Alan Chartock | I Publius: Threat to music teaching position strikes sour note


GREAT BARRINGTON >> It should be called "Mr. Stevens Opus."

Jeff Stevens is retiring after having done unbelievable work as the creative music force of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.

Both my kids went through his band and became lifelong music lovers. Jeff Stevens is a superb human being.

He is thoughtful and courageous and has spoken out against the plan to eliminate his position as a thank you for all his incredible work. Hundreds of students and their parents and their parents' own parents have spoken out against this plan.

In my town of Great Barrington, there is a cabal of people who protest that they are for the kids and for education but they always find a reason for backing regressive thinking. They led the fight over a rebuilt high school. Their pretexts were flimsy, not really covering up who and what they are.

"The other towns in the regional district are not paying their fair share. When they do we'll start supporting our schools." Will you give me a break? I can spot a phony from a million miles away.

Back at Joan of Arc Junior High School in the 1950's, I was part of the orchestra class. The teacher was Mr. Eugene Steiker, still the finest educator I have ever met.

He gave me a trumpet and put me in the seventh-grade orchestra, where we played "Hungarian Dance No. 5" and other memorable classics. I can still hear the poor violins screeching away as we played in the auditorium and the orchestra room.

We marched in parades like the West Side "Paint Up, Clean Up" parade. I truly loved that man and kept in touch with him for the rest of his life. He'd visit us in the Berkshires with his wife, Francine, and their kids. He instilled a love of music in thousands of us.

When my brother and I formed a band that lasted through graduate school, it was because of what Gene Steiker had taught us. Once when he was visiting we took him to the Berkshire Playhouse and, spotting him, a man got up out of the audience and at the top of his voice yelled, "Mr. Steiker!" He told us stories of his adventures in World War II; he talked of his philosophy of life.

I was in the midst of a busy day when Mr. Steiker passed, what with television and radio and teaching but I managed to get down to the city. Francine hugged me, saying, "I knew you'd come!" I forget a lot these days but I'll never forget that.

So now the legacy of all the Mr. Steikers and Mr. Stevenses, who gave us so much, has been threatened by the bean counters. Jeff Stevens posted a letter on Facebook that speaks for itself. In it he talks about all that he and his colleagues have done.

It was backbreaking and incredible work. It was a fairly long letter but what really got me was single line that took me back to Mr. Steiker and to my band, the Sati-Lights, and then for almost 60 years, the folk band with Joe Browdy that became The Berkshire Ramblers.

Stevens' sentence: "Of course, performing music is a unique and life changing experience for the students."

There is truly nothing like it. I remember a few Spanish idioms and some history and that's all valuable but nothing compares to all those nights playing music that came from experiences my kids and I got in music class.

There is no memory more clear and important for Roselle and me than recalling Sarah and Jonas marching down Main Street in the Memorial Day Parade.

At the end of the movie, "Mr. Holland's Opus," Mr. Holland's position was eliminated; all his students came together in tribute. A sad ending but maybe, just maybe, things will end on a happier note for us now that the people on the School Board have reversed their earlier decision.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany.


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