Personal Story

Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ Taught Me a Major Life Lesson 25+ Years Ago—Here’s Why It Stuck With Me

written by KATHY SISSON
tracy chapman fast car"
tracy chapman fast car
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

Sometimes memories reveal themselves out of the blue—like watching Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs’ surprise “Fast Car” duet at the Grammys. Tweets, threads, and social tribute posts poured in as people shared their own “Fast Car” moments from growing up, memories with their moms, and more. For me, “Fast Car” transported me back to my high school English class. First, let me say I was not one of the “cool” girls in high school. In the late 1990s, I attended an all-girls Catholic school in Buffalo, New York, in a beautiful building with a 100+ year history. An unknown number of nuns lived in the school, tucked away in a wing my classmates and I would walk past on our way up four flights of stairs to a cramped annex for English class. 

Our teacher, Mrs. S, had blonde highlighted hair with bangs—not quite a mullet, but a hairstyle that was quintessentially ‘90s. She’d come from New York City where she’d worked for MTV and had once even fended off a would-be mugger wielding a beer bottle. It was her first year teaching and she was most definitely the “cool” teacher. The classroom was also full of the “cool” girls. The ones who’d somehow missed the awkward stage I was firmly in. They had shiny hair, smiled without braces, and smoked cigarettes outside the school dances. On the other hand, one of my besties had to place her retainer in a napkin everyday before eating lunch and I don’t think anyone at our cafeteria table had kissed a boy. Our groups were worlds apart.

So when Mrs. S started her English lesson on poetry in that cramped fourth floor classroom full of cool girls, I didn’t expect what happened next. 

Finding Common Ground

She handed out a sheet of paper with song lyrics printed in that old purple-ish Xeroxed ink. Then, she plopped a black boombox on her desk and pressed play. Guitar strings strummed a melody that would become as familiar and comforting as a warm blanket, as a deep and textured woman’s voice sang:

You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
Any place is better
Starting from zero, got nothing to lose
Maybe we’ll make something
Me, myself, I got nothing to prove

Tracy Chapman’s voice continued to sing from the speakers while the entire room of girls sat quietly, stared at the boombox, and listened for the full four minutes and 56 seconds. We looked down at our papers and read the words. Then someone asked if we could listen to it one more time. Mrs. S rewound the tape and pressed play again.

You got a fast car
I got a plan to get us out of here

You and I can both get jobs
And finally see what it means to be living

Then we started discussing the lyrics to “Fast Car”. And when I say “we,” I mean everyone. Even the quiet girls who never raised their hands and sat in the back. The social hierarchy flattened.

And I-I, had a feeling that I belonged
I-I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone

We were now just fans gushing over the lyrics and speculating on their meaning. Later, one girl even brought up a “Fast Car” reference she’d never noticed in the new-at-the-time Fugees album. Mrs. S had given us a cultural touchstone. And she showed us poetry could widen our perspective, encourage us to think deeper, and bring people together (long before Taylor Swift’s Tortured Poets Department did.) I also like to think she helped spark something in me, a love for words and storytelling, even though it’d take me a long time to find my way to write for a living.

Tracy Chapman fast car grammys
Source: © Hans Hillewaert | Creative Commons

Looking Back, I’m Still Learning

Now decades removed from that classroom, I realize we were so young back then—life literally lay out before us. I wonder where the road took all of my classmates. Were they, too, watching Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs from a bigger house… in the suburbs? Were their kids also experiencing “Fast Car” for the first time? Might we have more in common now than we did back then? 

I also wonder whether Mrs. S ever used “Fast Car” in a lesson again, taking the road less traveled and not starting a high school poetry lesson with Robert Frost. Was there a spark of memory for her during the Tracy Chapman “Fast Car” Grammys performance too? I hope so. Maybe she was one of the many of us streaming the song so much it’s climbed to the top of the charts on iTunes.

If you’re out there, Mrs. S, I still remember that poetry lesson as the day you and Tracy Chapman helped us feel like we all belonged. Great songs endure—and so do great teachers.