Author’s note: As a response to the bile being directed at teachers by President Obama, Oprah Winfrey and NBC News’ Education Nation, I’ve decided to publish a series of articles I wrote celebrating great educators in my life. I encourage others to make the world a better place by sharing stories of great teaching. (use the hashtag = greatteaching)
Welcome back! As we begin another school year it’s only fitting that we take a moment to remember and celebrate our teacher heroes. Recent weeks spent teaching Logo in several Australian schools renewed my admiration for teachers (even ones who don’t use Logo). Besides all of traits we know teachers possess – poise, courage, wisdom, patience, kindness, creativity… – I was reminded that teachers also require the stamina of triathletes. Teaching MicroWorlds to 120 laptop-toting seventh graders (at once) was quite an ordeal.
I started thinking about the greatness embodied by teachers recently when the world lost two giants of the profession. Jazz singer, Betty Carter, passed away in September. She was one of the greatest vocal improvisers and teachers who ever lived. Betty Carter felt a personable responsibility for keeping the music she loved alive and ensured just that by working with young musicians throughout her stellar career. She was committed to filling the world with music of the highest caliber.
I don’t know if “Ms. BC” knew of Logo or even owned a computer. What I do know is that every Betty Carter performance was a samba school. She collaborated with her young musicians and made them better through improvisation, humor, praise, gestures, a whisper in the ear and her example. Betty Carter was respected for the teaching she did via countless clinics in public schools and an annual intensive week she led for aspiring musicians.
In the best sense possible, every performance by her ensemble was the embodiment of mutual growth, creativity, expression and swing. I last saw the Betty Carter Quartet live in New York this past April. During the introduction of the band members, Ms. Carter said, “remember the faces of these young men because in a few years you will hear them again somewhere and think to yourself, ‘my how they have improved’.” At the end of the last set of the week she invited one young musician after another to come up from the audience and sit in with her band. Her scat-based battle with these musical hopefuls made them dig deep within themselves and perform beyond their expectations. When the number of aspiring students began to snake around the nightclub, Betty Carter passed the torch to the next generation. She turned to the young sweating drummer and said, “It’s yours baby. Let’s see how you get out of it.” Betty Carter sat down in the audience and laughed out loud, visibly proud of her students.
While I was never good enough to play with Betty Carter, I was good enough to play with Richard Lukas. In fact, thousands of junior high school students in Wayne, New Jersey had the opportunity to perform with him over three decades. Mr. Lukas was my junior high school band director. He taught me to play the trumpet, to swing a tennis racquet and he became one of my oldest friends – despite his early advice to my parents that they make my trumpet into a lamp. Tragically, Dick Lukas died of a heart attack in September of this year at only 54 years of age.
Mr. Lukas’ stage and tiny office were hothouses where less conventional students were cultivated. He was under-appreciated by his superiors, misunderstood by his peers and disparaged by parents who didn’t want their children to become musicians, but perform familiar ditties at two concerts per year. His ensembles always played music thought to be above the heads of students, but we were constantly rewarded by triumphing over challenging compositions. I remember the senseless controversy caused when Mr. Lukas decided to dedicate some of band time to the learning of music theory and history. He rightly believed that the school band served many purposes, among them was us to learn all about music, learn through music about ourselves and become well-rounded citizens.
I studied privately with Dick Lukas on and off through college and enjoyed the rare privilege of becoming my teacher’s teacher when he enrolled in a series of my LogoWriter courses. My teacher/student became an avid computer enthusiast who at one point had an Apple IIgs with thousands of dollars worth of RAM, drives and interface cards. We used to joke that his IIgs supercomputer could run a small country. Over the past couple of years he asked me about the net and I sought his advice regarding instruments for my junior high school children. We had come full circle. Every time my son asks me about his mouthpiece, I will think of Mr. Lukas. I am grateful for his wisdom, humor, friendship and guidance. He also filled my life with beautiful music.
In honor of my great teachers I thank you for your dedication to improving the lives of children. Your daily heroics deserve much respect and appreciation. While schools become more reactionary and regressive, you dare to challenge your students and the system with Logo. Your students will remember you fondly.
©1998 Gary S. Stager
Originally published in Logo Exchange — Fall 1998