Kansas songwriter Toby Tyner sings at Social Tap in Wichita
Kansas songwriter Toby Tyner (center), an assistant principal at Wichita’s Stucky Middle School, is in a band called Sometimes on Sunday, mostly made up of Wichita Public Schools educators. Other members include Jon Albers (left), history teacher at Northeast Magnet High School; Chad Cushenbery (right), principal at Hamilton Middle School; Matt Creasman, principal at Jardine Magnet Middle School; and Travis Heying, a news photographer. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

The best version of Kansas songwriter Toby Tyner’s mom lives in the lines of a song he wrote a year ago. That the song is called “Already Gone” hints at how long that version of her lasted.

Where and how his mother lives today is something wholly different. But before you can hear that story, you need to hear the song — and the story of Tyner’s life embedded within the lyrics.

Time is written down in the lines on my face

And time is something we don’t have a way to replace

And we don’t even know ‘til it’s already gone

Toby Tyner is in his second year as an assistant principal at Wichita’s Stucky Middle School. It is a 22-minute commute from his home in Newton, Kansas, where he has lived nearly all his life.

Tyner’s job demands 12-hour days, so he values that commute time, which allows him to listen to music or podcasts. He’s a fan of the Beatles and Paul Simon, but also has nostalgic affection for the Bee Gees, whom he recalls his mother loved.

He thinks a lot about time, and concludes there is only now. He says as soon as you recognize any moment, it is already gone. 

He is 45 years old with lines just beginning to show on his face. Recently he realized that not only do his own children look to him for guidance, so do students and teachers at his school, where he is the lone male administrator. “I sort of felt (they) were seeing me as the dad of the school. It’s odd.” He explains later that he resisted becoming a teacher because “I didn’t feel that I was somebody who would be a good role model.” 

Some things are hot and some things are cold

You know I never took physics and I don’t really know

How the universe falls so hard

When a friend texts him that he just grabbed a hot pan out of the oven without thinking, scalding his hands, Tyner realizes that life has burned him enough times that he has grown more cautious with age. His choices — including an extremely significant one regarding his mother — are deliberate. He tries to consider what his “future self” will think of the choices his “now self” makes. 

It wasn’t always this way. Education is his third real career. First he worked as an insurance agent, then in development at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas. Before these jobs, he worked a “soul-sucking” gig as a telemarketer and as a desk clerk at a motel, both jobs he followed his parents into. Not until a university president offered to mentor him did he stop and think: “Is this who I am going to be? Am I going to be him?” 

Is it all luck or a master plan?

You know I don’t really pray but I feel like I can

See something in a wild card

Where he ended up is far from where he began. Tyner grew up in a conservative religious household that dealt in absolutes, including one that insisted rock music was the devil’s work.  The more black and white the thinking at home, the more Tyner grew away from religion and toward mysticism. “I just never thought things were so rote.” He was raised in a nondenominational Christian church, then later tried Episcopalian and Mennonite churches before giving up on organized religion in favor of spiritual ambiguity. 

And the river runs so wide

While the fire burns so bright

By age 35, Tyner decided it was time to redirect his life. He had gotten a degree in history, but not until later did he pursue becoming a teacher. He did not, in fact, take physics. His lyrical admission of this annoys some fellow members of his band, Sometimes on Sunday. They include a former physics teacher turned middle school principal, another middle school principal, a high school history teacher and a news photographer — all of whom come together on Sundays to practice. They recorded and released their first album, “Starting from the Middle,” last year. (“Already Gone” is the fourth track.)

Life is so mean to me, not like it used to be

I can remember how mama used to speak to me

Back in the day, before all her scars

It is here in the fifth stanza of “Already Gone” that the doors to Tyner’s painful childhood open. He was born to a 15-year-old mother who did as expected and married her 21-year-old boyfriend when she became pregnant. “I think he had the weed and she wanted the weed,” Tyner says, trying to explain their relationship. 

When he speaks about his mother, he is aware he cannot tell his story without speaking of hers. There are many sides to any story and others may have a different version of events. Tyner’s story is about events as he experienced them. 

Tyner wonders if it was a repressive upbringing, sexual abuse she told him she experienced as a child or simply mental illness that made his mother a drug addict. He calls these her scars. “We’ve always been very poor so she never got a really good diagnosis, but ultimately she was delusional paranoid schizophrenic.”

His earliest memories are of “a golden 16-year-old,” a loving mother who doted on him. From about age of 6 until he left home at 18, he recalls only the chaos, verbal and physical abuse he endured in his household at the hands of both his mother and father.

“She shared with me in intimate details her molestation at the age of 11,” far more detail than a son wants to hear, Tyner says. “She said often that she had children so that somebody would love her. She really, really wanted me to be her best friend.”

He offers few details. “I watched, I saw stuff. Those things always live inside,” he says, as pain shows in the lines in his face and tears pool in his eyes. 

At age 21, Tyner says, he briefly experimented with drugs, searching for what it was that made his mother choose drugs over him. “All I needed at that moment was to answer that question: ‘Why weren’t you better for me?’”  The answer never came.

Playing in the garden with a little purple martin

Keeping clear of the big house, quiet as a church mouse

I can recall the strangeness of it all

Through his early childhood, Tyner’s family lived in a rented farmhouse in rural Butler County, Kansas.  He says he tried to stay out of that house as much as possible. 

“Once I got older things started to be regularly bad. I just needed to always be out of the house, outside. And try my very best to be inconspicuous.”

He knew intuitively, he says, that life in that house wasn’t normal. He saw, in the homes of friends and extended family, something different. “There were a couple of single moms in particular, moms of my friends, who I watched and learned to understand what life could be like because of who they were and how much they cared for me.”

He also found love at Wichita State University, where he initially majored in theater. Another theater major named Megan would become his wife and the mother of his two children.  Her favorite bird: the purple martin – a songbird with a particular affinity for humans.

And the river runs so wide

While the fire burns so bright

Megan always thought her husband should be a teacher. When their first child came along, he found what he regards as his first real job at the insurance agency. Along the way he also picked up a guitar and started teaching himself. He was inspired by his mother’s parents, who were country-western musicians. Tyner sang in choir in high school but says he never knew if he was any good until he tried out for the freshman musical and landed the part of Tom Sawyer. He’s been writing songs for 15 years now. 

YouTube video

Time is written down in the lines on my face

And time is something we don’t have a way to replace

And we don’t even know ‘til it’s already gone

Megan became a theater teacher and nudged her husband to become a history teacher. He had that history degree from Bethel College. Toby briefly considered becoming a history professor, following the path of a cousin he loved, Ethan Schmidt, who was murdered at Delta State University in Mississippi in 2015 — on Tyner’s birthday. Tyner went a different route and completed a Fort Hays State University “transition to teaching” master’s degree. He applied for 90 jobs before he got hired to his first job, teaching at Stucky Middle School in Wichita. 

Later, he applied for a job at Northeast High School, which he’d heard had the best principal in the city: Matthew Creasman. Creasman hired someone else. But after that person later left, he hired Tyner. The two became friends, then bandmates and fellow songwriters. With some more nudging from yet another friend, Tyner went back to school to train to become an administrator. Which brings us to now. 

Except that now is already gone. 

We can never see the end of any of the mystery

There is nothing there is only you and me and history

We don’t know ‘til it’s already gone

When Tyner speaks about what he calls “his family of origin,” the timelines are not clear — and that may not be significant. What matters, he says, is now. And in the now, he is estranged from his mother, father, sister and brother. 

This is by choice, because Tyner has chosen to shut his parents out of his life. He thinks the decision took root during a falling-out between his mother and her parents. He at that time asked himself: “Am I going to deep dive into being the caretaker of my mother — which seems like the thing I should do — or am I going to distance myself and care for me?  And so it was during that time period that I started to really choose me.”

Big factors in his decision were his children. He wanted to shield them from all he had endured growing up.  He says, with intensity behind his eyes, that he thought his father would kill him, literally to the point of death, when Tyner told him he could not have a relationship with his grandchildren. 

Tyner says he first broke from his father in eighth grade when his dad urged him to fight.

 “I was supposed to meet the town bully at the park after school, and I went, and in my memory there were 100 kids there… and then my dad showed up and he sat down to watch.”

Tyner says at that moment he decided to walk away. His father followed him home, taunting him, asking him why he backed out. “And I said, ‘I don’t want to be like you.’”

Life is so mean to me, not like it used to be

I can remember how mama used to speak to me

Back in the day, before all her scars

Asked about his mother, he reveals the tragedy at the core of his song. 

“So my mom is, I believe, last I knew, homeless and in trouble. She’s been arrested a couple of times in the past year, I don’t know exactly for what.” He only knows about the arrests because he was told by a friend who monitors jail bookings. His mother’s mug shot does indeed appear on a Harvey County booking website. 

Tyner does not hesitate to say, “She is not my responsibility.”  

Tyner credits the love he’s received from extended family, and friends who became his created family, with giving him the strength to love himself enough to set such a boundary. Not everyone is forgiving. “There are a handful of women – former friends of my mother – that when I see them, give me the dirtiest of looks. I have been cussed in the grocery store a few times.”

But he has no doubt that cutting ties was the right thing: “The longer I have been separated from her, the more I have healed.” He maintains affection for the mother of his earliest memory. But as Tyner has known for the majority of his life, that mother is…

Already gone.  

Recent Posts

Polly Basore Wenzl is the editor of The Wichita Beacon. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, she worked as a reporter in Washington, D.C., before coming to Wichita in 1998. She is the author...