When I’ve attended concerts in the past — all artists decidedly from a previous generation — I’ve carried motifs as well as melodies back into my life. With Billy Joel, storytelling laced with a tinge of regret; with the Indigo Girls, social change and righteous indignation; with Bruce Springsteen, evocative yearning for just about everything. Yet until recently, I’ve never viewed a concert as a classroom — not until I saw the “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour with my 14-year-old son.

Sharing an Unordinary Night

Noah and I have been to musicals, symphonies, and plays, but this was the first rock concert we’d seen together. And I was so glad, because it turned out that the night was anything but ordinary. Elton was offering up not simply the torso-shaking rhythms of “Crocodile Rock,” but also a not-so-hidden curriculum of equality, love, and seeing people for who they really are.

To my right, deep in the nosebleed seats at the Los Angeles Forum, where Elton had played 25 times in twice as many years, my son was tapping his foot and nodding his head, unselfconscious and in awe. To my left, a woman and her partner held hands, dancing, filled with too much joy to sit down for too long.

The notes lifted higher and higher. People held their breath while Elton held their hearts.

Glimpsing Emotional Honesty

When I wasn’t tearing up or asking myself, “When are you gonna come down? When are you going to land?”, I marveled: How did this guy wearing a rose-patterned smoking jacket make it cool to be vulnerable? Beyond the wonder of his rich voice and his peripatetic keyboard, how has he pulled us in?

The answer that came back again and again was honesty. For Elton John, there was no other option. He could be only himself, flawed and flamboyant. In narrating his particular pain — getting sober in 1990, as he mentioned, and then establishing his AIDS Foundation to make up for guilt and lost time — he touched on a universal need for acceptance and expiation.

For us as educators, our primary job may not always seem like creating a space in which everyone feels accepted for who they are. Sometimes on busy days, we can feel more accountable for covering content, placating parents, and setting up students for the next level.

Even when we know backward and forward about the importance of social-emotional learning — even when we’re steeped in research that says the heart precedes the mind — some days feel too rushed to ask about last weekend’s speech and debate tournament. Or to wonder whether a pack of ninth-graders are nervous about the winter formal. Or to check in about our juniors’ anxiety levels this week compared to last Friday.

With colleagues, too, even when we want to connect, sometimes we limit ourselves to the passing spaces between classes, to the “How-are-you-Fine” interchanges, to the “I can’t believe how crazy it is” litany that can feel connective in the moment but sit like junk food in the stomach. 

We live in a profession of people, and yet, even in independent schools, the people at times can get short shrift.

Giving His All and Encouraging Moments of Gratitude

What impressed me most about the concert, in nearly three hours of constant performance, was that Elton did not give short shrift to anything. Many songs played in front of intricate videos that told stories of closure: scattering ashes on a beach with “Tiny Dancer,” following a young man around the world in “Daniel.” In the middle of the concert, the band jammed as if it was still 1978, all electric guitar and drums.

And Elton performed with absolute gratitude. He named a Los Angeles Times critic, Robert Hilburn, who launched his career in 1970 with a golden review at the Troubadour in Santa Monica. Elton appreciated his band members with a lengthy introduction of each one, asking the audience to raise the rooftops with applause. And he effusively thanked the 17,000 people in the stands, insisting that no one could ask for better audiences over a lifetime.

What would it take for us as teachers to share, more often, a few notes of appreciation, or to spend another minute checking in with our students or colleagues? How can we create an atmosphere, as Elton did, in which everyone walks out wanting to be a better person? How can we “live for each second without hesitation,” as he urges in “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”?

As Noah and I walked out of the Forum into a rainy L.A. night, these questions and more hung in my mind, and I wanted Elton’s classroom to expand to the entire world.