Karen Rubin, Columnist
Once nominated for a Pulitzer prize, Roger Ames was a world-class composer and could have taught at the most prestigious music conservatories in the world. And he did, but he also chose to teach here at Great Neck North High School.
On Friday, just after this esteemed and beloved man passed away after battling ALS, I joined a zoom memorial that went on for hours.
To hear the outpouring of emotion, hearing the stories of how this man affected lives, how appreciated he was, you were reminded about the impact one person can have, particularly a teacher, who interacts at critical moments in a child’s development.
This comment, from Lili Ivester who became an actor, was actually more typical than you would expect: “… the lives you have touched are quite literally immeasurable. Thank you for everything you taught me about Art and about Humanity.
“Thank you for believing in me and loving me and welcoming my whole family into your heart and home. I am beyond grateful for the impact you had and continue to have on my life. Thank you for sharing your talent, thank you for sharing your passion, thank you for sharing your love and your belief in all of us. I only hope that my children will be lucky enough to have a ‘chorus room’ like yours someday.”
And from Jake Levy: “We were spoiled in the halls of Great Neck North. Roger Ames was no ordinary high school music teacher. He is the kindest, most passionate man that thrives on seeing his students succeed. Having gone forth into a profession surrounded by music and performance, I carry with me Roger’s enthusiasm and all the lessons about life, music, and everything in between that he taught me. I would not be where I am today without his guidance and love that he brought to me and so many of my peers. His legacy will live on eternally through many generations of students, teachers, and other collaborators that he touched with his brilliance.”
English teacher Jeff Gilden, who worked so closely with Ames on the stunningly innovative, impactful STAGES program (for seniors in their last semester, when they would otherwise tune out of school), wrote, “You demonstrated, every day, the joy of creation and the beauty of collaboration, and the 500 students who went through that program carry with them, to this day, the memories of an experience that could not have been had anywhere else or with anyone else other than you…A lot of people have commented about how talented you were at creating space for people to feel comfortable and loved and special…all of us can recall our individual moments with you and the specific care you took, the impact you had, the change you fostered, the acceptance you conveyed, the belief in the self you inspired. It was a great gift.
“But equally great was what you did for us collectively… Yes, you made us feel comfortable and important and special, but you also helped us to want to make others feel that way. You were always proudest of what we accomplished together, with each other and for each other. Your love for the people in your life was boundless, as was your ability to find goodness everywhere. But you also encouraged us to have that love for each other and to find that goodness in each other and to use that to create something larger than ourselves. For me, that’s what makes the art you inspired all of us to create with you so special – it came from an ‘us.’ And that ‘us,’ in all its forms and permutations, lives on.”
Former students lauded the “genius” who hired teachers like Ames, Gilden, history teacher Susan Babkes -“phenomenal teachers and mentors. We were so lucky to have them as we were emerging as adults…We were so lucky to have had the high school experience we had. Count blessing every day.”
A golden age in public education, indeed.
I remember a legendary Baker School 5th grade teacher, Marion Greif, who actually was written up in the New York Times for her challenging projects and techniques which produced an unbelievable number of Ivy league students, many who became doctors. She quit after the scripted curriculums, teach-to-the-test mandates came down from on high, pushing out time for these engaging projects. Her famous “chicken skeleton” had already become optional because of panicked parents who didn’t appreciate the value of stick-to-it-tiveness the projects fostered.
Great Neck offers so many programs that let students find themselves, tap into skills, potentials and interests they never knew they had, but then uses throughout their life – Science Research under Alan Schorn, Model Congress, Model UN, business, robotics, every incarnation of music, theater, art you can imagine. All of these are made possible by the Board of Education through budgets and policy, so long led by Barbara Berkowitz (who expressed her appreciation to Ames during the memorial), and the superintendents they installed, like William Shine and Teresa Prendergast.
They have championed the Great Neck Public School District’s mission: “to provide an innovative and collaborative educational environment that supports academic excellence and the social and emotional growth of all students so that they may become life-long learners and compassionate, productive members of a diverse, global society.”
What struck me, listening to this outpouring of love and gratitude for this teacher, was how public education has been beaten down and undermined and how hard it is to maintain this mission – between the prison-like security conditions after more than two generations of school shootings, to the Bush-era testing mandates that punished even schools performing at the highest level (because they couldn’t show annual improvement) and forced them to teach to a test, to the anti-tax fetish and Cuomo tax cap that forced districts to cannibalize their programming and cut out the very things – music, art, theater, clubs – that enable young people to flower and find and fulfill their own potential and literally love school; to the sick obsession with sexual harassment (hugging is now out of the question); and now the utterly fascistic campaign to control “truth” and threaten teachers who dare raise any controversy or get students to think. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis just issued an edict that teachers could be sued by any parent “upset” by what a teacher says.
Now, even Great Neck’s Board of Education – so long a model for collaborative process, from the building-level Shared Decision Making to student board members and extraordinary success of its students – may well be targeted by those whose sole interest is to destroy anything “public,” “collaborative” and the ability of government to govern.
We cannot take for granted what and who make our schools and our children so successful, our community and society better.
People make a difference. (To be uplifted by his life and legacy, see Roger Ames’ biography, and listen to his music, www.rogerames.org and www.facebook.com/roger.ames.31).