Columns

Teaching Resistance

Martin Sorrondeguy is a queer, Latinx punk. He sings for bands you may have heard of like LIMP WRIST and LOS CRUDOS, he runs the record label Lengua Armada, is a longtime shitworker for MRR, directed the 1999 punk classic film Beyond the Screams: A U.S. Latino Hardcore Punk Documentary, and is a top-notch photographer who has authored several books full of amazing photos he shot of bands from all over the world. Martin also happens to be a dedicated teacher who has been involved in radical education for decades, and puts as much passion into his classroom work as he is known for in punk. 

This month’s column features a short excerpt from an extended, wide-ranging interview with Martin that will be published in full in the upcoming book Teaching Resistance: Radicals, Revolutionaries, and Cultural Subversives in the Classroom (PM Press, available in Fall of 2019). Martin was one of the original inspirations for this column, and I am very grateful that he was willing to share part of his story as a teacher, a radical, and a punk, in all of its complicated, intersectional, interwoven, and inspirational glory. 

Martin: Before I went back to SF State [for a full public school teaching credential], and when I was working at Maximum, I worked at an alternative high school in the East Bay. That was a teaching job where I was doing really cool stuff, and a lot of my students were punks and rockers and weirdo kids, you know, freaks and awesome kids that I loved, and that’s where I had a lot of liberty. I actually did a history class and it was the history of subcultures in the United States from the 1930s forward. It started out with the Zoot suits, like the Pachuco Movement out of LA coming out of the jazz scene, and went into Beatniks and all this stuff, all the way to punk and hip-hop, and so on and so forth. I loved that job, and then I did my teaching credential, and there was a period I was going to walk away from education but I kept getting sucked into it somehow. 

MRR: Wow. So you did kind of have a dream curriculum, where you were able to structure things, almost to tie them to the other side of your life that maybe you weren’t so frank about in the classroom. Martin: In terms of my “alternative life,” they knew everything about me. I ended up one day with one of my bosses saying, “Martin, can you go to the computer lab and change the screensavers?” because the students had put all the Limp Wrist lyrics for “Fags Hate God” on all the screen savers! I was like “Oh my god, I’m so sorry!” And I just told the kids, “You guys, don’t do that!” [laughter]. But it was a really amazing place to be, it was wild. 

MRR: It’s fascinating that you were able to share with those particular students your “other life.”
Martin: I had kids who were in my class with Limp Wrist shirts on, so they knew who I was. I mean, two of the students, these two young girls, these punk girls, they jumped on a greyhound all the way to Austin, Texas to see Limp Wrist. I just remember their parents called me, “Martin, can you…” and I was like “I will fly there, and as soon as I’m there I will find them, and they will stay with me. Where I will basically take care of them, wherever I stay they stay.” 

MRR: Field trip! Just give me a permission slip and we’ll get all this stuff organized. No problem.
Martin: [laughter] …So let me just move forward into going into a more state run school… 

MRR: …the school in Oakland. What was the difference in terms of how you were able to interact at that school with the people in charge of the school, the administration, the parents, the student population, and how did you reconcile those relationships with your own personal identities within punk, activism, and queer culture? 

Martin: It really did not work. Let me rephrase that—it would not have worked so what I actually did was go to the courts and legally change my name. It was to protect myself and to protect the job I was going to do, because I know I’m a good teacher. And I knew I could really bring something to the classroom, into these kids’ lives, that has nothing to do with my music, with what I do, with my art—nothing. I can teach these kids skills, and I can teach them a lot of stuff about just life, and in order to protect that there was no way I could walk into a classroom as “Martin Sorrondeguy” successfully without it blowing up in my face. It came really close on numerous occasions to blowing up in my face…My students would be like, “We googled you, we didn’t find anything on you.” And I’m like, “It’s because I’m a really boring person. I don’t do anything, I just work and go home.” 

That was the sort of identity I had at the school. A lot of the students, they didn’t know. Only one teacher once said, “Hey, Mr. Rock Star!” and I’m like, “What?” She was a teacher across the hall from me. It was at lunchtime and all these kids were in the hall and they all look at me and I go, “What do you mean?” And she’s like, “Hey Mr. Rock Star, I heard you’re in like a rock’n’roll band.” I just looked at her and I go “I’m not in a rock’n’roll band.” I felt bad. I denied it, and she felt really dumb and all the kids laughed at her. But later I pulled her aside and I told her, “Hey, you know what? I’m sorry I did that to you. Yes, I’m in a band but I don’t want the kids to know about that. That’s a part of my life that I don’t like sharing and making public.” 

She was really apologetic, and said “I’m so sorry.” I said, “No, no, it’s fine.” She asked why it would be an issue, and I knew she was an openly lesbian teacher, and I said, “Look, I’m super openly queer. It’s not for kids.” Then she’s like, “I’m sorry, I get it.” Asked how she found out, and she said that someone down at a district meeting—who had huge plugs and was like a punker—told her “you have a famous punk rocker working at your school.” They actually revealed it, they disclosed that. And I was just like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe this person did that!” I mean, what happened to “What we do is secret,” right? Jesus! 

MRR: Right. You really would have to maintain a double life.
Martin: I think that’s where my story gets really unique. In order to do what I wanted to do and to be effective, I felt that I needed to go and legally change my name…I think things have changed so much in terms of private versus public and who we are. In the past there were old punk teachers who were punks way back in the early ’80s and nobody would ever figure it out, or if they had some weird punk name, but I was always Martin Sorrondeguy, Martin of Los Crudos, Martin from Limp Wrist, Martin from whatever, and to try to kind of cover that up was really difficult. The only way that I could see it happening successfully was by doing what I did. 

I’m glad I did it, because within days kids [in your class] are googling you. They want to find out who you are. They want details, you know? I’m glad I did what I did, and I think it was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. I was able to do the four years that I put into that school in in the best possible way. And that was awesome. 

MRR: Did it end up okay? Was there anything in the end that you’d feel comfortable talking about?
Martin: You know what? Everything ended up fine. I think there was something in me that felt like there needed to be a change, and it really was because I was focusing on my photography again. I was kind of unhappy with the school in general…you have to understand, the school I worked in, in the four years I was there there were five principals. 

It was really rough, when I spoke to other teachers and their experiences I was jealous, like “what the fuck am I doing?” Where am I, you know? What am I dealing with? It was really unfortunate because I got along, I kid you not, with I’d say 98% of my students. Even kids who I thought hated me and hated my classes. One boy came in a year after he had been gone and he said to me, “I really miss your class, because this was my favorite class.” That shocked me because the kid did zero in my class, and I think it was the way I ran the class. The kids enjoyed being there. I had kids in my class for who every other fucking teacher they had was down their fucking necks constantly, and giving them shit and trying to get them expelled, trying to get them fucking kicked out, like everything, you know? Trying to expel these kids from a school or get them suspended. 

I went to this meeting with this young African-American girl, she didn’t even live in a straight up home. She lived in a group home. Every teacher was there, and I just remember all of them going around and saying all this really negative shit about her, and I was like 

“I have no problems with her in my class. She comes in tardy but that’s the bulk of it, I have not had issues with her my classes.” She leaned over and told her guardian “This is the teacher I like” [laughter]. It was because I created an environment in my class that kids legitimately felt that they could be in and not get fucked with. 

MRR: So tell me how you did that, tell me some techniques.
Martin: It was a struggle at first, it wasn’t something I went into it and was like “Oh I got this down.” It wasn’t like that. It took time and it took a lot of figuring out, but I just was very stern, I wasn’t this loose teacher. I mean, I don’t think I cracked a fucking smile till Christmas time. There was something about that structure that a lot of the kids like, but the thing is I knew my shit, you know what I mean? There would be some clown that would do something really weird on the computer and would think that I wouldn’t know how to fix it, and I would hit a couple keys and get out of that mess so they realized “This guy really knows what he’s doing.” There’s something to be said about when you really know your stuff, and you’re killing that subject, there’s a level of respect that comes with that. But then I was also very attentive to the students. I remember I had a lot of inner city Oakland kids. I remember one girl coming in one morning just crying, she came in late, and I had one of those electric kettles in my class. I would have water going and I remember just making her tea and just setting it right in front of her. You know, just keeping going with my lesson, and you could just see on her face like, “Oh my god.” They sense when you care about them. I think there’s a thing that some teachers, maybe they don’t care enough, or maybe they do and don’t know how to care. Or they don’t know how to go, “Oh my god, there’s something really weird happening with the student right now, what can I do to let them know that I notice and that I do care about them?” I’m really like, “Oh my god, something’s wrong here and what can I do to make them feel a little more at ease?” 

So stuff like that, I have bottles of water… it’s just really basic stuff, but the way I put their artwork up on the on the walls, just displaying their work, making them realize that what they had to say or create has value, that was huge for them. I mean, they would walk into the classroom and run up to the walls like little kids, just so proud of seeing their piece on the wall. I also did projects where there was relevancy, as I did to help this poster project where they had to research a health issue that was going on in their community. 

They had to do legitimate research, and what we created using photography and Photoshop was a health poster, an awareness poster. So whether it was “I think smoking is terrible, it causes cancer” or whatever it was, every student would address a health issue in their poster. And the last year that I was there, a few of the student posters got picked up [by the city] and were running on buses around town, which is really awesome. 

The other thing, though, is that I’m not going to paint a cute picture of [the school] because there were situations that were really messed up, and not good, and not cool, and not positive. The really difficult situations every teacher has. That’s teaching. You’re dealing with adolescents, well, I was at least, and that comes with a lot of baggage. There’s a lot to think about and unpack when you’re dealing with adolescents. 

MRR: Absolutely. To a certain extent so much of the punk ideology and approach is not letting go of certain aspects of adolescence in some ways, right? You don’t forget what it was like to be a teenager. You don’t forget, and I think that is one of the things that actually makes punks such good teachers a lot of the time. 

Martin: I think so. There were definitely situations, and depending on who it was and what students…There were a little gang of lesbian girls in my one of my third period classes, and they were obsessed with me. They were always fishing and fishing and trying to find out if I was gay. I would say “Oh, I’m going out of town.” And they would ask a question like “Oh, who are you going out of town with?” “A friend.” “Uh huh. What kind of friend?” “A friend”. Trying to get it out of me, you know? I remember finally, like, towards the end of the year, I told them. “Uhh, since you’re fishing, it’s my boyfriend.” And the look on their faces, they were just glowing. They realized “Oh my god!” 

MRR: Oh, you made their year! 

Martin: Oh, and then they were like, “Can you be our chaperone at Pride?” “Hell no!” It was funny. [laughter] 

The Teaching Resistance column is designed to provide a platform for radical, subversive teachers/educators to share their ideas and draw attention to important issues around education; particularly compulsory- and community-based education. If you are a teacher (anywhere in the world) for students of primary or secondary school ages (K–12), community colleges, or alternative learning arrangements such as collectivist free schools, and you want to submit an idea for a column, please write an email to teachingresistance@ gmail.com. The column will continue in a new form after the print version of MRR ceases production, so keep those submissions coming! 

Also, as mentioned before keep an eye out for the Teaching Resistance book, coming in Fall 2019 on PM Press, including an unabridged version of the interview this issue. It’s been a nice journey, print mag; gonna miss you but looking forward to what the future brings for MRR –John No, Teaching Resistance editor