On Education: Happily lost in Yonkers' lessons

For some, returning to middle school might seem like the plot of an especially corny B-grade horror flick. Oversized backpacks and the seventh-grade sex-ed teacher serving as supporting characters, of course.

Yet there I was, wedged in the trumpet section in Rod Yonkers' honors band class, which convenes 7 a.m. daily at Rosemont Middle School in La Crescenta. It was exactly where I could be found 15 years prior. The younger me sported braces and a ponytail, my former teacher reminded me before rattling off the names of a few of my contemporaries.

“My philosophy has always been the kids are first,” Yonkers said. “They don't care what you know until they know how much you care. I learn their names the first week.”

My visit was only partially about reliving my musical glory — I discovered in a practice session the night before that the range of notes my lips could produce had shrunk to the basic chromatic scale.

Instead, it had everything to do with taking a fresh look at what it means to be educated in Glendale, as I will be responsible for in this newly conceived column for the Glendale News-Press.

The byline may be familiar. I spent the last two years as a reporter with this paper, covering major education news including the passage of a $270-million school bond and a student suicide at Crescenta Valley High School. The daily beat is now covered by my colleague, Kelly Corrigan, allowing me a new voice in the most pressing education issues in this community.

There will be no shortage of fodder. Local schools have just kicked off what is poised to be the most difficult year in recent memory.

Last month, Glendale Community College officials announced they would cut $13 million from the budget, including $9 million in pay for roughly 100 classified employees. Glendale Unified has implemented plenty of its own cost-cutting efforts, reducing its administrative ranks, laying off its public information officer and clinging to $2.3-million worth of unpaid teacher furlough days.

Both districts will be forced to cut expenditures by millions of additional dollars if California voters reject tax initiatives to appear on the November ballot (more to come on that in a future column). Understandably, tension is running high.

Before you start calculating private school tuition in your head, know too that there is a lot to celebrate on the Glendale education scene. I intend to do plenty of that in this column, when and where deserved.

That brings me back to Mr. Yonkers.

It wasn't just his name that stuck with me years after I tooted my last note, but the welcoming environment he created. You heard his voice booming down the hallway long before stepping through the classroom door.

He had an uncanny ability to remember every student's name, perhaps most impressively the parade of Lees and Kims and Shins that filled his seats. He marched us down Honolulu Avenue in the Montrose Christmas Parade, and ferried us to Catalina Island.

More than anything he gave me — and I suspect many other student musicians — something to belong to, a reference of identity during years that for some young people can be entirely forgettable. And he has produced his share of musicians, amateur and otherwise.

Now in his 27th year with Glendale Unified, the 58-year-old is just as engaging as ever. Trumpet raised, I tried to keep up as he guided the group measure to measure, song to song like a Labrador puppy chasing after a tennis ball.

“I would go forever,” Yonkers said when asked about retirement. “I just like it a lot. I get here at 6 a.m., and I am just excited every day. The kids give me energy. It's always been like that.”

Forget a baton. The 12-inch stick Yonkers conducts with might as well have been a wand, à la Harry Potter. Indeed, the way he encourages, teases and coaxes music out of his students could be described as magic.

I would call it brilliant teaching.

MEGAN O'NEIL is a former education reporter for Times Community News and current graduate student at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She may be reached at megan.oneil.06@gmail.com.

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