Jimmy Buffett in the English Classroom

By Todd Carstenn

“Honey, I have some sad news,” my wife said. It was a Saturday morning and I had just walked into the family room with my coffee. “Jimmy Buffett passed away. I knew something was wrong when I heard your phone blowing up with messages. I knew it had to be your students.”

Those two things, my favorite musician of all time passing away, and my students messaging me en masse, at the surface seems incongruous. Not to me, though, not after having made Buffett’s music the soundtrack of my 37-year teaching career. The connection was simple: my kids were messaging me because they wanted to see if I was OK.

You see, I had decided when I first became a teacher that I was going to be the same guy inside the classroom as outside. That included the music I listened to. Of course, it would be the music THEY listened to as well … and ended up loving it. Along the way, on our collective journey, they too became Parrot Heads. That’s why they were messaging me. 

Early on, when I realized that my students loved Buffett’s music, the idea of making the concept of the Parrot Head a tangible part of my classroom vibe took shape. I wanted somehow to include my students in the unofficial Parrot Head fan club. So, I came up with the Carstenn Parrot Head Award, a single piece of typing paper with those words written on top and a different Jimmy Buffett song lyric on each one. Show improvement on an essay, get a Parrot Head. Have a great game the night before, get a Parrot Head. Wear an awesome tie-dye shirt, get a Parrot Head. Be a top five scorer on our famous Categories trivia game … you get the idea. 

I had seniors for most of my career. You know the species of the senior in high school: cool, mature, top of the mountain, so ready to move on to what’s next. But on the days when a Parrot Head was at stake, they lost some of that cool. They were actually excitable and semi-nerdy. But why? It wasn’t for a grade. It wouldn’t appear on a transcript or a resume. It was because a Parrot Head got them into a very elite (we thought we were elite!) group. We all became members of a cabal, like-minded fans of a guy who was born in Mississippi and happened to sing about the fictional island of Margaritaville. So many of his lyrics that ended up on those Parrot Heads just hit the right note (pun intended). For example, a quote like “Fast enough to get there, slow enough to see.” I had a front row seat observing my kids living on fast forward for most of their final year of high school, and I immediately saw the link between this song and their lives.  But they got it, too, this quote and so many others, and they saw that connection – to each other and to him. My students might forget the novels they read in my class, but they remember how many Parrot Heads they won!

Having seniors was a blessing most of the time. But all senior teachers know that some of our kids are full of hidden tension and even fear because they see the approaching end of their childhood. College. The RIGHT college! Work. Leaving home. Leaving friends. There were days when I’d walk into class and knew immediately I needed to tread lightly. You know the old saying: “there’s an app for that.” Well, there was a perfect Jimmy Buffett song that was made for those angsty times. It’s called “Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On.” He wrote it after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. There’s a line in the song that says, “If a hurricane doesn’t leave you dead, it will make you strong. Don’t try to explain it, just nod your head … breathe in, breathe out, move on.” 

My students and I listened to that song often. They knew the words. We used it as kind of a mantra when things got a bit heavy. It was a metaphorical pressing of our collective pause button. Kids need this. Heck, we all do. I was lucky enough to have an incredible artist in my class who painted a picture of a beautiful red and blue parrot with the title of our song written on it. That artwork was a daily calming reminder that life would be OK. Jimmy Buffett helped us get through some harder-than-normal senior days. 

I wrote a book in 1995 that was about teaching in the English classroom. Alas, it went unpublished, but it has still served a great purpose over the ensuing years. It has essentially provided me with a clear view of who and what I was at age 40, a 13-year teaching veteran. One of the chapters in my book is called “Jimmy Buffett in the English Classroom.” So, when I decided to give this article a try, I went to my book and reread that chapter. I guess I was looking for how the younger me explained why Jimmy Buffett had become such a big deal in my class, for me and my students. In one of Buffett’s songs he says “so I’m just gonna steal from myself.” Fittingly, I did the exact same thing to explain how his music made so much sense, to the younger me as well as the older one. This is what I wrote all those years ago in that unpublished book: “His songs have a story-telling feel. I want my kids to know that my classroom will be a haven for tale-telling, for creativity, for ideas, and for the music of both the written and the spoken word.” Man, I like the way that younger me thinks, and I’m glad he stayed in the classroom all those years. 

“Honey, I have some sad news.” Those words were the beginning of a hard day for Parrot Heads around the world. But as the days have gone by, like I said, I have heard from so many of my former students who just felt the need to check back in. I think they hurt a bit too, as if they had lost some of what had made their senior year meaningful. But also in a way, this moment has put us all together again, like a bit of a time travel illusion. It did my heart good. 

There’s one more thing, on a more personal note that I want to add. A few years back I was fortunate enough to be named our county’s teacher of the year. A friend of mine wrote to Jimmy to let him know that I was a big fan. A week later there was a box of signed stuff on my front porch. Included in it was a book which he had signed and had written this: “Todd, we need more great teachers like you.” Simple, but meaningful, at least to me. That is the guy who was a part of our classroom on a daily basis. 

I want to end this on a high note, with a smile, if you will. “Wrinkles only go where the smiles have been.” Indeed. This is one of my all-time favorite lines. Jimmy Buffett helped to provide smiles that lasted literally decades in a small classroom in Marion County, Florida. He brought true joy to so many people. And I am deeply grateful that 37 years worth of students and I were able to be a part of his journey, just like he was a part of ours.  

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