I was in third grade when Mr. Willis came to our school to be our new music teacher. I don’t remember a music teacher before Mr. Willis, possibly because it’s more difficult to remember back that far, but probably because Mr. Willis’s force of personality eradicated all previous music teacher memories.
As an eight-year-old, all adults were indistinguishably heaped into one all-encompassing category of Old People. In reality, I’m guessing Mr. Willis was fresh out of grad school, no more than 23 or 24. (I am now in my 40’s and sadly, I still don’t know Mr. Willis’s first name.)
“He looks like one of the Beatles,” was the word around Westland’s Elementary School playground that day. We had spotted him immediately—the rare male teacher in a world of women, and certainly the only one with a guitar case and long shaggy hair.
We sat in rapt silence that first class as Mr. Willis unsheathed his guitar, a shimmering teal blue Fender Stratocaster. Acoustic would have been enough for us, but an electric? Even before he’d plugged in his amp Mr. Willis had exceeded our wildest dreams of what was possible inside the utilitarian concrete walls of our little third-grade classroom.
Without uttering a word, Mr. Willis dragged a desk chair over to him, propped a sneakered foot atop, then launched into a loud and gritty cover of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”
I still know all the words by heart, as that would be one of the many cool rock songs we would learn in music class that year. Along with Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” and the Monkees “Daydream Believer.”
The older I get, the more I start to relish the “blow your mind” experiences in life, the tiny moments where your world suddenly and immediately expands and you are remade as whole new you, like the first time you stay up all night to watch the sunrise or eat Pad Thai or listen to The White Album.
So, thank you, Mr. Willis, for rocking my world.
Are you happy ? Are you satisfied ?
How long can you stand the heat
Out of the doorway the bullets rip
To the sound of the beat
–Queen, “Another One Bites the Dust”