Photograph by Rob Grimm of RGG Photography
A 1980s style hip-hop DJ, a Nepalese Sherpa, and a one-star general walk into a high school. That could be the beginning of a thousand jokes, and Edward Scott Ibur crams more than a few of them into his debut novel, Teacher of the Year. Given the choice between losing his life-long career as a middle school teacher or accepting the classroom aid of these three unusual outsiders, narrator Scott Eisenberg learns that musical cues, patience, and discipline can resuscitate his job skills.
Ibur, 47, has been teaching middle school in Webster Groves for 20 years, and he founded and teaches with, along with his sister, the Gifted Writers Project for Middle & High School Students. The seeds of the novel were sown in 2005, when Ibur served on the Webster Groves Communication Arts Committee and was charged with finding ways to deal with the new requirements of No Child Left Behind. “I had this idea one day about what would happen if a sub-group of students failed the Missouri Assessment test,” Ibur explains. “What would happen if that one teacher was responsible for bringing the whole school down?”
The idea quickly grew from an imaginary short story to a large outline inside of three weeks. “I didn’t want to write a novel, but I had this outline,” Ibur says. “I wanted to come up with what would be the most absurd, humiliating possibility of what would happen if you were responsible for screwing your school.”
After a few false starts, Ibur fell into the regimen of waking up at 4:30 a.m. every morning, writing until 6 a.m., then teaching all day and writing again whenever he had some free time. “When I finished the first draft, it was 154,000 words, or nearly 600 pages in a book,” says Ibur. “Then, when I researched publishing, I was really disheartened by constant advice that first-time novelists should really keep it to under 80,000 words. So I cut a lot.”
Inspired by a love of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, Ibur created paradigmatic characters and put them in situations where the preposterous seemed inevitable. Eisenberg, the teacher, is an ordinary guy dealing with insane demands all around him, but Ibur was careful to make him somewhat at fault, too. “One of the things I wanted to do,” Ibur explains, “was to parallel two stories which are so strong in our culture, The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life. The Wizard of Oz has characters who are archetypes, who represent very specific things, and I wanted my characters to represent the clichés of what we think of them to be. Eisenberg is meant to be kind of an everyman, like George Bailey, but kind of an asshole, who you don’t know if you’re rooting for or not.”
Long before Ibur ever dreamed of writing a novel, he was a drummer who played most notably in popular St. Louis bands Five of These and Bella Wolf back in the 1990s. His background in music brought a most unusual touch to Teacher of the Year, as each chapter is subtitled with the name of a specific recording, which is meant to evoke a connection to the story. “I wanted to have that mood in the head of the reader,” says Ibur, “and I figured there would be enough people who would get it.” In addition, the character of 2-Turns, who dresses like he stepped off the stage with LL Cool J in 1985, but who has the entire history of recorded music at his fingertips, is constantly undercutting events in the novel with music cues.
“As e-books became more successful, I began to think it would be really cool if you could click on a hyperlink and it would just play the music,” says Ibur. “I quickly learned that I couldn’t use the music, because it would cost a fortune.” Instead, the e-book will have a link to a playlist from a legitimate music service which will feature many of the songs.
Ibur will be celebrating the release of the book, published June 15 by Third Degree Press on Kindle, iPad, and Nook, and in paperback on June 23, with a concert by many of his former bandmates and friends. The performance, with appearances by the Sparrows, Robynn Ragland, Salt of the Earth, Erin Bode, Bella & Lily, Joe Steinman, Letter to Memphis, God Dads, Rabbi James Stone Goodman, Ellen the Felon, Three Fried Men, Out on a Limb, and Kevin Bilchik, will be Saturday, June 23 at the Duck Room in Blueberry Hill, 6504 Delmar. In addition, William Roth, who is recording the audio book edition to come out this fall, will be reading selections from the novel.