Making Curriculum Pop

NY Times Article: At an Age for Music and Dreams, Real Life Intrudes

This story is certainly not a new one but I wanted to share it. Of course not every school system is like this, but we keep seeing stories like this pop up.

It begs the question - where does the pursuit of a dream outweigh the lint in your pocket? I truly don't have a solid answer, but I would like to think one can still run a corporation and play in a garage band on weekends. You don't have to abandon your artistic tendencies completely. Just my 2 cents.

April 15, 2009
This Land
At an Age for Music and Dreams, Real Life Intrudes

Two days before their long-awaited trip to New York City, for many of them a foreign place, the members of the Newark High School Sinfonia noisily gather for rehearsal. The cacophony ends when the first of the first violinists, the best violinist, stands to lead others in tuning to an A.

Her name is Tiffany Clay and she is 18, with light brown hair tied in a ponytail and large eyes that always seem at the edge of tears. She has been on her own, more or less, since she was 16, and the violin in her delicate hands was bought for $175 on eBay by her music teacher.

She is a complicated young woman, says that teacher, and a gifted musician. Consistently at or near the very top of her class. Should be going to a top college, on scholarship. Should be, but won’t be, because she feels a need to make money more than music.

Ms. Clay is a child of her age and place, worried about being laid off, uninterested in and maybe even afraid of imagining a life beyond central Ohio. Newark is what she knows: a pleasant, bifurcated city of 45,000, where concerns about unemployment temper the pride in local public art, and where affluence and poverty sit side-by-side in the classroom.

She once explored the idea of going away to college to become a music teacher. But it just didn’t seem practical: spending four years studying the theory of music, which doesn’t interest her, while here in Newark, the school system is constantly adapting to real and threatened cuts.

Music programs always seem among the first to go, she says. No job security in Tchaikovsky.

So she is maintaining high grades, playing in the orchestra, working 35 hours a week as a Sonic Drive-In carhop, paying $345 a month for the small apartment she shares with an unemployed boyfriend — and planning to study nursing for two years at a technical college in Newark.

“Everybody gets sick,” she says, plotting her future.

Right now, though, she and the other students are rehearsing their string instruments for a high school orchestra competition that will take place in Lincoln Center. Soon the chatter of teenagers in a mostly empty school auditorium surrenders to the music of the masters.

“Listen,” says their teacher, Susan Larson, her baton paused in mid-sway. “Listen.”

Ms. Larson, 43, the Newark school system’s music director for the past three years, faces challenges beyond those presented on sheets of music. The city’s voters keep rejecting raises in the tax levy, forcing cuts in school programs, including music. Parents now pay $55 for a child to participate in activities like this orchestra, and $200 to play sports; if next month’s proposed levy is defeated, Ms. Larson doubts that the orchestra, for one, will survive.

When she struggles to pay for repairs to instruments, many of which are long-ago hand-me-downs from another school district, she recalls her 15 years as the music director in Bexley, a more affluent city where her budget was nowhere near as tight. She vividly remembers the Bexley student who celebrated graduation by smashing a $10,000 violin — his spare.

She cried then; it hurts more now.

Here in Newark, half the students are poor enough to receive lunch free or at a discount. The system also has one of the highest dropout rates in Ohio; nearly a third of the high school students do not graduate. That elevated percentage seems out of place given the Middle America setting, but officials have a theory:

Back in the day, you could drop out and still get a good job at one of the many manufacturing plants in town. You could pay the mortgage, buy a car new, take holiday trips — all without a high school diploma.

“Now those jobs have gone away,” says Keith Richards, the city’s schools superintendent. “But the mindset has not.”

Mayor Bob Diebold, 48, who grew up here, agrees. “You could walk out of school and get a job,” he says. “You can’t do that anymore.”

Actually, you can — only those jobs are more likely to be at McDonald’s and not, say, at the Owens Corning fiberglass plant, for generations a vital part of the Newark economy. Nine years ago the plant employed about 1,500; now, fewer than 700.

Rehearsal ends and the young musicians flee, a few in cars driven by parents. Ms. Clay, though, drives her 1998 Chevy Malibu to wash clothes for her New York trip at the Colonial Coin Laundry, then heads to her home in a weathered apartment complex — the unit, she says, “right next to the Dumpster.”

The apartment contains little more than bed, television and couch, now occupied by her boyfriend, Trevor Scanlon, who dropped out of high school but says he’s working on his graduate-equivalency diploma. Slinking about is their cat, Easy Mac, named after a macaroni and cheese that you microwave.

The short life story Ms. Clay tells is of an adulthood come too soon, of parents splitting up when she was young, of a mother gone to another city, of a father, an electrician, dogged by employment uncertainties. She and her father clashed so often, she says, that she moved out at 16, got a job and tried to figure out life — rent, work, school, some health issues — on her own.

She returned after a year but left again several months later, for good, though she is in touch with her parents, and talks often of wanting to be around in case they ever need her.

While working full time at the Sonic, she has also maintained superior grades, taken several Advanced Placement courses and distanced herself from classmates. She bristles when some of them talk of what they have spent at the Easton Town Center mall — “That’s a month’s rent,” she wants to say — but at the same time she admits to feeling jealous: “I want — that!”

Now wearing a yellow Sonic golf shirt and a Tiffany C. nameplate, Ms. Clay leaves to make $7.35 an hour, plus tips; it will be a long night. “Kids are in school during the week,” she explains. “They leave at 9, and I stay until after 11.”

Soon she is gliding on roller skates beneath neon reds and yellows that grow more garish as dusk descends. Spinning, speeding, stopping with effortless grace, she balances plastic trays of sweet and greasy food with those delicate hands. Her mastery of yet another world, this Sonic world, means she is again employee of the month, entitling her to a month of free meals.

And the lyrics of her night songs are:

“All right, I’ve got your three junior chili cheese wraps, a B.L.T., chicken strip sandwich, extra long Coney and a mozzarella stick. And a kid’s hot dog meal and kid’s hamburger meal, one with a grape slush, the other with a Powerade slush.”

Two mornings later, buses whisk the Newark High School Sinfonia and its entourage to New York: Austin Modesitt, 16, violinist, who has never left Ohio, but whose mother, a factory worker, contributed her tax-refund check; Jessica Kunasek, 17, violinist, whose older siblings chipped in to pay her way; other students, who sold chocolate, washed cars, held a spaghetti dinner — anything to cover the cost of $850 a student.

Now it is Sunday. They have spent three days in a Manhattan wonderland, but the time has come to compete for something called the National Orchestra Cup. They file into the just-renovated Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center and put on their school-owned tuxedos and gowns.

A few of the invited high schools had to decline; the recession, organizers explain. But others, from Ohio and California, New York and Indiana, have made it, and their instruments, at least in Ms. Larson’s estimation, are of higher quality.

Newark is the last to perform, following a symphony orchestra — with strings, brass, winds, percussion and a harp — from Carmel, Ind., where the median household income is nearly three times that in Newark. The Carmel students seem at home in Lincoln Center; they play exquisitely.

The Newark students take the stage, led by concertmaster Tiffany Clay and trailed by director Susan Larson. First, a toccata by Frescobaldi. Then a cello duet by Vivaldi, sweetly rendered by juniors Bryn Wilkin and Alex Van Atta. Finally, the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings.

Soon there come sounds just beyond articulation, of sorrow and joy and wonder, summoned from wood and string by the children of Newark, Ohio. And Ms. Clay, at the front of the stage, disappears into the music.

Enchanted by Pachelbel as a child, given free lessons by a teacher who recognized her talent, blessed with the gift of musical sight reading, Ms. Clay has not been as fortunate with other parts of her young life. Her worries are not about prom dresses but about family, and rent, and employment.

Soon, these students will be back in Newark, proud of tying for first runner-up, behind that orchestra from Carmel. And Ms. Clay will be back at the Sonic, spinning her wheels, singing her song of limeades and cheeseburgers, easy on the mayo. After that, nursing, probably.

What role music will play in her life, she doesn’t know. But for now, at least, she is on a New York stage, wearing a borrowed black gown, playing a borrowed eBay violin, and Tchaikovsky holds her.

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