Heather Sammons, Director of Alumni Engagement interviewed Reed Fromer ’85, a man of many talents, but day in and day out he is a teacher and now author. Using his passion for music to drive his career, he has found many ways to use his voice to educate. And most recently he published his first book, Race Track: The Blind Spot of Privilege, a story that speaks to affirmative action and equity.
When you graduated from Marin Academy in 1985, what did you do next?
I was planning all along to devote my energy to music, but I felt like I needed the experience of being away at college. So I went to UC Santa Cruz for one year and then returned to Marin. I realized early on that I could balance college courses with musical work—so between College of Marin and Dominican, I got my BA in math over the next four years or so. Meanwhile, I was leading my own band, playing keys for a handful of other groups, backing a gospel choir in Hunters Point in SF, and getting some work scoring a few PBS documentaries and educational videos.
When did you decide teaching was something you wanted to do?
Well, I had always looked at it as a parallel option to music. I would have prioritized music instruction from the start, except that most college music programs are still entrenched in the classical genre, which was too tangential to my style to dive into it for four years. I looked at math as a subject that I knew well enough to convey to younger students. Things were going well enough in music, though, for me to delay the pursuit of my teaching credential for a number of years after getting my BA. I held a few math positions for brief stretches, but then had the good luck to secure the music positions at two Catholic schools, one in Novato and one in San Francisco. That’s been my day gig for 10 years now.
Over your years of teaching, what has been the most rewarding and what has been the most challenging, especially when the COVID-19 global pandemic hit, changing the teaching world?
The most rewarding has been the number of kids over the years who discovered a joy in music that they evidently didn’t exhibit prior to being in my classes. It’s always uplifting to hear parents reporting excitedly, “[Kid’s name] goes around the house SINGING now! And they’re songs that I actually KNOW!” A good number of my former students have gravitated toward music as their college major or career choice.
As I’m sure you can imagine, COVID forced a whole new reality on the field of music instruction. The difficulty with online music classes is that the time lapse in the audio makes it impossible to sing together; everyone’s hearing the instructor’s music feed with varied delays. So you have to mute everyone once the song starts, and just WATCH them singing along with you—and hope they’re getting it right! Over the past few weeks, we’ve finally been allowed to resume in-person singing—but only outside, in the schoolyard.
Every day you are making a huge impact on a child. Who or what inspired you to become a teacher and take on this role in life?
The prompt says it all—I knew if I could instill a little more confidence in children, a greater sense of their own efficacy, I’d be happy. I got some of that gratification during my stint as a math teacher, too—although I gather those schools were seeking someone a little more draconian in their classroom management approach. One 6th-grade girl in Vallejo told me, “You’re the first person who ever thought I could DO anything!” I still carry that with me.
You are a man of many talents—a teacher, a musician, a coach, and also an author. At what point in your life did you decide to become a writer and why?
The consistent threads in my upbringing were music, soccer, caring for children, and progressive politics. My grandfather, uncle, and cousin were all committed left activists, and I followed my uncle into the musical contingent of those movements from my early teen years, singing with makeshift assemblages at rallies, marches, and picket lines. So I was schooled in the basic tenets of human rights, anti-war, and labor activism from an early age—and I found that I had some skill in framing arguments in an accessible way.
In my early 20s, the Marin IJ and the SF Examiner (still a viable daily at the time) ran some op-ed pieces I had written on affirmative action, which sort of became my focal issue. It sunk in at a certain point that when I heard the various arguments people put forth against affirmative action, I was never at a loss for a refutation. So I started pondering the idea of putting my own arguments into a book. But I realized that a nonfiction treatise—“Why We Still Need Affirmative Action,” or something like that—could be hampered in its credibility by my lack of academic credentials in the subject area. I could anticipate the reaction: “Why should we care what THIS guy has to say?” So about seven years ago, I switched gears, culled out the best symbolic parallel I had devised, and spun it into a parabolic novel instead.
You recently took your teaching to a new level and published Race Track: The Blind Spot of Privilege. A book that uses an engaging parable within a sports arena to examine the dynamics of institutional racism and the logical and moral basis of affirmative action. What led you to writing this book, and what is the biggest message you would like people to take away from it?
I built the narrative around an easy-to-grasp equivalent of affirmative action: The staggered starting positions in certain running events. We’ve all seen races on an oval track where the farther out your lane is, the farther ahead you start—which is, of course, the mechanism that offsets the varied lengths of the lanes when they round a curve. It’s a perfect illustration of how, when you have an imbalance built into the structure of a competitive setting, you need a countermeasure to adjust for that disparity. That’s precisely what affirmative action is—and it’s dismaying to me that so many folks seem incapable of grasping such a basic concept.
So in the book, I tweak things just a bit to create a parallel to America’s track record on race issues: I envision an athletic universe in which, somehow, it never OCCURRED to us to stagger the starting positions. So in the story, whenever a track meet takes place, the runs in the 200-500 meter range feature runners starting and ending on shared lines. Of course, the runners on the inner lanes always win, right? But nobody’s NOTICED that it traces to a systemic inequity; they simply assume that the outcomes reflect the speed and talent of the runners themselves. The hero of the novel is a high school athlete who recognizes that something doesn’t add up, deduces the problem and comes up with a remedy for it (staggered starting positions, as we know them), and then faces the backlash from traditionalists, who simplistically accuse him of “asking for a head start so he can win.”
My hope is that the book can open some eyes to just how easy it is for so many people to make their peace with an inequity— no matter how glaring—as long as THEY aren’t the ones getting the short end of the stick. When people read the book and think, “Oh, c’mon—nobody could ever miss something THAT obvious!”, I want it to sink in for them that that’s exactly what our nation HAS done in regard to our treatment of blacks and other minorities. We’ve either tried to pretend the inequity never existed, or argued that ACCOUNTING for it in any systemic manner is just too much of a hassle.
What is next for you, especially once life gets a little bit back to normal?
Well, when school lets out, I’ll have more time than usual to stump for the book, because the San Francisco day camp where I taught music for 17 Summers is on hold at least until 2022. The “promotional gene” isn’t strong in our family—my father and I both have CDs out, and my mom has catalogues full of beautiful artwork, but we’ve never had the instinct to devise solid marketing plans to get them to a wider audience. I’m determined to change that with this book. Meanwhile, my son, a senior at San Rafael High and an aspiring filmmaker, is planning on shooting an actual movie from a self-penned screenplay this Summer, so I’ll be offering him whatever support I can (including composing the score). It’s looking optimistic for schools to be back in action with minimal restrictions in the fall, so I’m looking forward to actually being able to hear my classes singing again!
Thank you, Reed, for sharing your journey with us! We wish you all the best, especially with your new book, and getting back to normalcy within the classroom and on the music scene.
What are you up to? If you’re a MA alum and would like to be interviewed, please reach out to Heather Sammons, Director of Alumni Engagement, at firstname.lastname@example.org.