By now you may be asking: who is Jack Blake? What is his biography before life on the coast?
This much I can tell:
At some point in our adventure together, guiltily, I memorized the license plate on Jack’s rig. Soon after my trip, I ran it through Oregon DMV and came up with a name and an address in the Portland area. The address turned out to be a mail center.
From what I gleaned in my time with Jack, he had been some sort of educator. He made mysterious allusions to cashing out a teacher’s pension and talked about his “students.” After we parted, the writer in me had to trace more of his biography.
One day I started calling high schools in the Portland metropolitan area. I posed as an administrator from a small school on the Oregon Coast that was checking Jack’s references for an interim teaching position. After 37 calls and a lot of hang-ups, I finally reached a vice-principal at large suburban high school who confirmed Jack taught there two years ago but quit to do “something creative,” a notion which seemed to be an extreme rarity among teachers according to this administrator. Jack had taught American government and English and advised the literary magazine for four years. “He was a fantastic teacher and the students loved him,” the VP said. I asked him for a special anecdote about Jack’s character and it was as if I turned on a spigot. For the nest 10 minutes the VP described story after outrageous story of Jack’s brief but brilliant career. It was plain that Jack was a legend at the school.
“He used to play guitar in a rock band with students at the pep assemblies and it always brought the house down. In fact we had to ask him to tone it down after one got way too loud and the lyrics were questionable. Several teachers complained.”
“Do you remember what songs he played at the assembly, ” I asked.
“It was only one. I don’t know what the name was but it had a chorus of ‘we do it all the time, yeah, yeah.’ something like that.”
I knew the song and had lost my mind to it several times at parties and concerts. It was the Violent Femmes “Kiss Off.”
There was more. Jack once came into a faculty meeting with his acoustic guitar and played a bunch of songs to ease the tension after a very tense, divisive staff vote on revamping the curriculum. He led a poetry slam team that went to national teenage finals and also coached the girls’ tennis team!
Apparently, Jack’s teaching had caused controversy in the community on several occasions. He staged a mock death penalty trial and electrocution taken directly from a real case in Florida that led to many parental complaints. The literary magazine he advised contained a short story about a cheerleader’s first lesbian experience that outraged a local Christian group. They demanded the school board confiscate the copies and fire Jack. (Later I dug out the local paper’s account of the episode and it described Jack bringing 50 students to a board meeting and reading passages from Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, William O. Douglas, Henry Miller, Thomas Paine and Voltaire!)
Finally I helped the VP wind the conversation down and ended by asking if he would employ Jack again knowing what he knew now. “In a minute. He had the highest standards for academics and citizenship in the building and never sent a kid to my office.” I was thanking him for his time when he burst in, “I can’t believe (Jack) moved to the coast. If I were you, I’d hire him immediately.”
The next week I visited Jack’s old school, went to the library and tracked down the yearbooks during his tenure. Each volume had nearly two dozen pictures of Jack. The change in his physical appearance from the first to fourth year was striking. His hair became longer, he frequently didn’t shave and his clothes became looser. On an impulse I told the librarian I was a writing feature story about Jack for a national teaching magazine and she told me more incredible tales. I asked if a computer still had a record of the books and periodicals he checked out. Surprisingly the answer was “yes” and she printed it out. The total ran to over 15 pages and the titles ranged from physics to Spanish language materials to constitutional law to a biography of Duke Ellington. Despite the high volume, it seemed that Jack had failed to return only one book; a Modern Library hard cover edition of Walt Whitman’s entire literary output. “He was the only one who ever checked it out,” said the librarian.
The question I asked myself after the school visit was why Jack gave up such a distinguished and creative teaching career. He could have impacted thousands of other students who needed his enthusiasm and viewpoint. The administration let him do what he wanted and he had a dream schedule teaching subjects he cared about.
But still, a job in the classroom meant a schedule and strictures. It meant being surrounded and enslaved by tech. It meant grading. Over time, Jack simply couldn’t handle it anymore and knew he had to strike out to run down his dream of making music that matters.
There was something else, too, and I didn’t get it until I decided to read Whitman again because something about Jack not returning that book to the school library revealed something about him, if only I could ascertain what it was.
So I picked up a copy of Leaves of Grass and started reading to see if it could provide insight. It had been 20 years since my last encounter with Whitman. I was in high school and, well you know how most teachers drain the blood from poetry. A few lines into “Song of Myself” I came across these two stanzas:
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are
crowded with perfumes
I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the
distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
That was it. Jack Blake was mad to be in contact with the world, nature, people, ideas, music. That was rock and roll to him.