KIPP: McDonogh 15 School For the Creative Arts

Bob Lefsetz pays a visit (via email):

After breakfast at Mother’s, Marty, Felice and myself took a cab deep into the French Quarter to the McDonogh School, where the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation was presenting the music program with a slew of instruments. That’s what the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation does, grant instruments to school music programs. It was started by Michael Kamen, who composed the music for the movie. He wanted students to have the same opportunity he had, to learn an instrument in school, to be fulfilled, to be enriched. Felice runs the Foundation.
I’d been hearing about all the great work the Foundation had been doing in New Orleans for two years. And on a site visit a couple of months back, Tricia had encountered Kelvin Harrison and his program. She believed they were worthy, they deserved the instruments. The program had started after Katrina with no instruments. Mr. Harrison had taught his students on recorders when the ordered instruments hadn’t arrived. But now he was up and running, he needed more. And that’s why we were there.
The environment in the building was completely different from my educational experience. Instead of sterility, I found vibrancy. Silhouettes graced the cafeteria, with explanations of each. One student said his creation was as big as the 24″ rims on his older brother’s car. That cracked me up. But I loved the banner on the far side of the room: “Climb the mountain to college.” There were aphorisms all over the place. Informing the students to pay attention now, to apply themselves now, to prepare, for otherwise, in the future, they’d be left out.
And after reading the display about Black History Month, learning exactly who Booker T. Washington was, we ascended the stairs to the third floor, where Mr. Harrison was warming up the band. Brass members were playing notes. I prepared myself. This was going to be awful. An endurance test. You know what it’s like being in the vicinity of someone learning an instrument. You want to support them, but the sound is grating, you can’t read, you can’t watch television, you just want the noise to stop.
After quieting everybody down, Mr. Harrison looked at the assembled multitude and said the band was going to play a couple of numbers. They were going to start with “Oye Como Va”.
Oh, I know it wasn’t a Santana original. But that’s where I heard it. Coming out of John “Muddy” Waters’ room in the dorm all of freshman year. I’ve come to love “Abraxas”. I bought it on vinyl. And have a gold CD. I’ve got all the MP3s. I love “Oye Como Va”. I was trepidatiously excited. Then the two players on keys rolled out the intro, the drummers started hitting the accents, the horn players lifted their instruments to their lips and the band started to swing!
I couldn’t believe it! Fifth graders? My high school’s band wasn’t this good. This was good enough for college! The flutes are wailing. I notice the drummer is a girl. And yes, that tiny figure behind the keyboard, she’s hitting every note. Trombone players got up and soloed. Tears started coming to my eyes. This was education! If I could play in a band like this, I’d want to come to school!
And when they finished, there was raucous applause. And then they lit into Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”. These little kids, they had soul!

Then we went back to the cafeteria. Where the curtain was parted and the students saw the sousaphone, the tympani, the other instruments the Foundation was granting. The excitement, the whooping, it was not something learned on MTV, it was not the fakery of the peanut gallery standing in front of the stage at a televised awards show, it was genuine. They were excited for the school, for themselves.
Then Felice said they weren’t done. That our mission wasn’t complete. We had another item on our agenda. To honor Mr. Harrison’s greatness, he was being awarded a Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation Teacher Award. Which granted him $10,000 to spend as he pleased. And that the check would be delivered in a ceremony, in April, on the stage of Carnegie Hall.
Kelvin Harrison was in shock. You should have heard the shriek when the dollar figure was announced. To little kids ten grand is a million! Kelvin kept rubbing his nose, trying to keep his composure. But he couldn’t. Tears were welling in his eyes.
As they were in mine. A veritable waterworks. Who knew such great work was being done, especially in an area almost totaled by a hurricane. And sure, Mr. Harrison wanted to get paid, but it wasn’t about the money. The sense of accomplishment, the glow on his students’ faces was enough.
Eventually, the kids went back to class. School business resumed. I wandered the halls. I had an urge to stay. The work being done here was so important. Not only were children being educated, they were being given hope. Because people cared.
Bob Lefsetz (watch the language)