What Did You Learn in School Today?

This song, oddly enough, changed my life. It was not one of my favorite Tom Paxton compositions—I was a kid, so didn’t want to sing anything that seemed childish, and preferred “The Name of the Game is Stud” or his mournful song of life on the road, “I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound.” But, as I was thinking about which Paxton songs to do for this project, it occurred to me that this one got me both the first paying gig I ever played and, by a commodious vicus of recirculation, my introduction to Dave Van Ronk.

It happened like this: My parents had gotten to know jonathan kozolJonathan Kozol, who had written Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools. They were very impressed — to the point that my mother took some time from her scientific research to volunteer in Roxbury elementary schools for a couple of years– and he came over for dinner at least a couple of times, and during one visit I got bored with the grown-up conversation and went into an adjoining room, and started playing guitar and singing. (Was I showing off? Probably.)

One of the songs I sang was the Weavers version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and it caught Jonathan’s attention — he said he’d never heard it done with just a guitartom_pete — and he asked me if I knew any songs that would be appropriate for a fund-raising event he was doing for an alternative school program, and I sang “What Will You Learn in School,” and he said it was perfect and hired me to do a 15- or 20-minute set. He even paid me fifty dollars, which seemed like such a fortune that I virtuously donated half of it back.

Around the same time, Jonathan split up with his then girlfriend, Amy Cohen, who had also been at dinner that night, and we remained friends with her, and she came to visit us in Woods Hole that summer. She played guitar and sang — she was a regular performer at the Nameless Coffeehouse in Cambridge, where I made my coffeehouse debut a few years later — so we were talking about music, and I said I had just seen Dave Van Ronk and it was the most amazing concert I’d ever seen. And Amy said Dave was a dear, close friend and offered to take me to his next gig.

Van Ronk1So that’s what happened. The next time Dave played Passim Coffeehouse in Harvard Square, Amy took me to the show and afterwards we all went to Chinatown for a late dinner, and somehow Dave and I got to discussing African sculpture (which my father collected). . .

…and who knows where I’d be today or what I’d be doing if it hadn’t been for that string of coincidences.