Monday, October 3, 2011

Pearl Jam's Buffalonian Lesson Plan

I have a guest post for you today by Russ Colchamiro, author of Finders Keepers.  He is sharing a lesson he learned while teaching and using Pearl Jam as a prop.  A nice lesson in interpretation.  Please warmly welcome Russ back to the blog...

My story begins on a rainy day in Buffalo, NY, February 1994, when I was a student teacher at Lafayette High School — 11th grade English.

Pearl Jam had already broken through with the Seattle grunge scene, and though I didn't know it then, in a very real way — just seconds before I opened my mouth and said something incredibly stupid — that enduring rock band wound up playing a significant role in the way I talk about my new novel, Finders Keepers.

For the uninitiated, Finders Keepers is a character-driven buddy story — a backpacking comedy — with a little light fantasy mixed in. It's loosely based on a series of trips I took through Europe and New Zealand, set against a quest for a jar that contains the Universe's DNA. Reviewers tend to describe Finders Keepers as a travel book meets Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

Given the nature of Finders Keepers' narrative, I am often asked how much of the novel is based on my actual experiences in Europe and New Zealand, and how much is purely fictional. I often say that the backpacking sequences are made up, and all the galactic mayhem is real. Ha-ha.

But let's return to Buffalo, to that classroom. To Pearl Jam.
At the time, I was giving a lesson in which my students and I listened to — and then analyzed the lyrics for — Pearl Jam's "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town."

In my fourth period class, one of my students, whose name I've since forgotten, was very excited to explain what the lyrics meant. He was a big Pearl Jam fan and was, in his words, "stoked" to talk about the song. He shared his theories and insights, and seemed rather proud of them.

I was only 23 then, just a few years removed from high school myself and only six or seven years older than my students.

And yet in that moment, showing my students just how smart I thought I was — and that I was the more insightful Pearl Jam fan; I mean, please, come on, now — I corrected my student. Serving my own ego, I noted that I had read an article in a music magazine in which Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder discussed what the song really meant to him ... thus contradicting my student.

Man, I was so good. I was the man. A teacher with wisdom, with insight. A guy who knew his material. Knew the lingo.

I was ... a bonehead.

The look on my student's face, on all their faces, told me instantly that I should have kept my mouth shut. Did it really matter if my student was accurate or not? Did I really need to correct him? Song lyrics are their own form of poetry, of creativity. As the listener, the reader, we get to personalize their meaning. It's special. It's one of the true joys we have, to experience art in our own unique way.

And I took that away from him. As my student's teacher, I failed him. As a person, too.

Fast forward to today. Any time I'm asked about the basis of Finders Keepers, I smile. I may confirm or correct a detail or two, but mostly I just let the readers decide for themselves which parts of the novel were based in fact, which were pure fiction, and what it all means.

Maybe their interpretations are what I intended, perhaps not. And sometimes they bring to my attention ideas I hadn't even considered before, but were in the narrative all along.

Doesn't matter. I want each reader to have their own, unique experience. I did the writing. That's mine. I get to keep that. But the reading? That belongs to you. How you personalize the narrative is yours and yours alone.

I am extremely grateful to anyone who takes the time to read my novel. No one owes it to me to do so. And if they can walk away from Finders Keepers taking a character, an event ... even just a turn of phrase ... that stays with them, then all the better.

What does Finders Keepers mean? What's the subtext? I know what I meant to write, and hopefully I did that well. What you take away from the experience? That's yours.

Almost two decades ago, during a rainy day in Buffalo, I was supposed to be the teacher of young minds. And yet it was my students — whether they realized it or not — who wound up schooling me.

Russ Colchamiro is the author of the critically acclaimed sci-fi backpacking comedy Finders Keepers (published 3 Finger Prints; ISBN 9780979480140). To read reviews and Q&As about the novel, or order a signed copy, visit

You can follow Russ on Facebook, GoodReads and Twitter @FindKeepNovel. He is now completing his second novel, the Flash Gordon/Firefly-style space adventure Crossline, and is set to begin the next installment in his Finders Keepers adventure.

To watch Russ’ video interview at the NY Comic-Con, visit:

And to view Finders Keepers character illustrations, visit:

Thank you Russ! 
I have read and reviewed Finders Keepers here on the blog if you would like to read the review.

Now, since Russ mentioned this great band and awesome song I think we need to hear it. :)  Hope you enjoy!


Candace said...

This is a great post! I love that about music, and books (and why I prefer them to movies) that you can take what you want, what you will, from the story. And make it fit YOU.

Melissa (Books and Things) said...

Finders is on my tbr!! Can't wait to get to it!

Teachers did that to me. I didn't have the life experience for lyrics I analyzed but thought the exercise was to bring to the song what it COULD mean to you. The question certainly made it sound that way. Oops, guess I was wrong when the teach corrected me in a smug way. All I can say is that you rocked because you realized what you did. The teach I knew didn't and didn't care. So, be proud! You had to rock as a teacher. You learned!! :D

Blodeuedd said...

Awwww music and books, two of the things I love the most :D

Melissa (My words and pages) said...

Candace - Hi! :) Thank you for stopping by. :) I think part of the fun of reading and music is just that, taking the view of your own. :) So true!

Melissa (Books&Things) - Sorry to hear you had a butt of a teacher there. Hope you enjoy Finders when you get to it. :)

Blodeuedd - he he. I know what a combo right!?! :)

Anonymous said...

The important thing is you learned from that experience; there's hope for you yet!

A real butt-head wouldn't have recognized his mistake.

Missie, The Unread Reader said...

Ah yes. Don't be too hard on yourself. This situation is so familiar in how regularly it occurs.

The good thing is the lesson you learned from the experience.

Thanks for sharing.

Melissa (My words and pages) said...

StephanieD - So true! That is it, he learned from it and grew from the experience. :) That made him a cooler teacher in the end.

Missie - I agree, so many teachers think they know it all because they are the teacher. But there is a thing of interpretation and I think in certain classes that really makes the topic go even better. And gets the brain flowing. :) Thank you for stopping by!