By Michael Feldman
Recently, Terry Stoller, writing for the Westbeth, “Profiles in Art” series, interviewed me about my life’s work, which naturally centered on St Luke’s, China, the New York Collegium and the more recent St Veronica project and my admitted responsibilities in its demise.
Somewhat forgotten were my early years in IS 70, an amazing time, formative, yet productive, a place in which a group of talented, eccentric educators, led by an even more unconventional principal, Blanche Schwartz, mirrored the milieu of the late 60’s and early 70’s in the creation of a splendid, revolutionary, middle school, devoted to the arts, excellent academics and a philosophy of saving the souls (of the children) of whom it served. The saving of adults’ souls was also on the agenda, mine being a prime example.
It was a fascinating time…I always considered it (and this is not an original thought) that in the mid-60’s adults, parents, especially in neighborhoods such as ours, had lost confidence in their own values; consequently their ability to influence the moral compass of their adolescent offspring was suspect. In countless cases they dumped that task on us. It was a big responsibility
For me, two most influential colleagues (beside Blanche), true giants in their field who shaped my philosophy and bolstered my output, were Tad Tsufura and Jerry Sheik.
I met Tad on that day I came to be interviewed in spring ’68. His official title was Math Chairman, but he was a one-man stabilization agent. All the youngsters (his favorite one-word description of our students) both loved and feared him…his reputation as a world-class protagonist of Judo and his rich Japanese accent which when bellowed double forte, tended to put the fear of god into anyone within yards, adults as well as teenagers, were legendary.
He had heard of my exploits in a sleepy Junior High in Queens, where an unofficial small choir of 16 youngsters had met before school every morning to memorize the complete Neue Liebeslieder set of Brahms and performed it (with the requisite 4-hand piano accompaniment) to a bemused, uncomprehending PTA in Spring ’67 (German/English texts, not provided…my bad). This sort of work belonged in the Village, not in Woodside.
Tad remarked to me, as we drove home to Queens that day (in his unique, ethnic version of English), “Sometimes I think, music, more important than math…” I thought to myself…this is the school for me.
And so, when the O’ Henry Intermediate School opened in Fall ’68, I was one of the prized recruits. Mind you, I was pretty neurotic myself, recently having completed a three-year army stint in the West Point Band (a very unnatural, unworldly place) and had been through a failed relationship with a brilliant, beautiful young woman, which affected me for years. Throwing myself into music and my students blunted the pain, and was useful for my students as well. The strength of the school was the similar devotion of the many superb teachers, both to their craft, but just as importantly, to their charge’s complete life and personal needs; a task which rarely ended when the bell rang for dismissal at three o’clock.
The second of my two friends and mentors was the band teacher Jerry Sheik. Much has been written and proclaimed about this unique guy; a fine classically trained percussionist and jazz drummer, and an even better molder of youth. He had a way about him, so easygoing, loosey-goosey, so at ease with teenagers. Virtually to a person, they adored him, and gave him their best. Consequently, he achieved wonderful results from his instrumental program, especially his Jazz band. There was this wonderful afternoon (has 10 years gone by so quickly?) when he was dying of cancer and his kids (no longer) threw an enormous celebration of gratitude and remembrance in a downtown club—a heartfelt special tribute to a unique educator and human being.
My responsibilities that first year were 6th grade introduction to music and 7th and 9th year chorus.
A few words about that first-year group:
Years later, when I was into the formation (with George’s magical assistance) of the “Children’s Free Opera,” and the initial, huge Con Edison grant came through; signed, sealed and delivered (a Capsis production); seemingly endless foundation money was offered on all sides. And I thought to myself, ”It will always be this way. Everything I touch will turn to gold.” How wrong I was; the spigot opened, the spigot closed.
That first year in IS 70, the seventh year recruits included a number of vocally-gifted talent the likes of which I had not foreseen nor expected. Of course, I thought to myself, it’s the Village; there will always be such youngsters. But like the initial funding of The Children’s Free opera, it never happened again.