We weren’t used to our teachers being famous. Instead of an apple, Mr. Garfunkel kept a Grammy on his desk.
Still, every class quickly learns to play its teacher like a Rickenbacker. You hear about the ones who drone on because they love the sound of their own voice, but you don’t usually hear the teachers themselves so readily cop to it. “The Times once called it ‘angelic,’” he’d say, sipping his tea with lemon and honey. “And that’s our paper of record.”
So to defuse the tension of a looming test, we’d learned to rely on the well-timed request. Best case scenario: he’d get so caught up in hitting those heavenly high notes he’d forget to assign us homework.
“‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’! ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’!”
“If ever a song required a certain joie de vivre—”
He read on our faces: Is that a type of piano?
“That first verse, in its delicacy, is the Devil’s business. Can’t just—”
But we’d start shuffling papers, and, like clockwork:
When you’re weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all
I’m on your side . . .
Just belted it out, a cappella, beginning to end. There was a lesson in it, though, he explained: “You’ll go further together than alone. It’s true for Litchfield Prep and it’s true for life. When—if—you’re lucky enough to find your ideal collaborator, never let him go, not for all the critical acclaim or commercial success the world sets at your feet.”
We nodded diligently. We were just trying to make it through fourth period.
Our friends in Ms. Reynolds’ class were jealous we never had to bother with those “A passenger train leaves a train depot two hours before a freight train leaves the same depot” questions. Mr. Garfunkel wrote all his word problems himself—in addition to singing and harmonizing bar none, he could also, he stressed, compose. Yet in a way our friends never could’ve understood, we would’ve gladly traded places come exam time:
1. The Graduate soundtrack reached Number 1 on the Billboard 200 while Paul Simon’s recent solo effort, his first, debuted this week at a disappointing Number 64. How far will it need to fall before he realizes a key ingredient to his success is missing?
a. Below Number 75
b. Out of the Top 100
d. None of the above, his capacity for ignorance ⟶∞
2. A Simon & Garfunkel show was quite a sight! Me, six feet tall, towering over my dear friend of 5’3”, our visual incongruity no match for the beautiful unity of our blended vocal. Be that as it may, how many platinum records will it take my smallstatured friend to bridge those nine devilish inches between us once and for all?
a. Another “Mrs. Robinson”
b. 4 ±2 more should do it
c. The RIAA could certify his next A-side diamond and still he’d be unhappy
d. He’ll come crawling back
e. Both (c) and (d)
Extra Credit: The term “Napoleon complex,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “an acute sense of personal inferiority often resulting either in timidity or through overcompensation in exaggerated aggressiveness” comes from French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte, who himself had a good 3” over Paul, turns out. No solving for any x, you all receive the +2 free points, but isn’t that something!
One day while he lectured on logarithms we asked: “What’s Paul McCartney really like?”
We weren’t sure he’d bite, but he clapped his textbook shut, sipped his tea, ran through a scale, and started to sing a song we’d never heard from him before:
And I don’t know why
You want to try
It’s plain to see you’re on your own
Oh spare your heart
Everything put together
Sooner or later falls apart . . .
A moment of silence elapsed like he was letting the music fade out.
“Funny thing about the backslash and the ampersand,” he said, “they’re equally impermanent adhesives. Learn this early, boys and girls: two is always divisible by one.”
We parroted his words in our notebooks hopelessly, wondering: Will this show up on the unit test? What unit are we even in?
But somehow he’d already moved on to ways math can help you arrange more innovative harmonies. Soon, the blackboard was nearly more chalk than not. The lesson seemed to be: “Don’t always settle for the third.”
Don’t always settle for the third, got it, we thought, jotting it down under our /s and &s, not understanding what even constituted a third—or a first or a fifth—or what these abstract numbers would even look like in the halls after class or at home. Not understanding other, larger of his lessons, too, still content with our untested belief that our own after-school friendships, duos, partners, and pairings would—because they so far had—span endless summers, would remain, like pi, a constant, something we could commit to memory early and whose familiar rhythms we could always fall back on.
Then we noticed the wall clock. All we could think was, Hello, recess, my old friend . . .
We asked Mr. Garfunkel to sing us “The Sound of Silence.” We were saving “Scarborough Fair.” We knew he’d follow it with the story of how it was his duo—and not, despite their many other firsts, Lennon/McCartney—who introduced the Dorian Mode into pop music. We didn’t know what the Dorian Mode was and we didn’t care. All that mattered to us was that we keep the concert going right up until the bell that would reunite us with our full circle of friends, who were probably already outside waiting, wondering, if only a little, why us and not them.
Jeff Albers is from California and is currently a PhD student in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. His work has appeared in print and online at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, Neutrons Protons, and elsewhere. He tweets at @jeffralbers.