Flipside to our brilliant career

25th August 2006 at 01:00
* New York, halfway between Times Square and Central Park, there is an office block at 1619 Broadway. Other than the street-level music store and the ornate copper engraving of the nameplate over the entrance, there is little to attract the attention. However, in the nameplate lies the clue to the place's significance: this is the Brill Building.

Here, in the early 1960s, were written the vast majority of top 10 hits. If you are over 50 and have boxes of 45rpm singles mouldering in your attic, then, without a doubt, the songwriters' names on the labels will have passed through this building: Goffin King, BacharachDavid, Mann Weil, BarryGreenwich, Leiber Stoller, Sedaka, - the list is imposing and their combined musical legacy awesome.

I can never pass the entrance without pausing to wonder at how the soundtrack of our emotionally charged early adolescence could have been forged in the 9am-5pm office-bound existence of this building.

This summer, I found myself slack-jawed on the pavement again as we passed by on our way back from Alan Bennett's The History Boys. This smash hit centres on a class of Yorkshire grammar school boys in the 1980s as they are prepared to take their Oxbridge entrance exams. Being Bennett, it is fuelled by wit and wisdom and features a headteacher made educationally myopic by the glory of Oxbridge successes, an old stager who can't bring himself to accept the overriding importance of teaching to exams, and a whiz-kid brought in to stiffen his resolve (who, we learn, will become a government adviser in the 21st century, and who has no qualms about what needs to be done).

From the conflict comes the reflection, and the older teacher's conviction, that what teaching is really about is "passing it on".

So pop music and educational philosophy were whirling round in my head as the family pulled me away to save further embarrassment. As I took my last lingering look, I remembered the reality behind the myth. This block certainly housed all the most important music publishers of the time, but many of its more famous writers escaped from the hothouse atmosphere and actually wrote their hits in an even more nondescript building across the road at 1650 Broadway.

I thought of the belief that those who work in our current educational buildings are busy delivering the curriculum to ensure exam success - and I realised, happily, that, in fact, we are doing so much more than that easy description would imply.

Pass it on!

Sean McPartlin is depute head at St Margaret's Academy in Livingston.

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