Feminist Rock Musician Reunites With The LAUSD Teacher Who Changed Her Life

We reunited Hamilton High AP English teacher Barry Smolin with one of his former students, writer and musician Solvej Schou. (Carla Javier/KPCC)

THIS STORY IS PART OF AN ONGOING SERIES WHERE WE REUNITE ARTISTS WITH THEIR MEMORABLE TEACHERS. NOMINATE YOUR TEACHER!


The way Solvej Schou remembers it, Mr. Smolin's classroom at Hamilton High School was unlike any other.

For one thing, there were rock and roll posters on the ceiling. Another: her teacher would stand on tables — and then jump off of them. And even though it was technically an AP English class, it didn't feel like one. He filtered his lessons through music, particularly rock and roll. That resonated with her — she was starting to play sets and record songs

Schou graduated from LAUSD's Hamilton High in 1996. She went on to attend Barnard College. (Courtesy of Solvej Schou)

It was 1995 — her senior year of high school. She remembers Los Angeles felt like a cauldron — still bubbling from the Rodney King beating and uprising that followed, and the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

She, too, was going through a lot: grieving her mother's death, dealing with unrequited crushes, feeling like a misfit.

"Inside myself, I was a churning well of emotion," she explained. "I think school for me was an escape."

Mr. Smolin's classroom felt safe. There, he introduced her to Patti Smith's music and advised her senior project — influences she says informed her writing and music after her graduation in 1996.

Schou heard our story about animator and illustrator Sanjay Patel and his high school art teacher Julie Tabler, so she reached out to tell us about the influence Mr. Smolin — who she still can't call by his first name, Barry, even 20 years later — had on her.

"My mom died of breast cancer when I was nine, but the loss didn't fully hit me emotionally or inform my writing and music (which I did since childhood) until years later, when I was a teenager in HS," Schou wrote. "He helped me explore my grief deeply through songwriting, poetry and short stories — to channel trauma and pain into cathartic art — and not be afraid."

As part of our ongoing series reuniting artists with their memorable teachers, we invited Schou and Smolin to the KPCC/LAist studios together earlier this month. Here is a bit of what they said to each other. Or you can listen to it — and some of Schou's music — on here.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

ON ADVISING SCHOU'S SENIOR PROJECT, A BOOK OF POETRY TITLED "LABOR PAINS"

Barry Smolin: I remember you coming to me with your idea for your senior project, and you informed me that you were going to write a book of poetry. And, you know, there's the part of me always that kind of rolls my eyes when students say they're going to write a book of poetry, not because of a lack of talent, but because of a lack of follow through...

You wrote this massive tome. This out of control, roller coaster, runaway freight train of a poetry book.

Solvej Schou: It's 110 pages ... This one is called "Motherless Child" and I wrote it in December of 1995.

I can't remember her voice

The way that she walks, the particular shade of her hair

Those are a child's memories, smiling within photographs

Shiny, but curling at the corners

Old.

I, almost grown, thick with her blood and the bones that she carried

No glimpse to catch

No tears to touch

Motherless.

ON PATTI SMITH'S MUSIC

Smolin: I understood right away that Patti Smith's work would be of particular importance to you. One, for the emboldened passion that she brings to her music. But also, the poetic nuances. Patti Smith — beyond being a songwriter — is a great poet, and I saw that in you as well. Especially when I saw you the early work that you did on your senior project. So, I knew I had to bring you the album "Horses."

Schou: I think when we came back to work on the book, I was trying to take some of her wisdom as a songwriter into the poetry that I was doing.

ON SCHOU'S NEW ALBUM, "QUIET FOR TOO LONG"

Smolin: It was so thrilling for me to get your new album. You know, I've heard your music before. I've seen you play live. But to have this, really the first fully produced album that you've made, really rocks. And I was blown away, not just by how good the playing is and everything musically, but the structure of the songs, the profound nature of the lyrics. You're not really singing syrupy love songs on this album. You were being true to the title.

Solvej Schou released her album, "Quiet For Too Long," in June. (Photo by Alex Godinez)

ON HOW SMOLIN CHANGED SCHOU'S LIFE

Schou: So Mr. Smolin, you really impacted me as both a musician as a writer, because of your intelligence, your uniqueness, your ability to kind of explode boundaries, both with teaching and with writing and music. And all of that that I got from you in 12th grade allowed me to be the person I am today, and to have much more confidence than I did in high school.

But high school and that year — that senior year, and this senior project — was a starting point of being in my eyes, a real writer, and also a musician able to take my words and and import them into my songs.

Smolin: It's beautiful to me to see someone who had all of these hopes and dreams and talents in high school and continued to utilize them and explore her creativity, her writing, her music, well into adulthood.

Hamilton High AP English Teacher Barry Smolin wrote a touching, personal note in Solvej Schou's 12th grade yearbook. (Courtesy of Solvej Schou)

This story also aired on KPCC's The Frame.

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This activity is supported in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency. Learn more at www.arts.ca.gov.