BROOKLYN, New York — What does Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig have in common with Sting and Gene Simmons? It’s definitely not a shared sense of style. But like Sting and Simmons, the cardigan-and-Top-Sider-sporting 23-year-old spent a year as the antithesis of the flashy, rule-breaking rock star: a teacher.
Before belting out tunes like “Oxford Comma” and “A Punk” in front of sold-out crowds and landing on the cover of Spin — along with bassist Chris Baio, keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij and drummer Chris Tomson — Koenig was juggling band practice and performances with a day job as an eighth-grade teacher at Junior High School 258 in Brooklyn, New York.
“It was a pretty hectic lifestyle,” Koenig said. “I mean, [being a full-time musician] is a hectic lifestyle too, but to teach all day, then go record or try to, you know, play a show, and then wake up and go to work again was pretty difficult.”
Koenig’s students didn’t make life any easier for the recent Columbia University grad, who landed the job in the rough school through Teach for America. Upon first glance at Koenig’s boat shoes, members of his English class knew their new teacher would be the butt of jokes and the victim of pranks, recalls Koenig’s former student, 15-year-old Quraan Jones.
“We would call him Peter Pan, Spider-Man, Ashton Kutcher, every name in the book,” Jones laughed. The students were surprised that the man standing before them not only ditched the quintessential teacher wardrobe, but also looked young enough to be in a class with them.
“I couldn’t believe he was my teacher, because it looked like he just got out of high school,” said Isaiah White, 15, another former student.
Despite the students’ countless attempts to push Koenig’s buttons, Jones says that for the most part, he was a “laid-back” teacher who formed bonds with students and managed to win the class over by the end of the year. He even shared some well-guarded secrets with a chosen few.
“Towards the end of the year, I would stay after class with him, and we spoke and he told me, ‘Oh, I’m like 23. Don’t tell anybody!’ ” said Jones.
Along with concealing his age, Koenig also tried his best to prevent the class from finding out that he was a member of a band that was already beginning to generate buzz online.
“I guess there were a few times where I had to bring a guitar to school, so even just the fact that I played guitar impressed some of the kids,” Koenig said. “And then from there, I guess, you know with Googling and stuff, some of the kids found [the band's MySpace page].”
But Jones doesn’t remember the class’ reaction to Koenig’s guitar-strumming in quite the same way.
“He would bring [his guitar] from time to time and practice in class, and then we would be like, ‘You’re wack!’ and then play jokes on him,” Jones recalled.
During one of their hangout sessions after school, Koenig finally came clean to Jones about his rock-and-roll dreams.
The few students who knew about Koenig’s other life couldn’t picture him anywhere else but in a classroom and doubted that the same teacher they played tricks on would ever find fame.
“When I first saw him on MTV, I was really shocked and surprised,” said White. “I couldn’t believe it was him.”
But maybe all of the paper-ball fights, gum on his chair and objects thrown at his hair prepared Koenig for equally unforgiving rock-club audiences. Eventually, Koenig’s students also became his fans, posting comments of support and encouragement on the band’s MySpace page. Thanks to a special invite by their onetime teacher, Jones and White even attended a Vampire Weekend concert.
“One day, he called me and told me, ‘Oh, I’m going to have a show. Come here,’ ” Jones said. “So when I came, I listened to his music, and I thought it was good.”
In the fall of 2007, a deal with XL Records cut short Koenig’s teaching career. But despite the fact that Vampire Weekend were a featured artist on MTV, made the Billboard top 20 and appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” Koenig’s students refuse to see their former teacher as Ezra, the rock star.
“I still see him as the same Mr. Koenig,” Jones said. “I still have that thing in my mind that this is the same man we threw paper at, wrote on his shirt and put gum on his chair.”