I’ve been a school teacher for the past two decades, so my eyes open a little wider every time I drive past a schoolhouse that’s weathered on its face with the cracks and scrapes of history. There’s a storied fortress of this kind in just about every small town in America, long-forgotten in its excellence and its academic reach and often in its funding from the state. We pass by in idle recognition without ever formulating a true understanding of the events that occurred within such a building that shaped the lives of its students and, by extension, the community surrounding its hallowed ground.
One of these storied fortresses sits quietly on East Washington Street in my adopted hometown of High Point, North Carolina just a few miles from my doorstep. It was reopened and renamed the Penn Griffin School of the Arts in 2003, but spent much of its existence, from 1910 until its initial closure in 1968, as William Penn High School. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places the year I was born (1978), most likely because it was home to one of the greatest high school bands to ever march the streets of small town America.
What made this band so special? Well, in 1940 a pretty well-known jazz musician, then just a young boy of thirteen years old, headlined the set. That man was legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, and it was at William Penn High School where he first started to blow that legendary and iconic voice through the mouth of his sax.
I often take a quick ride to the heart of High Point and drive down East Washington Street just so I can pull up in the entrance of Penn Griffin right in front of the brick-faced auditorium, and I imagine a young Coltrane walking into school with his saxophone case under his arm. And I think about my own students. All of the fresh faces who’ve passed through my classroom in the past twenty years, and how important it was for me to listen to each and every one of their voices. To have sat back and really listened. And to have provided encouragement. And motivation. And sometimes, harsh criticism. But mostly just to have lent a willing and empathetic ear, because a voice like Coltrane’s was hiding behind most of those tear-stained eyes.
And, for that, I give thanks to Mr. John Coltrane. Because he can play one note on his sax and bring me right back to that parking lot in front of the Penn Griffin auditorium, and he can make me remember how talent–life-changing, inspirational talent–is all around us at all times. And sometimes we just need to open our ears and follow the sound.
Follow the sound, yes.
That’s probably the main reason John Coltrane plays such an inspirational role in the life of my protagonist, Cordell Wheaton, on the pages of my latest young adult novel, ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND. He’s just a boy following the sound, and it’s the sound of John Coltrane that eventually helps him find his way.
I hope you’ll pick up a copy of my latest novel, so you can see what I mean.