In the fall of 2001 I asked my ninth grade students to do a class presentation. Some students embrace the opportunity to get up in font of the class and showcase their findings. Their presentations come complete with graphs, charts, and technological...
In the fall of 2001 I asked my ninth grade students to do a class presentation. Some students embrace the opportunity to get up in font of the class and showcase their findings. Their presentations come complete with graphs, charts, and technological visual aids that make the class collectively say, “cool”. Some students, mainly the drama and speech students look at the opportunity as an audition for their big break. They secretly hope that I will be videotaping the presentation so that I can send it off to talent scouts. Other students look as if they have been handed a death sentence by a vindictive judge whose one mission in life was to bring misery to today’s youth. Finally, there are students that are quiet and even-tempered but very talented if even that talent is unnoticed. Daniel Williams was an example of that type of student.
Dan was quite obviously, to me, one of the brightest students in the class. I sat the students alphabetically so Dan, with the last name Williams, sat all the way in the back and never really said much. Dan quietly went about his obligations and it seemed he could take or leave a presentation. I did not know much about Dan personally but I did enjoy reading his papers, which were very well written. When he gave his presentation to the class there was nothing very flashy about him. He actually was very monotone and very relaxed but definitely did not have a stage presence, or so I thought. It was not until a couple of weeks later that I would learn that there was another side to Dan.
Everyday we cover current events in my class. Needless to say the fall of 2001 was a very interesting and sad time to be covering what was happening in the world. 9/11 and its aftermath really was changing the way we saw the world. One day a female student in front of the class, really quite randomly, suggested that Dan come in and play his guitar for the class. In retrospect, it was probably a way for her to escape from the disturbing events of the world. Dan did not respond to this request. Of course the rest of the students began to jump on board. Any chance for them to get me off task was a victory point for them. I volleyed back with a NO. Three things played into my decision. First, Dan did not seem interested in doing it. Second, I was a young teacher and I was nervous about what the principal would think. Finally, I had seen many “student musicians” and was never overwhelmed by their talents. The students, however, persisted in trying to convince me he could play. I finally relented and agreed to a fifteen-minute session. I asked Dan if wanted to play and his response was, “Sure”. His session was scheduled for Friday. At that time I was the head football coach and we had a game that night. His fifteen minutes would give me a chance to make some preparations for the game while the students were entranced by the “power” of his guitar. I was soon to learn differently and I believe his “fifteen minutes” were maybe the most important “fifteen minute” of my life.
On Friday, Dan came to class with his guitar and amp. The students filed into class and I was preparing my current events (something about Afghanistan and a potential War in Iraq). The bell rang and I depressed my students with news of orange alerts and canceled flights. How were people going to travel at Christmas and will the economy be in shambles before the holidays? Rumors swirled about Osama bin Laden living in America and don’t open your mail without return addresses because it may contain anthrax. “Any questions or comments?” I asked. “Can Dan play his guitar now?” One student asked. “Sure.” I replied. I then asked Dan how long he has been playing. At that time he was fifteen and had been playing under a year. I was now nervous because he was not going to have fifteen minutes of material and I wanted to get my starting line-ups called into the local radio station. Then Dan plugged in his amp and hooked up his guitar. He quietly looked at the class and said, “What do you want to hear?” This caught my attention. I was thinking I would get a sloppy rendition of Smoke on the Water, More Than A Feeling, Stairway to Heaven, and Wish You Were Here. After ninety minutes of Dan playing to a class that I had never before seen so attentive I learned Dan was not average nor was he above average. Dan was special. I have been around musicians my whole life and had never witnessed one like Dan. For ninety minutes he took requests. Many were songs he had never heard before. If a student had the CD, he/she would put it in the player and he would be playing it within minutes. Word spread about his abilities and it was not long before he was asked to fill in at a band concert to accompany the choir in their rendition of Dust in the Wind. He did this without too much practice at all. After class, the class in which I never called the radio station with my line-ups (I was too busy requesting songs), I spoke with Dan. I asked him how he got so good so fast. He explained that his older brother was learning to play guitar and wanted to start a band. He asked Dan to learn the drums so Dan started drumming. One day Dan picked up the guitar and, as the story goes, he was playing better than his brother before long and looking to write some of his own music. I asked Dan to explain that and his reply was that it just felt as if he had played before. I was amazed at his talent and his stage presence. The Dan that played guitar that day was not the Dan that presented to the class a few weeks earlier. He was confident and strong and the students respected him. I admired his ability but my respect for him would come through a relationship that has lasted through today.
A couple of weeks later Dan brought me a CD in which he had written, “Daniel 15”. I listened to the ten or so tracks and learned that Dan had composed each song by playing every instrument himself and produced it in his bedroom in Breezy Point, Minnesota. That room would affectionately be dubbed “Upper Room Studios” by his friend and soon to be drummer, Ben Plattes. After listening to the songs, which had no lyrics, I became interested in writing some lyrics for Dan. Dan has now written over one hundred songs and has collaborated with me for about seventy of them. The songs are in the rock genre and are focused on bring a positive message to those that are listening. Dan’s focus has been to bring his values to his music. He wants people to walk away from listening to one of his songs and feel that there is hope. The songs he has written and that we have written together bring hope to many people that have had the opportunity to listen. Dan and I wrote a song tiled “When You’re Gone” for a friend of mine whose wife died of cancer. That friend wrote a letter to Dan and I stating that the song made a lasting impression on he and his family and that it was the greatest gift they could have received at the time. That is the positive impact Dan wants for his audience. Dan has the ability to capture the emotions of both his and my lyrics. He truly brings the lyrics to life and all of his local fans love that about his music. We have found that Dan has fans varying in age from thirteen to sixty five years of age. The music is that diverse and that meaningful.
In 2002, Dan and I formed a band, Waiting Room Reunion. We thought the name of the band, like the music, could have different meanings to different people. It is fun to ask people what they think of when they hear the name. Each person will have a different yet sometimes similar vision in his or her mind. Anyway, I was of the impression that I could be the lead man of this band. I did not realize that a thirty three-year-old social studies teacher is more of a freak show performer than a talented artist. After a couple of local gigs, Dan and I decided he should try to pursue music without my involvement but I would be willing to continue to write if he wanted me to do so. Dan has maintained the band name and has had some success with band members that have come and gone. Dan has played for two fundraisers that have brought in over $10,000 to send to the Darfur Region of the Sudan and an event that raised over $15,000 for cancer. A good portion of that money was raised due to attendance to see Dan perform. This past winter Dan performed at Club 3 Degrees in Minneapolis and received a great response and requests to play on the more popular nights but his transient band members have had other obligations which has been an ongoing challenge for Dan. I saw Dan’s performance at Club 3 Degrees and his stage presence was spectacular. He looked like a man among boys though he would never say that.
As a teacher I feel I am supposed to teach my students. Dan has changed my thinking about that as I have learned so much from his fortitude and patience. His all accepting view toward people and the world is contagious and it has changed my life forever. In the time that he was inadvertently teaching me how to be a better man I have watched Dan grow from a somewhat tentative but focused student into a man that displays confidence, maturity and integrity in all that he does. Dan is now a loving husband to his wife, Kelsey and is a man committed to his family and friends. Dan is currently a personal trainer in Minneapolis but knows that his place is on the stage. I look forward to the day when I can watch my friend do what he does best.