WEST SPRINGFIELD – Movie tropes reserve middle school music classes to the clarinet kids and the future garage bands.
But don’t tell that to the teachers at West Springfield and Kiley middle schools.
West Springfield Middle School teachers Chuck Dufault, Dave O’Connell Bryan Ouimet and Chris Taft, along with Jeff Hamilton, a teacher at Kiley Middle School in Springfield, are using their free time for more than correcting homework. The teachers make up Chalk Dust, a band that covers everything from Trace Adkins to the Stone Temple Pilots.
“We’re all over the place,” Dufault said.
Though Chalk Dust’s set list may jump around from place to place, it all began in one spot: the staff lounge.
West Springfield Middle School is divided into teams of four teachers. Dufault, O’Connell and Taft all share a team, so they spend much of their day together.
“We have lunch together, and we were just talking and when you get to know people all of a sudden you learn that somebody plays guitar,” Dufault said.
Dufault and Ouimet had already been playing together, and then when O’Connell bumped into Hamilton, his former co-worker at Kiley, at a restaurant, everything fell into place.
The band started practicing seriously in the spring of 2014, still managing to find their kicks along the way.
For the few weeks of practices, the band did not have a PA system, so Ouimet sang into a used stereo system that O’Connell had from the 80s. The sound quality suffered, but the band loved it nonetheless.
“When we got the PA, I was like, ‘Oh, wow. Bryan can actually sing,’” Hamilton said laughing. “I had been playing with him for a month and I didn’t actually know he could sing well.”
“We had just as much fun singing through that stereo,” Ouimet said.
With five men who have families and full-time jobs, practice time can be hard to come by, but they said that it somehow always comes together. A large part of that is the support they have from their families, friends and colleagues.
Though at first, they said, their friends were skeptical about the Chalk Dust project.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think they knew what to think. But then I think we played out in public and some teachers came to that just out of good faith and support and then realized that we actually didn’t suck,” O’Connell said. “I don’t think any of us are contemplating a career change at this point, but there was a little bit of a conversation after the first time we played in public with some of the other teachers coming up to us and saying, ‘You know, you guys actually sounded good.’”
Things have since changed.
“I think our families are pretty supportive about it. At first my wife thought it was a big joke, quite frankly, and then she heard us,” Dufault said.
“And now she’s our biggest fan,” Hamilton said.
Chalk Dust covers a wide range when it comes down to set lists. It is all about flexibility and taking all of the members’ song choices into account. This accommodation extends to their fans, as well.
With no CDs, no EPs and only a handful of shows, Chalk Dust has decided, as a group, what course they want this venture to run.
“We always have this idea that we wanted to play on our terms. We didn’t want to solicit the bar scene and be at a club until 2 a.m.,” O’Connell said. “Obviously, we’re going to play for our friends and our colleagues and we’re not going to go on at 9:30 p.m. to play for our friends and colleagues. It’s not fair to them and it would be more of a burden.”
Instead of late-night shows at the mercy of open slots in local clubs, Chalk Dust set up a benefit at the Dante Club in West Springfield to raise money for the Cancer House of Hope in November 2014. The band sold over 300 tickets for the event.
“That’s just through the schools. We’re not promoting. We’re not getting mentioned,” Hamilton said. “We’re not putting flyers anywhere other than the staff lounges at our schools.”
It only took those flyers and mentions in faculty meetings for people to jump on board. West Springfield Middle School principal Thomas McNulty helped the band book the venue and made sure the word spread around the school, and it spread through Kiley Middle School, as well.
Teachers from both schools helped decorate, set up and prepare food, simple acts of support that the band appreciated.
“It became a community event. It sounds cliché until you become a part of it,” Dufault said.
While the room was filled with members of the education community, friends and family, a handful of students were also in attendance with their parents. Though the band is comprised of teachers, striking the balance between the two lives is something of a focus.
“We’re trying to make sure that there’s the line between the fact that we’re teachers and the fact that we’re adults that like to have fun, so we’re trying to manage that balance,” O’Connell said.
“The point is for us to cut loose, so there’s not a Facebook page of us acting goofy because that’s not the image we want to project,” Hamilton said.
The rest of the band echoed this, saying that the music is an outlet for them at the end of hard days, while at the same time maintaining a sense of professionalism.
“That’s the story at this table, that we’re all teachers and we teach a challenging age. We need something. Everybody’s got something and this is what we have,” O’Connell said.
Despite their day jobs, the point of Chalk Dust is for the sake of fun. O’Connell said that is what makes this band so special; everyone genuinely gets along and enjoys each other’s company.
This is what will ultimately keep them together for years to come, but it is also what connects them as teachers.
“If you’re a teacher, you have to have a little bit of kid in you yourself otherwise you’re not very good. We’re able to be kids a little bit,” O’Connell said.
Being able to act like children helps in both playing fields, but Ouimet said that is not the only similarity between standing in front of a class and in front of a crowd.
“I guess the link between both is that we like to spend a lot of time in front of people that ignore us. Whether you’re speaking or singing, nobody listens to you,” Ouimet said.
The rest of the group burst into laughter.
This ability to be silly in and out of school, Taft said, helped build a relationship with colleagues he may not have known as well otherwise, making the day more enjoyable.
“We’re in the same building, but we’re in a pod set up so it’s really self-contained,” Taft said. “I knew Bryan, but I didn’t really know him but now I can walk by his door while he’s teaching and make a face at his him. It’s just lighthearted fun.”
“And that helps a lot,” Ouimet said.
When it comes down to it, Chalk Dust has been an avenue for a group of teachers to unwind, share a common passion and transform work relationships into personal ones.
“I ended up making four friends that were just colleagues before. It’s really cool,” O’Connell said.