Back to School Special: English & History with Tomas Lindberg of At the Gates

photo by Andy Hayball
photo by Andy Hayball

“I can’t wait to get back into the classroom and show those teachers what I can do!” said no child ever in this age of electronic gaming.  Like it or not, though, summer inevitably comes to an end (usually several weeks after the school year has kicked in) and all the heavy textbooks, 3D poster projects and logic-defying excuses are back in play.

Marginally lucky students get the easy teachers, the ones who confuse likeability with success, and these students have the opportunity to skate through another class without breaking too much of a sweat.  Luckier students end up with the driven-but-compassionate teachers, those who see the profession as a calling.  Such students will end up working harder than they’d like, but they’ll probably come out the other end with something to show for it.

But the luckiest students will start middle school with one of the most fascinating teachers (at least as far as this corner of the web is concerned):  Tomas Lindberg, vocalist of legendary death metal heroes At the Gates.  A while back, we had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Lindberg about his disparate occupations, and how he reconciles and lives fully in both parts of his professional life.

This interview took place in 2014, so references to “now” and “this year” actually mean two years ago.

What do you teach?

Right now I’m in the middle school, I’ve got my own class, [ages] 11 and 12, and they’re sixth grade, here in Sweden.  Normal school starts at [age] seven and goes up to ninth grade and then high school starts after that.  My diploma from university says I can teach from fourth grade to ninth grade in social studies.  I can teach geography, history, religion and society or politics between fourth and ninth grade.  Right now I have a class in middle school.

They’re changing the thing now a little bit here in Sweden where you need a diploma for every subject to be able to teach it, even in middle school.  But right now they’ve kind of divided the subjects between a few teachers in my school to try to reach that goal.  But it’s hard in middle school.  It’s easier in high school, where we have larger classes and more students.  I also teach English and I actually have an art class as well, for which I don’t have a diploma, but I try!  The curriculum in middle school is not very hard for art class or English class.  It’s pretty basic stuff.

I teach in the more underprivileged suburbs in Gothenburg.  I’ve got about 90% immigrants in my class, so it’s pretty interesting, especially the ones who are new to Sweden, like they’re from Somalia, for example, and have been here less than a year, to teach them how the Swedish system works… We had elections this year for our government and it all becomes pretty real if you teach in these subjects when there’s actually an election going on.  A lot of them come from pretty undemocratic countries, and it’s pretty satisfying to talk about this and try to explain the whole idea about the democratic system – what separates left wing from right wing and stuff like that.  I know they’re young kids, and sometimes I push them a little bit too hard, but what’s fulfilling is talking about the real society in the real world and try to put it in a context that they understand and can relate to.  I think all teachers want to open eyes a little bit for kids, and I think that’s the most rewarding thing.

How well do those kids accept what you’re teaching?  Do they stay interested or do you have disciplinary issues?

 It can be a pretty noisy classroom from time to time, and in middle school, we have to watch that kids don’t kill each other during breaks.  I’ve never really had a problem with students being rude to me.  I think if you respect someone, they respect you back.  If you can see that someone has problems related to their context, their whole socioeconomic background – are their parents alive or are they still in Iraq – you can always look back, and if you try to find that, you can always reach them.  So I don’t really have disciplinary issues that way, even if a teacher from a more privileged part of Gothenburg would probably step into my classroom and say, ‘Oh shit, what’s going on here?’  But I’m pretty mellow with that.

Of course, there are subjects that are more boring and others that are more fun.  Like English, for example.  Most kids like English here in Sweden because it’s a cool language to learn – it’s the language of computer games and stuff like that.  So that’s cool.  They want to talk a lot, they want to interact a lot, but when it comes to the grammar, that’s not so interesting for them.  So then you have to try to make it interesting and fool them a little bit.  Of course, if you show a film of the Viking age in Swedish history, they will love that, but they won’t like being taught grammar in English, but you have to try to make everything interesting.  I have some students who have some trouble reading, for example.  I have to figure out another way for them to get into the material.  The way of looking at things is it’s never really the students’ fault that they don’t learn so you have to twist yourself around.

How long have you been teaching?

I’ve been working in schools since 2004 or 2005, not actually teaching, being more like a help teacher, without the degree.  I think it must have been 2006 that I started a university teachers program, and that is four-and-a-half years.  I was in charge of social studies and English at a special education group in the real bad [part of] Gothenburg, and the principal at that school said, ‘You can take this job,’ because no one else really wanted that job.  It was like eight students, [age] 16 or so, that were actually too violent to be in a normal class.  They were never threatening to me, it was just between them.  To get me to take that job, she said, “When you get your degree,” which at that time was seven months away, “I’ll be able to hire you full time.”  Which is fairly hard to get one of those jobs.  In the city of Gothenburg, if you’ve got one, they can’t really fire you if you don’t totally fuck up.  So I actually signed up for the job the day after [I got] the degree, the university diploma, so that’s pretty good.  Since then it’s been four years.  I got my own class the year after that.

How big is your class now?

It’s twenty kids right now.  They come and go a little bit.  Sometimes they move back to another country or all of a sudden you get a new kid in class because in the suburbs people move a lot.

Is your job affected when you’re out playing with At the Gates?

It never really affected the quality of the work, I guess, but of course the level of stress goes up when you have two jobs.  That goes without saying, but here our terms are from late August to late June, so this year I went down to 60% instead of 100% to be able to cope with it, to be able to squeeze my other two 100% [jobs] in, basically.  It’s just [important] to have a dialog with your principal, with your boss, to let them know that you will be gone, and to have a good crew around you – other teachers that understand the situation.  Right now I’m working with another teacher.  Usually there’s only one main teacher per class, but we actually are two right now because [the other teacher] is working 70% right now, so we are two teachers in the class that have responsibility for the class.  So when I’m not there, she’s responsible, and the other way around, which works pretty well and we have a good dialog about it.  It takes some planning, of course. 

When you were hired, was the school aware of your musical life?

Yeah.  Of course, a lot of stuff happened since 2010 with At the Gates.  We’ve started working a lot more, so that has caused a little bit of stress but we had some sit-downs and I explained the situation.  I think the idea of me going down to 60% actually came from me, to be able to fulfill my job duties better, so I think that kind of helped with her agreeing to me staying on, you know? 

How aware are your students of your music?

They’re pretty aware of it, I mean, Sweden’s not a very big country, and for example, Close Up Magazine is in all the libraries.  There’s no secrets.  I try to be… not as boring as possible, but almost.  You know how students are with the “fun” teacher:  “He’s a cool dude, we can do whatever we want,” kind of thing.  Whenever they want to talk about the band or the music, it’s always like, “Yes, we’ll do that at lunch break if you want to,” and I really try to play the whole thing down a little bit.  And my question is always, ‘Did you hear it?  What did you think about it?’  They’re only interested in Facebook or YouTube likes.  That’s how they measure things nowadays.  They don’t really listen to that kind of music at all, so they think, ‘Oh yeah, you’re famous!’ but then I put up the English grammar book and then…

I rarely use music as a tool, but once we had a gender discussion.  My colleague asked me to take this discussion with them because she’d had some problems in that class – they were calling each other ‘gay’ or whatever – and I actually played the class some Arch Enemy videos to show them:  ‘You didn’t think a woman could do this, did you?’  They all come from this… not everybody, but they come from this controlled background where the woman doesn’t leave the kitchen, you know?  So it’s up to us to actually open the eyes.  It’s a bit dangerous, but you have to [have] the discussion.

When we go to the swimming class – because in Sweden you have to be able to swim in sixth grade to get your gymnastics grade – and these students don’t really know how to swim – Swedish kids usually swim throughout age 7 or 8, but the immigrants have never really learned to swim, because usually there’s nowhere to swim – and they’ve got to wear these head scarves and stuff while swimming, and sometimes they take it off, the head scarf and shit, and that leads to a big discussion with the parents, so you’ve got to be ready for that.  Even teaching religion, we went to the synagogue with a class, and that was an eye-opener for many.

So there’s a lot of stuff we try to do to open eyes.  To get your grade in religion, you’ve got to come with us to every religious house, so we went to the mosque, we went to the synagogue, the church, Buddhist temple, and they had to!  I was waving the curriculum around at the parents meeting.  And there was not a problem, but it was a discussion.  It was good.    

Do you see any connection between your attraction to heavy music and your choice to teach?

It’s hard to say, because sometimes it’s hard to balance.  I definitely try to be one person, all the time, so I wouldn’t have to be caught doing something that is not like me [laughs].  Everybody I know or work with should be able to see me in every different perspective and I should still be okay with that.  That’s something I’ve been working on a lot, to iron out who we really are a little bit.  I would say both jobs [are] about reaching people, meeting people in a way.  Of course, with metal music you reach people in one way, with a certain direct emotion, hopefully, with your music; in teaching, you’ve got to reach them more intellectually, and grab their attention.  I guess, in every teacher and/or singer there’s a little bit of some need to be seen always.  It’s something I’ve had to come to terms with because I don’t see myself as that kind of person really.  But my students say I talk a lot [laughs] and that I like my own voice a little bit.  I think it’s kind of like getting a point across, opening eyes, opening minds… It’s an important thing for me.  And being also a bit curious when meeting other people.  I mean, in music you meet people at a show, you meet other bands, you hang out at festivals.  It’s not the same at school, I guess, but it’s still an interaction between people.

We have a pretty good reputation with At the Gates being down-to-earth, normal, cool guys in the music scene, and that’s the same kind of people we try to be in our normal lives.  We’re just who we are, and that’s who I also try to be as a teacher.  I guess being a teacher is more like a call than anything else, like you just feel like this is right.  Sometimes you’re in doubt, you’re really frustrated and you have a lot of hard moments but it feels right to be a teacher.  And it feels right to be a death metal singer.  And I wouldn’t like one without the other, but I can’t see myself really doing other stuff or searching for something else.  These things just came to me, and it has been very natural ever since.

You know the feeling when you actually made a point, you made someone understand something – not just a grammatic rule or anything, but a deeper understanding of something – when you hear them say, ‘Oh, that’s how it works!’  That feeling, to me, is like when you get the crowd going for something special, it’s a special feeling for me.  Like, ‘Wow, shit, they got it!  They understand why this song is good.’  [Laughs]

Do you feel like teaching and singing are fulfilling in similar ways?

It probably goes for both of them, but as I’ve been teaching more, I feel like you never fully learn as a teacher, you always have to develop, and you always stumble upon new dilemmas that you have to solve.  Like, you have to reach that kid too.  I feel like that’s more developing, in a way, it’s more uncertain, whereas with the death metal thing, I’m pretty confident in what I do, even if I’m very humble to do it.  That’s more from the creative process, maybe, that is similar to the creative process of teaching, like when you actually create music as opposed to standing in front of the audience…  when you are really trying to piece together that song to make it really work, that’s like when you try to piece together a lesson when you notice that, well, I didn’t reach those two kids in the back, so how should I get them involved without boring the rest of the class.  That’s the creative process that’s very fulfilling as well.