Darryl Adams is the retired superintendent of the Coachella Valley Unified School District. Before taking part in a Zócalo/Arizona State University panel titled “Can Digital Learning Dismantle the American Class System?” at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles, he spoke in the green room about double basses, bully pulpits, and learning to sink or swim (literally).
Did you have any nicknames as a kid?
Oh, I’m not even going to go there!
C’mon, just one?
Well, I had different nicknames. You know, sometimes nicknames are not well-received, or earned. But the one I would say I was most happy about was when they called me “Big D.” That was cool. Plus, I played baseball and football and was pretty buff back in those days, so “Big D” was my favorite nickname. Some of the others, no!
Do you have a favorite author?
I would say Charles Dickens. Books like A Tale of Two Cities really kind of opened up my eyes to the world. Coming from Memphis, Tennessee, you just saw that, and you thought that was it. But when you start reading, you could escape that, and you could go into those places and those times.
Was there a teacher or professor who really changed your life?
My band director, Nelson Jackson. Music has always been my passion, and being from a poor community in Memphis, access wasn’t available. By the time you got to middle school, you’d get a chance to play an instrument. For me it wasn’t easy, but my music teacher said, “Keep trying, you can do this.” And that’s when I learned to be confident in my will to succeed and accomplish. I played trumpet, then I sort of migrated to guitar and piano, which I love. I learned to play upright double bass in college and got my degree in music education, and majored in double bass. For me, the spiritual connection between body, mind, and soul comes through my music.
Where and when did you learn to swim?
I didn’t learn how to swim until I went to college, in Memphis. And I just sort of put it upon myself. Because I tried earlier, but back in the day the older kids would just throw you into the deep end of the pool. If you didn’t swim you could almost drown. They’d save you, but there’s this thing in your mind, “Will I be able to swim? Or do I have this fear of water?” But once I got to college, I said, “Look, I’m going to learn to swim,” and took swimming classes.
What’s your biggest pet peeve?
Doubt. Whether self-doubt or someone else doubting you, it kind of annoys me that you’ve been given this great life and this opportunity—even though there may be some things stacked against you—but it’s all in how you look at it. And so I’ve always kind of fought against that, within myself and with others who I interact with. It always peeves me when people keep going down that road, but I always enjoy bringing them back.
What’s in your front garden?
My wife has so many flowers. She has a nursery—front, back, side, middle—and she loves her roses and succulents and the desert-scapes, the tulips, everything. It was kind of barren when we first got the house, but it’s really nice now when everything blooms.
What’s your profession in your next life?
I would probably be a preacher, a pastor, because I love to talk and bring people together and have an impact, make the world a better place. I want to be that person who’s always standing up and saying, “We can do this.” I want to be the person delivering the sermon that uplifts people.
Do you get to let your inner preacher out now?
Being a retired school superintendent, I have the background of being that change agent. You have to do a lot of talking and preaching, so to speak. I do a lot of speaking now, and I’ll combine it with music: I’ll write a song right before the gig, and I’ll have the audience sing along with me about this theme of self-reliance.