also known as Barenaked Ladies.

On Saturday evening April 20, 1996, Barenaked Ladies played the Roseland Ballroom in New York City. Earlier that afternoon, Barenaked Ladies invited an elementary school class from Tremont — that was learning their words and songs —  to sound check.

I didn’t know how many kids would show up at the school at two o’clock on a spring time Saturday afternoon. I didn’t know if any would.

One set of musicians stood out: Jim Creggan, Kevin Hearn, Tyler Stewart, and Ed Robertson, also known as Barenaked Ladies.

Shameke, Hootie, Jazmin, Celmali, Ivan, Jose, Maurice, Airon, Claudia, Jibrail, Eddie, Chris, Deoshore, Airon, Karen, and Faustino showed. This is one of my favorite pictures from my teaching days. Note the billboard for Cats in the reflection!

We headed down to the corner and hiked up the long flight of stairs to the five train.

The attendant at the West Farms Square station that day was the same one who worked mornings during the week. I always waved to her. Sometimes I bought my tokens from her. She knew I was a teacher. She let us use our school group transportation pass that was only valid on weekdays.

At Roseland, we met the guys.

They introduced us to the crew. They showed us the lighting. They showed us the soundboard. Then they asked if we wanted to come up on stage and check out the instruments. Jim played his bass. Kevin showed us the keyboard. Tyler played his drums. Ed showed us his guitars and pointed out the night’s set list taped to the stage near his mic stand.

The kids all had their lyrics sheets, the sheets we made and used in class. We had the words to Brian Wilson, Enid, and If I Had a $1,000,000.

“You want to sing it with us?”

Of course, we did. We knew their songs by heart.

“Check out where we are!”

That’s something we always said. Class 6-405 went on fun trips and had meaningful experiences. Everywhere we went, we always acknowledged the moment. We always made a point of saying, “Check out where we are!”

Right now, we were on the stage of the Roseland Ballroom singing the words we’d learned in class with the artists who crafted those words into this song.

“Dear Mr. Bildner: Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Ed Robertson’s Barenaked mom.

Ed Robertson told his mom about the experience. Rock stars talk to their moms, too. His mom told him she had to get in touch with me.

A few weeks later, I received a note from Wilma Robertson.

“Dear Mr. Bildner: Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Ed Robertson’s Barenaked mom.”

Ed’s intelligent wit explained in a sentence.

“I hope they never get ‘big,’” she wrote in her opening paragraph, “that they are unapproachable. I think you will probably agree with me that will never happen.”

Wilma Robertson and I became pen pals. Old school, snail mail pen pals. Then we became email pals.

I told Wilma all about the time Ed and Jim visited the class and how Jim took his stand-up bass on the subway all the way to the Bronx; up and down all those stairs just so he could play for the kids. I told her about the time we went to the Paramount Theater and sang One Week on stage at sound check and met Jason Priestley who also happened to be there.

One time, Wilma told me that Ed was home for a short while and had a friend visiting from Atlanta. They were going to see Kurt Swinghammer play. “Ed’s interest in music is huge and varied.”

One time, she told me all about how much little Hannah, Arden, and Lyle loved to read. “Ed and Nat have read to them since they were tiny babies, and it shows. They all have to have their bedtime stories before they get tucked in for the night.”

Each time, a note only a mother and grandmother could write.

Wilma passed away in 2008. I didn’t learn about her death until some months later, and when I did, I reached out to Ed. He told me how much he missed her. He shared some of the things he missed about her most.

“Do you want her letters?” I asked.

Ed didn’t know his mother and I had kept in touch. Not to the extent we did. He didn’t know we were pen pals for all these years. One of the things Ed missed most about his mother was her handwriting.

We saw everyone: Kevin, Jim, Tyler, Ed. I gave Ed a hug. I thanked them for their years of kindness. I told them how much it meant.

Earlier this month, in the midst of having to deal with my heartbreaking Round Rock situation, I reached out to Ed. It was the first time I had in awhile.

I told him that Kevin and I had tickets to their show the following week at Bethel Woods. We’d love to say hello. Ed said he’d leave us passes and asked if we needed tickets. We didn’t need tickets. We’d bought good seats months ago.

Ed left us tickets anyway. We thought we bought good seats months ago.

We had good seats now.

Before the show, we saw everyone: Kevin, Jim, Tyler, Ed. I gave Ed a hug. I thanked them for their years of kindness. I told them how much it meant.

They wanted to know about the kids. Did I know how they were doing? Did I ever hear from any of them?

I hear from lots of them. I keep in touch with many of them. I’m starting to meet their kids now. It’s wonderful.

For some reason, I was sweating like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News when we were together.

It made for a good laugh as we talked about Waitress the Musical (which they’d just seen on Broadway), our new-old house in Newburgh, and the poetry slam documentary, Louder Than a Bomb.

We took a great picture. Kevin and I look tiny!

The show was incredible. Of course, it was. Barenaked Ladies never disappoint. You’re going to have a good time at a Barenaked Ladies show. It’s impossible not to.

Kevin and I sang and danced to every song. The guys saw us. Everyone saw us. It was impossible not to.

Life, in a Nutshell.

When I Fall.

Sound of Your Voice.

Brian Wilson.

Howard Jones, who opened the show, joined them for No One is to Blame.

Then Ed faced me. He introduced me to the crowd. He told our story. I’d never heard his version before.

Click Play

“There was a standing ovation.”

It wasn’t something I planned,”

Ed emailed me the next day

“It wasn’t something I planned,” Ed emailed me the next day. “I had no intention of making that testimonial last night… it just happened. I’m really glad it did. It felt right. It felt true. It felt totally natural. That’s why I have the best job in the world. I can goof around with my pals, making music, improvising, and free-styling nonsense, or rock out with energetic abandon… or tell an incredibly personal story of loss and kindness. It’s all fair game. It’s all embraced and supported. I’m a lucky man.”

I’m a lucky man, too.

Thanks for my Auggie moment, Ed Robertson.

Thanks for my Auggie moment, Barenaked Mom.

In light of Round Rock and in light of Orlando, I really needed it this week. Thanks for reminding me about the very words I say to kids more and more:

Always believe in wonder.

Follow the fifth grade adventures of Rip and Red. Be sure to pick up copies of A Whole New Ballgame and Rookie Of The Year.


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