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When a student bounded into Eric Axelson’s classroom begging for an autograph last month, the AP English teacher suspected a trick. “I thought he was trying to get a signature to get out of something,” he says. When five more showed up and said the same thing, he knew something was up. As it turns out, one of his fellow English teachers had decided to have some fun with Axelson’s rock-star past.
From 1993 to 2003, Axelson, 36, played bass in the Dismemberment Plan, a D.C.-based punk band that released four albums, won raves from critics, and toured with Pearl Jam. He now spends his nights playing in the quartet Statehood, whose first album, Lies and Rhetoric, comes out Nov. 19. (See One Track Mind, page 57.)
But from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every weekday, the musician morphs into Mr. Axelson, a mild-mannered English teacher who quizzes his juniors on The Crucible at Columbia Heights’ Bell Multicultural High School. This is Axelson’s second year at Bell, and sometimes he’s still surprised that he wound up there.
The Dismemberment Plan broke up in 2003. “The band kind of ran its course,” he says. “The writing got a lot harder. We realized not everybody was into what we were doing.” After a summer-long farewell tour, he formed the band Maritime with the Promise Ring’s Dan Didier and Davey von Bohlen. By 2005, he had left Maritime to get away from touring and was juggling two part-time jobs, teaching music, and tutoring ESL, when he read an article in the Washington Post about D.C. Teaching Fellows, a program that helps aspiring educators transition into teaching jobs in the D.C. Public Schools.
Axelson wanted to apply but didn’t think he’d make it. “My college grades weren’t that good,” he says. He decided to go for it anyway, and the program accepted him. “I had a lot of life experience,” he says. “Luckily, they agreed.” By that summer, Axelson was taking education classes
and assistant-teaching summer school at Dunbar High School. Because he had gotten his bachelor’s degree in English, Bell hired him as an AP English teacher. By fall, he was testing teenagers on the themes of William Shakespeare’s Othello.
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The first year was a rude awakening. “It owned you. I had no free time,” he says. He’d wake up thinking about the kids and spend all day with them before heading to American University for education classes. (Teaching Fellows partner with area universities and participants enroll in teacher-certification programs while they teach.) He’d even sneak in some lesson planning during breaks at band practice.
Axelson remembers a particularly hectic rehearsal period when drummer (and fellow Dismemberment Plan alum) Joe Easley was still in graduate school studying aeronautics. “Joe was working on designing a commercial airplane, and I’d be writing grammar lessons,” he says. Sometimes, he’d have to cancel practice altogether because his workload was too heavy, but his bandmates understood. After all, he isn’t the only one with a demanding day job. “Our guitarist [Leigh Thompson] is a lawyer, and he got sent to London last year for a month,” he says. Plus, he always carved out at least a little time for the band. “It was just a catharsis to leave school and play music with your friends,” he says.
Axelson’s students know all about his musical past and passions. At the beginning of school, he wrote them a letter describing himself. “I was sidetracked by music,” he wrote. “The band that I formed in college was slowly making a name for itself, and this blossomed into a 10-year music career as a bass player and tour manager.” After his kids read the letter, they asked him a few questions. “I described the music as punk and they’d say, ‘Well, you don’t look like a punk.’” Then they asked him if he was rich. He told them the truth. “We never made much money. We made enough to pay our bills and live in our group houses. We were big enough to be known but not big enough to be rich,” he says.
Melvin Moore, 19, enjoyed having Mr. Axelson for AP English last year. He particularly liked his teacher’s presentation of The Crucible, which he called “captivating.” He also likes his music. Moore downloaded Dismemberment Plan’s song “13th and Euclid” for his cell phone’s ring tone and takes guitar classes with Axelson after school. “I think he plays well,” Moore says.
He isn’t sure whether Axelson qualifies as a rock star, though.
“It all depends on people’s definition of rock star,” he says. “To me, Mr. Axelson is a rock star.…If you’re famous enough to get on MTV.com, it’s good enough.”
Axelson bonds with other students over music as well. One of them even keeps his guitar in Axelson’s classroom and stops by to talk about acts like Catharsis and Job for a Cowboy, metal bands that aren’t very popular at Bell. “It’s got to be hard for a kid to be into that in a school where most of the kids listen to reggaeton and go-go,” he says.
But most of his students are pretty indifferent to Axelson’s past. “When you’re in high school, you can’t fathom your teachers having a life outside of giving you tests and grading your papers,” Axelson says. “They can’t imagine you dating or having problems in your life, let alone playing shows at nightclubs in D.C. or New York. It doesn’t compute.”
And in the end, it doesn’t matter. “I’m not really there to tell them about my rock years. I’m there to teach English,” he says. “You still gotta teach.”
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