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Well, I’m obviously not talking about a song here, but rather, about a high-school play that no-one not connected to the San Diego area Mt. Carmel High School during the 1980s has any reason to know about. (Nor am I talking about the musical that features hard rock songs.)

I’ll say more about the amazing achievement that Rock of Ages really was, though it is destined to remain one of the thousands of unsung achievements that have unfolded on high school and college stages across America, each remaining largely unknown to those who didn’t witness them.  First, I want to talk about its author, my 9th grade English teacher and debate coach Robert Pacilio, the adult who was perhaps the most formative influence upon me outside of my parents and perhaps a couple Sunday school teachers. Recently, thanks to my Rock Songbook, Facebook, and by the initiative of my wife, I got back in touch with Mr. Pacilio, and it has been an occasion to look back with gratitude upon his teaching.

What do I remember about Mr. Pacilio’s class? Well, it was hard , with continual grading of genuinely challenging assignments, and the curriculum was divided, as I recall, between old-time diagram-the-sentences grammar, an in-class debate tournament, the novel To Kill A Mockingbird , and poetry analysis, introduced through—you guessed it— rock song analysis!  I don’t even remember the poems we studied, but I do remember careful line-by-line analyses of Dylan’s “A-Hard-Rain’s-A-Gonna-Fall,” the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Dangling Conversation,” and Bob McClean’s “American Pie.” But those rock songs were the dessert, really . . . the first impression one had of Mr. Pacilio’s class was one of toughness, of needing to work hard. He called you by your last name (a practice I use to this day), he had a way of instilling fear into kids who would goof-off and cause distractions in other classes (a practice I was very much unable to duplicate during my one-year stint as an 8th-grade English teacher), and you had to run the gauntlet of sentence-diagramming grammar, which advanced to a pretty complex level, before the more “cool-teacher” aspects of Mr. Pacilio were unveiled—and even then, the tests on those rock songs were no joke!

The debate tournament segment of the class was probably the one that formed me most—it caused me to join Pacilio’s debate team for a couple years, and it was the first, and probably last, time that I and my peers were treated to full-throated political discourse in the public school classroom. Gun control, abortion, affirmative action, should Nixon have been impeached, should national guard officers have been punished for the Kent State massacre of 1970, it was all right there. Pacilio leaned liberal, and making me research things like Kent State did have something to do with my becoming fascinated with 1960s radicalism during my high-school years, but he was scrupulously fair and like the great debate coach he was, typically made us aware of the best arguments either side had. I remember going home and thinking hard about, mainly on the basis of his “sample” arguments designed to show us how a debate was conducted, whether one could really be for abortion in the way the feminists said you must be.

So all in all, Pacilio showed me what the life of passionate thinking was. Formal arguments, controversial moral-choice politics, and the music of the age all figured prominently within it.

But Rock of Ages! Oh man . . . Officially, it was a musical play designed to raise money for the debate team, I guess to pay for our top teams to go to state tournaments and such, which they often did, Pacilio having honed the team into one of the very best in California. Pacilio was interested in Reader’s Theatre techniques, and had staged such plays before, using mainly speech and debate team kids. But unofficially, it was sort of What Does It (“It” being Rock) All Mean piece of original theatre. The script, written by Pacilio, sort of along Reader’s Theatre lines, basically features a very Pacilio-like character humorously musing with various friends about what rock and roll was, what it meant to folks at the time, going back in time to interview Elvis and such, with each little bit of dialogue being a set up for the LIVE BAND to bang out a minute or two of a rock song, usually with a full complement of choreographed dancers. Kind of an “American Pie” made into play, and updated to take in New Wave, circa 1982.
I mean this was impossibly cool—there was a student teacher or two, guys just out of college, (one them belonged to a Nuclear Freeze organization, which impressed me mightily) which somehow Pacilio knew could play, and together with a couple of Mt. Carmel students they formed a regular working rock band for the purposes of the production—they played “That’ll Be the Day,” “Satisfaction,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Born to Run,” “God Save the Queen,” some Elvis Costello song, and ten or so others, all with garage-band authenticity. The show Rocked! And it sold out Mt. Carmel’s huge theatre almost every night, by my recollection. It was a high school and community Event.

I manned the spotlight, big job, yeah, but this was a seriously complex production—the dancers and dance teacher, the band, the players, the script, the lights, the sound, all had to be coordinated. It was light-hearted, funny (Pacilio had little vignettes such as the Beatles joshing around, dialogue with a zany New Wave Girl, etc.), celebratory, but again, it was thinking about the connections of music and politics, music and sociology, in an audience-friendly way. We were all so proud to be part of that. No-one at our school could deny that we debate/theatre/dance kids were involved with something pretty damn Cool. And, some of us, such as that puny lil’ guy behind the spotlight, started on the path of thinking ourselves about what the story of our time’s music really meant.

Perhaps I’ll say more on democratic greatness achieved by this little show, and particularly what it reveals about the unique social institution that the American public High School is, later on. For now, I just want to thank Robert Pacilio for everything. He was a truly great teacher.  And for those going into the secondary teaching, or who’d just like to get a sense of how American teenagers really are when asked about serious things, I’m sure the book he wrote based upon his years of teaching, Meetings at the Metaphor Café, is very much worth reading.

So thanks so much Mr. Pacilio, and if you want to waste a little time with a conservative eggheadyish writer you have some degree of responsibility for, I think you’d enjoy my Songbook posts on Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, U2’s “New Year’s Day,” and David Bowie’s “9-11” album.  Just go to the Search First Things box and enter in “Rock Songbook.”


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