Westfield, Where are the Notes to Your Opus?

Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.” ~Glenn Holland, Mr. Holland’s Opus

One of my favorite actors is Richard Dreyfuss. He is an excellent actor, he’s in a large majority of my favorite movies, he has an awesome laugh, and he believes civics should be taught in public schools.

He was also in an incredibly profound movie; Mr. Holland’s Opus. It is one of my favorite – and least favorite – movies. It is the perfect example of art imitating life. A musician is hired as a music teacher. He starts out feeling rather uneasy about his decision to enter the classroom. Three decades later, he can’t imagine what he will do when he is forced to leave it.

I know many music teachers, choir directors, and band directors who went into public education, not with the trepidation of Glenn Holland, but as a force of positive energy with great plans to inspire. Unfortunately, most times, the only people who wanted them there were the kids, and sometimes (if they were lucky) the parents.

I’ve written multiple times over the years (on two different blogs) about the importance of arts and music in public education. I can literally feel my blood pressure go up every time I see athletics heralded and music cast aside.

Indulge me while I tell you a story…

I was the kid that played in Pigtail League when I was little because I grew up with a love of watching baseball. I would sit with my Uncle Sonny on Saturday afternoons and eat olives out of the can meant for the salad for Sunday dinner while we watched the Yankees or the Mets on our local television station. We would go through the packs of baseball cards my Aunt Roslyn would bring home for us from the deli she and my Uncle Tony owned. I still have an entire photo album full of baseball cards he put together for me.

Because I was born at the end of the year, all my friends moved up to the middle school softball league a year ahead of me. I went with them to the first practice to see what I was in for when I would join them the following year. The coach took one look at me, asked my why I was there, said “no visitors during practice,” and told me to beat it. I was quite taken aback. My friends went off to the field to start warm ups and I walked away dejected. I stopped and looked over my shoulder once and the coach caught my eye and gave me a nasty look. I quickly took off. I knew my softball career was over.

I attempted track and field when I was in high school, but I was terrible. I was slow and uncoordinated. I mainly gave it a try because a few friends were on the team and I had a crush on a boy that was a runner. They wound up keeping me around as the team manager.

But the music department was where I really belonged. I was in chorus, marching band, orchestra, jazz band, and concert band. I couldn’t get enough. I would plan my entire high school schedule around chorus, band, and orchestra. Before school, we would all collect in the band room and just sit and talk. After school, we would need to get chased out so the room could get locked up. We would all regularly cut class with the standard “I have a band lesson” excuse.

My senior year I was stuck with an English teacher that absolutely terrified me. The Vice Principal came in the first day of school and wrote “Queen of Peace summer school” with an address and phone number. He then proceeded to point out all the students he was sure wouldn’t graduate. I picked up my books, walked right up to the principal’s office and said “I’m graduating on time; get me out of his class!” Yeah, I could definitely throw that Belleville sass around when I wanted to, that’s for sure. I spent most of the next day in the guidance office reworking my schedule to get into another English class. It came at a great expense. I had to rework my entire schedule and drop all three of my music classes. I was devastated. I actually went to all three directors and personally apologized and explained I was terrified of this teacher and had convinced myself I wouldn’t graduate if I tried to stick it out. It took two weeks to get me out of his class. In those two weeks, my average was already a 45. I could barely get my marking period average up to a “C.” It threw off my entire year. But I’m not bitter or anything. Much.

But back to music. That’s where I knew I belonged. I wasn’t popular, except in the summer when the pool was open. I wasn’t interested in most of my academics. I just wanted to go to my writing classes and my music classes. Forget science, math, and worst of all gym. I was far from the best musician, but I was definitely the most enthusiastic!

I knew we weren’t respected. I knew we didn’t get the budget we deserved. But we worked hard. We learned more than just how to read dots on a page. We learned about teamwork, loyalty, we protected each other. When one of us hurt, we all hurt. Those are very special people to me. Music kids are a global community bound together by notes on a page.

And that experience was directly affected by my teachers.

Those special people who spend countless nights and weekends in busses with hundreds of boisterous kids who really don’t even think that teachers actually have a personal life. Teachers that spend their own money on supplies for their classroom. Teachers that know which kids are having trouble at home and need some extra attention. Teachers that know someone’s father was laid off from work and they don’t have money for lunch, so they tell the lunch lady they’ll pay for their kid’s lunch later when he’s not around. Teachers who listen to Christmas music in the spring and spring concert music in the fall. They do all this quietly without fanfare.

“You work for 30 years because you think that what you do makes a difference, you think it matters to people, but then you wake up one morning and find out, well no, you’ve made a little error there, you’re expendable. I should be laughing.” ~Glenn Holland, Mr. Holland’s Opus

So why am I sharing this sermon? Simple. This week, the Westfield Public School system took a machete to their arts, music, and drama programs. The final budget announcement was made, ironically, shortly after an announcement the district was named one of the best school systems in the nation for the arts by the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM).

I watched the video of the meeting and a few statements were made that really made my blood boil. I actually needed to let some time pass before I wrote this because I was so incensed I knew I would not be able to effectively share my frustration, anger, and disappointment.

“It included everything we wanted to do, that we wanted to continue to do from this year moving into next year.”

I found this comment particularly disturbing. Does this mean you didn’t want to continue your arts and music program? Did you even try? Do you even care?

“We did not reduce any of the stipends associated with any of the extracurricular athletics.”

Well, thank goodness for that! I can’t even say anything about this comment without sounding like Yosemite Sam.

You know what I didn’t see with cuts? Supervisors. Coaches. Athletics. I. Am. Disgusted.

“The day they cut the football budget in this state, that will be the end of Western Civilization as we know it!” ~Glenn Holland, Mr. Holland’s Opus

One community member tied the district’s budget issues to a hotly contested Edison fields project. This is a project to replace the school’s grass fields with synthetic turf that will cost the town a whopping $9 million. Do they really need to do that? How about the athletics teams just be appreciative they were spared from the cuts and forego this project for the year.

A board member asked a question he received from a parent that was a perfect example that they have no idea what they are affecting. There is a music program that has 40 students in a class. There is a teacher and an assistant. The assistant will be eliminated. The parent wanted to know how that class will be handled. The answer is priceless:

“I don’t know the specifics. I’m sorry” ~Superintendent Gonzalez.

It is worth mentioning, he laughed and put his hands in the air in the classic “I don’t’ know” fashion. The sarcastic laughter from the audience was palatable and the confused look on his face said it all.

In all, 24 total positions will be cut. Of the 24 positions, 10 directly affect the arts and music. That is simply shameful.

I have submitted an OPRA request to the district for specific budget information for a “part two” on this topic.

In the meantime, if you are sick of seeing the arts and music being cut. If your blood is boiling as much as mine, I encourage you to email the Superintendent of Schools and Board Members and share your dissatisfaction. For your convenience, I have them listed below:

To reach all members of the Westfield Board of Education, please use group e-mail: wboe@westfieldnjk12.org

Board of Education Members:
Brendan Galligan (President): bgalligan@westfieldnjk12.org
Sahar Aziz (Vice President): saziz@westfieldnjk12.org
Robert Benacchio: rbenacchio@westfieldnjk12.org
Michael Bielen: mbielen@westfieldnjk12.org
Leila Morrelli: lmorrelli@westfieldnjk12.org
Sonal Patel: spatel@westfieldnjk12.org
Amy Root: aroot@westfieldnjk12.org
Kristen Sonnek-Schmelz: ksonnek-schmelz@westfieldnjk12.org
Mary Wickens: mwickens@westfieldnjk12.org

Raymond González (Superintendent): Email form

If you decide to contact them, please be respectful.

“There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.” ~Gertrude Lang, Mr. Holland’s Opus

Book Review: brat: an 80s Story

When anyone meets me for the first time, two things are obvious. I am a born-and-bred Jersey Girl and I am a Gen-Xer. I still love the music and movies of the 80s. Nowadays when I drive, there are very few radio stations I listen to; most of which are satellite and focus on music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. My favorite movies included a small group of actors that came to be known as the Brat Pack. Everyone had their favorite. For me, it was Andrew McCarthy.

I saw a lot of myself in the characters he portrayed. In St. Elmo’s Fire, he played a wannabe writer who gets his first byline. I grew up wanting to do two things as an adult: be a writer and a photographer. While I never became a full-time accomplished writer, I do have a few bylines to my name and have a few blogs where I get to scrawl and scribble, even if no one really reads them.

So why am I telling you all this? Stick with me.

Whether it was because I was a teenager or not, the 80s were an awesome time in history (and yes, I used “awesome” on purpose). And the Brat Pack movies had a lot to do with it.

There were times watching McCarthy it almost felt like he wasn’t acting. As if those roles really fit his style. I now know in some instances that was true. Enter his book brat: an 80s story.

brat: an 80s Story by Andrew McCarthy

This fellow New Jerseyan shares his rise – and fall – and rise again in the fickle world of entertainment in his recently published book. Of course as soon as I heard about its release, I needed to read it. Trust me when I tell you, it did not disappoint. I read it over the course of two evenings. The last time I read something so quick was a book from another important figure from my youth; fellow Jersey Girl, Judy Blume, and the book was Summer Sisters.

I quickly switched back to 16 again, watching those movies, listening to that music, and doing things, well, let’s just say I am thankful social media wasn’t around.

As I read, and he mentions places in Jersey in the first few chapters, I found myself wondering if the arcade on 22 he went to was at Bowcraft (a home-grown amusement park), how everyone in Jersey MUST be good at skee-ball and if his brother ever played golf at Hendrick’s Field, the public course in Belleville behind my house. He talked about hanging out in Washington Square Park, which made me remember my first job in the City and walking over to the park and eating my lunch there while I watched the street performers. He talked about going with a friend to the second-hand clothing shops, which made me think of my regular visits to the Unique Boutique.  Like him, I went to the Raccoon Lodge. The biggest difference, however, is that he was 17. I wasn’t allowed into the City on my own until after I graduated from college. But I remember feeling just as wide-eyed as he describes his experiences of familiar places to me.

He spoke of the awkwardness of his high school years. While he was always self-conscious about looking too feminine, I was often self-conscious about looking too masculine. By the time I hit high school, my mother started to give up on getting me to “dress like a girl,” and I fell into the habit of oversized sweatshirts and jeans. I stuck to my denim jacket (complete with a music note of safety pins on the back), an Army Class A jacket I picked up at a second-hand store in Bloomfield, and my father’s camel-hair coat. Add to that my voice was kind of deep for a girl my age, which was quite obvious when I would shout over the marching band as drum major. Sophomore year I felt compelled to chop my long hair off, which completed that perfectly boyish look, even if that really wasn’t the goal. When a teacher from the high school first met my brother, he said to a colleague once he thought I was out of earshot “I’m trying to figure out if he’s more feminine or she’s more masculine.” And so it was and so it has been for most of my adult life. Many years later at a full-time job, I learned some of my colleagues referred to me as “Man Benschoten” instead of my proper last name. I never seemed to be able to outrun that “boy thing.”  Sometimes it still bothers me, sometimes I shrug and don’t care in full Gen-X fashion.

Like him, I enjoyed my time alone. For him, he smoked pot. For me, it was riding my bike over to the high school, climbing to the top of the stadium, sitting in the corner and reading. Smoking pot never even crossed my mind. As far as I knew, none of my friends did and my mother could have worked for the CIA. She found out everything. It wasn’t worth the risk.

“Like the first light of dawn, there is a transitory magic in it, a singular quality, something so fresh it seems it must be occurring for the first time.”

Like McCarthy, I found solace in the arts program. For him it was (obviously) drama and it started him down a successful path that led him to NYU. Me? Well, I never got out of the chorus/background dancers, with the exception of one actual line in the production of “It’s Christmas Charlie Brown” (“watch it lady, you almost made me drop my packages!”). I was in concert band, jazz band, chorus, orchestra, drama club, and marching band. I wasn’t “officially” on stage and light crew, but I helped out backstage with the plays before I summoned up the courage to actually try out. For me, that’s as far as my artistic journey went. I didn’t have “it.”

1986 Mercury Cougar
Me in my Cougar, 1988.
Yes, I thought I was that cool.

His announcement to major in acting when he went to college went over about as well as my announcement to major in journalism. I was pushed at every opportunity to become an attorney. When I came home with my declaration form for the Communication Department, well, I’ll just say it didn’t go over well and leave it at that. Like McCarthy, I stuck to my guns and kept with it. And I discovered I did have an aptitude for certain parts of the process. For me, it was print production and typography, along with writing.

We both had our own departmental champions. For him it was Terry Hayden. For me, it was Dr. Don McKenna and Professor Pete Rosenblum. That dynamic duo were my supporters at every turn. They told me about this thing called “prepress.” Where I get to be involved in the actual process of preparing work to go to press. I was in love. Like McCarthy, I was eager to learn all I could. Also, like McCarthy, some teachers were less than thrilled with my feeble classroom attempts. We both struggled with speech class. My prim and proper professor attempted to remove the Jersey from my accent and teach me a proper mid-Atlantic speech pattern (think Katharine Hepburn). Shocker – it didn’t work. I passed, but I think only because I just kept showing up to class. I didn’t care. I dove head first into learning all I could about prepress and writing.

Throughout the book, he has the ability to weave stories of experiences of his past and how those experiences affected his career as he continued to learn and hone his craft. I took special attention to how he handled anxiety while shooting his first feature movie, Class, and how as a director he quietly says “aaaand… action” instead of yelling “ACTION!” like we all see in the movies.

He told his mother he was a pessimist. I call myself a realist. I think they are two sides of the same coin.
Just about the same time he was becoming interested in the technical aspects of filmmaking, I was becoming more and more interested in the technical aspects of photography and press work. As a girl, however, opportunities at the time were limited. At one job, I did become friendly with a stripper (not THAT kind) and would let me watch him work during my lunch and would occasionally let me make bluelines. Every so often I was told I was told I had aptitude. And just like McCarthy was told “you became a pro on this one, Andy,” I would fly high.

One page 130, he finally gets to my favorite of all the Brat Pack movies; St. Elmo’s Fire and devotes a solid twenty-something pages to it. His character, Kevin, felt like it had followed me around my entire life. Cynical, sarcastic, in the background of the group, the oversized clothes, the camel-hair coat. His behind-the-scenes account of the “Respect bongo” scene, my favorite of the entire movie, was just wonderful.

He talks about his use – and abuse – of alcohol. The year he went into rehab was the year I graduated from college. He faced his demon head on and won. Instead of thinking of it as the end of his career, he continued to push forward. He found his way to… writing.

I also give him a lot of credit for how he handled the end of his father’s life. Gracious is hardly enough to describe how he faced the situation.

Overall, I really enjoyed his writing style and his ability to construct some beautifully written sentences. Over time he came to accept his role as a member of the Brat Pack. He now understands that for many of us fellow Gen-Xers, those movies hold a special place for us. For that, I am thankful.

I hope it is a little easier bein’ you now, Mr. McCarthy.