Me: former Artistic Director of orchestras in New York, Washington and New Zealand and for those whose memories extend back into ancient times, founder of the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble at that lovely chapel (before the ’79 fire) at Hudson and Grove. This little, local group that could, but wouldn’t have existed without the inspired assistance of the very publisher of this periodical and our first board chairman: George Capsis. As a retirement activity, I returned to my roots in public education doing my Pied Piper routine in a number of Bronx High Schools, all with the disconcerting habit of being closed by the State or Mayor just as I arrive. Perhaps I’m the jinx…
Her: This slight, adorable, good-natured will of the wisp who walked into my room last February requesting piano lessons. I never refuse such requests, knowing that after two days, the enormity of the undertaking overwhelms the most ardent enthusiast; that the process of using both sides of the brain to accommodate two completely independent hands creates insurmountable difficulties for your average middle-teen, unused to having to overcome such profound obstacles (Please excuse the quasi-scientific mumbo-jumbo). Piano’s tough!
However for Joss, everything was easy. Scales in two hands, the first day, no problem, two octaves, ditto, little pieces from Thompson or Czerny, memorized at once. “What about that nice piece by Beethoven?”; Für Elise memorized in two weeks. Furthermore, Rondo à la Turk, a few Inventions, even the ‘Minute” Waltz, memorized within four months, using a combination of near perfect pitch and near photographic memory, I’ve never quite figured out how her mind works.
I zoomed over to the record room to find past evidence of this monster talent and was profoundly shocked to discover that this near genius had been characterized as Special Ed; diagnosed as having profound learning disabilities. Ever been in a Special Ed class? Be happy you haven’t. She spent the greater part of her elementary years there, not learning much. Gifted and talented would have been a much more appropriate placement. It’s not just music; she devours books, her great escape, in a school where most of her fellow students couldn’t be bothered and in any case, there is no library.
Yet there was more, much sadness in the records; limited attendance, chasing between her mother and father, in and out of town for several years, precious little completed coursework and none of the mandated five Regents exams required for high school graduation. It just didn’t compute. If this was your typical middle-class kid, she’d be deciding between Harvard and Stanford about now.
The kicker was her address, an Upper East Side homeless shelter where she lived with a constantly changing ménage of siblings, all save her with assorted learning disabilities and several asthmatic. They further included, a baby (that sister would soon be kicked out of the shelter for various transgressions) and a good natured, overwhelmed father with precious few skills or ambition to extract the family from the damnation in which they found themselves.
The New York Times recently reported that families in this situ live a near normal life; computers, smart phones, I-Pods and all the accoutrements of middle-class life.
Do you believe in the tooth fairy?
How about take-out for dinner every night, regular bed-checks at 5 in the morning, cigarettes, for those that indulge (thank god, not Joss) purchased from the local Bodega at 75 cents for one, two for a dollar, and just occasionally, a few bucks to purchase a very few minutes of air time for the cell at exorbitant rates; no monthly plans here.
Back to this precious child.
We worked the entire second part of last school year, two or three hours a day and through the summer, Joss becoming a passionate devotee of classical music. Neverthless, I also felt the need to convince her that her obvious intellectual gifts were transferable to pure academia. The chance arose when another former student, a charming twenty year-old former chorister, requested assistance in passing the Global Regents that she could finally graduate (she had failed four times previously). I coached her through it that summer with Joss tagging along. Are you aware that the two-year Global History sequence has become the premiere obstacle to High School graduation, throughout the City? Well, we zoomed through the curriculum in five weeks and both kids passed. Joss who barely concealed her boredom (excusable after three hours of intense keyboard practice) was rewarded with a 79; not a great score but a clear harbinger of potential academic prowess.
There was more good news. As I would not be in town for much of this year, identifying a legitimate piano teacher for Joss was essential (I don’t really qualify). Virtually all the music schools from Greenwich House to Juilliard expressed interest upon hearing her tale, but The Bloomingdale School instantly circumvented any and all red tape and was enormously kind and generous with the necessary financial support. It was the ideal place for Joss; low-key, community based and super-professional. Shortly thereafter, there was the coup de théâtre that still brings tears to my eyes. I had always told her that someday; somehow, some generous donor would just give her a piano. She didn’t believe it, impossible she said. But late last summer, Paul Rosenblum, General Manager of the Caramoor Festival, called to say that one of his supporters had a splendid grand piano looking for a new home destined for a worthy student. Would Joss like to have it? Would She! I knew it would happen, just not so soon.
Fast-forward to this school year, which has been an emotional drain on this poor kid and with me not available 24/7, a reprise of somewhat lesser achievement. The family was evicted from their shelter due to the acting out of Joss’ sisters and re-assigned to a much less desirable one (which Dickens would have surely recognized). A former school with unimproved classrooms where the units have no kitchens, nor private bath facilities and the halls are filled with screaming kids running up and down at all hours of the day or night; forget about sleeping on weekends. Yet even there, the family has been repeatedly threatened, often not allowed into their room until all the recalcitrant sisters appear or are bailed out of jail, be it whatever hour of the morning. It’s not surprising that Joss sometimes finds it difficult to function in that atmosphere.
My globetrotting year ends this fall. And I have promised her that together we will find that right combination of musical and academic placement and the continuum of support that she requires, be it here or out of town. I hope I have convinced her that it would be much more rewarding for her to go to a great college in a year or two or even three than not at all. Furthermore, that her academic potential is equivalent to her musical ability, which is off the charts. In this pursuit, she and I have taken plenty of flack from her father, other relatives, even members of my family who think I am obsessing. Her father calls her “wann-a-be white girl.” God knows what they call me.
Yet, don’t I, as an individual and we as a society, have a responsibility to mentor exceptional kids such as this, providing them with the serenity and space essential to their reaching their full potential, whatever it takes, whatever the cost?
Sure seems so to me.