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Duane

Music, Drama, and a Love for Learning at Normandy High School

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I had the best choir teacher at Normandy High School, who is still very well known in the city. Dwayne Buggs. I did not have a choice of where to go to college because of Dwayne. For my last two years, he brought the Morehouse College Glee Club to the high school to perform. That was part of his thing, and the moment I heard those voices, and saw how amazingly poised they were, and just gentlemen, and just all these types of things that I hadn’t really seen a lot of, I decided that was the college for me. Plus, Martin Luther King went there, and Spike Lee, and all these wonderful people. Then I got a glee club scholarship, so I had no choice but to go there.

Duane Foster, photos by Lindy Drew

Duane Foster, photos by Lindy Drew

What was funny about going to Normandy is that I always went to the school board meetings as a child, from seventh grade through twelfth grade. One of my biggest desires going to Morehouse was to major in education so I could be superintendent of the Normandy School District. Long story short, my parents had a bad car accident my senior year and they couldn’t work. I had to get financial aid and I couldn’t major in education because I wasn’t getting a scholarship. I auditioned for the glee club, got a scholarship, and changed my major to music. After graduating from Morehouse, I went to NYU for a semester for grad school, went to France with George Faison the choreographer for the original Wiz, came back, and was accepted to Northwestern to get my Master’s. But I didn’t finish because a show came along called Ragtime and I got a part. By the time I did it for six months, the man that was playing my part in Toronto’s production — Kingsley Leggs, Normandy graduate —was bumped up to a lead role. They moved him to L.A., I took the place of Kingsley, and went straight to Broadway. So, I replaced a Normandy graduate and I did Broadway from 1996 to 2005.

Before I knew it, it became my goal and my quest to try to bring this back to some semblance of what I had when I went here.

It’s kind of a violin story, but it’s the truth. I had done my church gig one Sunday, and I knew that I was going to Hartford, Connecticut to do A Christmas Carol. I was on the bus, and I just sighed real deeply and said, “Oh, I want to go home.” I did the show and the company manager said, “Well, you can fly back to New York, or Southwest now flies to St. Louis. I know you’re from St. Louis.” I said, “Let me go to St. Louis.” So, the day that I got home, a man by the name of Jeffery Roan calls and said, “Oh, they had some problems at the middle school, and they let the speech and drama teacher go. They’re looking for a permanent sub. How long are you going to be home?” I said, “I’ll be home for four months.” Went up to the school board, went through all this stuff. I thought they were hiring me as a sub, but they hired me as a provisionally certificated teacher. They said, “Well, you have a B.A. degree. That’s all you really need. And you have two years to become fully certified.” I said, “I’m not staying here for two years.”

Have you ever seen the movie Lean on Me? That scene when he’s walking down the hallway of Eastside High, and then they show 15 or 20 years later? Kids are everywhere. It’s just confusion everywhere. Walking down the hallways here, initially, I would hear kids yelling at the teachers. I would see kids walking out without their passes. Even the class that I took over, I had one student who fought me tooth and nail the first two weeks. I had no training, I had never taught before, but I knew that you couldn’t talk to me like that. It was just a total disregard for respect. I didn’t know where to place the blame, except to look at my community. It’s not what it used to be. It’s not a working class community anymore. When you take away economics, family structure falls, therefore, the educational structure falls. Teachers can only do so much, and because I approach it as being a teaching artist and not as a career teacher, the inside is not what you see on the outside. In the midst of all of the so-called disciplinary infractions and problems, maybe I’m blind, but I still see the students who are here for the right reason, I see the teachers who are here for the right reason, and I see the ones who aren’t. What it was in 2006, is not what it is now. It’s improved a lot. But it has a lot more room for improvement.

I opened up the curtain to the stage at the Normandy Junior High School covered with desks, books, old furniture, and I almost cried because this was the stage that I performed on.

I opened up the curtain to the stage at the Normandy Junior High School covered with desks, books, old furniture, and I almost cried because this was the stage that I performed on. That weekend, I called people that I went to school with and said, “Can you all come up to the middle school and help me clean up the stage?” We moved all the furniture into the classroom. My mother came and did the floors. A bunch of people came and did the walls. We did the dressing rooms. Then, that next week, I started the Soul Shack Café rehearsals. All it was were The Temptations and The Supremes. I choreographed, taught songs, and we put on a big show in March. Actually, it was Black History Month and a bunch of people came.

But I wasn’t thinking about staying. My next gig came. It was just a weekend gig. Came back, finished out the school year, and went back to New York. The second week of school, the new principal called and said, “I had your cell phone number from the summer contact list. Are you planning on coming back?” I’m like, “Hmm, I’m not sure.” I had auditions and then I thought about that bus ride and about how none of that did anything for me — performing on Broadway, the standing ovations — nothing did anything that stuck. What did something for me was when I did the Soul Shack Café with those 14 kids, and people standing up, and watching them bow. That was like, “Ohh! Ohh! Ohh!” And I always used to say I hated teaching kids, because we would do that sometimes on Broadway when we would go to different high schools, but these kids just completely gave me 100 percent. So, I came back. And I fought myself staying because I was living with my mother, it wasn’t New York, I didn’t have my freedom, I couldn’t go see anything for free. New York is just New York. I was in St. Louis, and this place wasn’t what I graduated from. Before I knew it, it became my goal and my quest to try to bring this back to some semblance of what I had when I went here.

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I came to the high school in 2009. Took over the choir program. Since I’ve been here, we’ve done major musicals. They used to do musicals with the click track in the little theater. I said, “No, the band teacher is going to learn the orchestrations. Boom. The choir is going to be the pit singers. Boom. We’re going to have a dance academy. There’s going to be dancing.” So we’ve done The Color Purple, Dreamgirls, Ain’t Misbehavin’, The Wiz, and, this year, we’re doing Cinderella. I have the support of Beyond Housing. The Arts and Education Council has been really good. And my visions have all pretty much come true. But, then, when you read social media and you read the articles that have been written about Normandy, you hear so much of the negativity. I won’t take anything away from the bad stuff, but when you only report the bad stuff, it seems like that’s the only thing that’s here. I get so angry about it.

Two years ago we had the best teachers here, but everybody had to reapply for their job. By the time DESE authorized any hiring, many of these great teachers who the students loved and adored were hired in other districts. Then we got a lot of new teachers. We had students who were angry because their favorite teachers were gone, Mike Brown had just been killed, and they didn’t have anybody to talk to about it, and we were told not to talk about it, over and over again. I talked about it in class because that’s what I do. People like my classes not necessarily because I teach good music, but because I go into those types of conversations. The whole Mike Brown thing, I let them have their opinions and I let them talk about it. I showed them the social media responses in the newspaper on the Promethean board. I said, “It makes me angry, but you have to understand why people have their perceptions.” If somebody walks in late with his pants sagging and smelling like marijuana, for example, how am I as a teacher supposed to perceive him when another student walks in on time every morning, his pants are up, he says, “Good morning, Mr. Foster,” and he has his homework.”

I always bring our discussions. I never let them leave with this side is completely right and this side is completely wrong. Where is the middle ground?

I was playing devil’s advocate a lot. Black Lives Matter. All Lives Matter. Why don’t we riot? Why don’t we picket? Why don’t we walk when we kill each other? Why don’t we go on an uproar? A young lady said, “Well, we’re not hired to protect and serve people. They are.” I said, “Yeah, I don’t agree with everything that they do at all. I don’t agree with everything that other Black people do. Where do we find the middle ground?” That’s where I always bring our discussions. I never let them leave with this side is completely right and this side is completely wrong. Where is the middle ground? Just like the civil rights movement. There weren’t just Black people out there marching. Where is the middle ground?

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I almost left this summer. I almost resigned because the end of last year had so much disorganization. I wanted to be in an environment where the arts are already held to a high esteem and supported. When I was lamenting to my mother, she said, “Mmm hmm. So you plan on going somewhere and proving yourself all over again?” I said, “Well, I mean…” “Mmm hmm. And who’s going to help you move all your stuff out of your three rooms?” because I have this room, the office, and the drama room. It sounds so cynical, but the main reason why I did not resign is because I had a lot of stuff and a lot of emotional investment here. Which ended up symbolizing the first week of this school year. I was in tears. Now, I’m so glad that I’m back. I’m so glad that I didn’t leave. I’m so glad that this year has been like heaven.

The kids who are here had the chance to transfer and they want to be here. The real story for me is that these are the real troopers.

We went back to uniforms. Our freshmen and our seniors are wonderful. I think that’s all that it takes. The ninth graders and twelfth graders are our highest performing students, academically. Today I had 42 people stay after to try out for the dance academy. I never had that. For the first time, I have a real beginning choir with 36 kids. It’s like a renaissance taking place. It is not like a typical honeymoon period where it’s the first two weeks back to school and everybody is being good. No, I’ve seen kids break up arguments. I’ve heard kids say, “You all want to be on the news again?” I’m like, “Thank you!” The kids who are here had the chance to transfer and they want to be here. The real story for me is that these are the real troopers. A lot of these kids ignored their parents. “No, I’m going to Normandy. I want to be with my friends. I want to be with my teachers.” I can see that. So, here I am.

I fought for the job as Fine Arts Coordinator for the Normandy Schools Collaborative. That’s for all the schools:Middle, high, the four elementary schools, and the kindergarten center. We didn’t have anyone before. Science and social studies had a coordinator. Fine arts didn’t. And now we have a biomedical, engineering, entrepreneurship, and performing arts academy. For the first year, I don’t teach any music appreciation. Every child that’s in choir auditioned for choir. Every child that’s in band auditioned. Every child that’s in the guitar class auditioned. The choir kids have piano. They have to have piano or guitar to be in a performing group. They learn music theory and they sing. And at Normandy High School, I’m also the choir teacher and the department chair.

I love the classroom because I need to be here with the students in order to be one of those teachers. “Oh, I’m coming to school because Mr. Foster is there. He’s crazy. He’s cool.” Subconsciously, they’re like, “I’m going to do better because I want to be here.”

I want kids to feel good about coming to school. Once they do that, you don’t have to worry about them learning. I love the classroom because I need to be here with the students in order to be one of those teachers. “Oh, I’m coming to school because Mr. Foster is there. He’s crazy. He’s cool.” Subconsciously, they’re like, “I’m going to do better because I want to be here.” I have an expectation. I know that a lot of our kids can’t afford college. But I still make that a priority. You”ve got to reach for it. “Well, why do I need to go to college? I can get a job at a sheet metal company and make really good money?,” which they can. But I have to be here for those kids who don’t want to do those things. Who want to go to college, but don’t have that support at home.DSC_ 24936

To me, STEM sounds good. It looks good. I mean, “Oh, my child goes to so-and-so Science and Arts Academy.” I did not watch Glee a lot, but I love how they ended Glee. They ended by turning McKinley High School into a Performing Arts High School, because it’s the most successful program and it kept kids coming to school. I would say, with the exception of last year, every single senior that graduated — all seventeen — went to Carnegie Hall and all of them are now in a dormitory at a four-year college or university. Every single one. I didn’t force them to go. It just creates a greater expectation when you’re in a performance group. When you start with nothing — like the kids in The Wiz, who started with nothing but my crazy ideals, and then to get to closing night where they’re passing out flowers to me and the assistant director, and to see them so poised, and to see people standing up clapping — I’m like, “Do you get it? Do you understand?”

It’s like they have an expectation for success. They know what it looks like, feels like, and smells like. That translates over into every other curriculum, too.

So, now when I say, “Cinderella,” those same kids wonder, “How’s the set going to look?” “Well, the set’s going to be tiered, it’s going to have Plexiglas in the front, lights on the inside for the ballroom scene, those are going to be movable…” Now they don’t look at me like I’m crazy. They’re like, “The gowns!” I say, “Yes, the costume department is going to go crazy with making the gowns.” Then Miss Green is running up here, “You’re doing what?” “I’m doing Cinderella.” “Oh, Foster, please. All my good seamstresses graduated.” “Get them ready.” It’s like they have an expectation for success. They know what it looks like, feels like, and smells like. That translates over into every other curriculum, too.

I hate that I even had the idea in my head to go somewhere else to teach because I hear so many other people say, “Oh, you need to be at so-and-so school because you could really take the choir…,” All of our partners — Dance St. Louis, Opera Theater St. Louis, Stages St. Louis, COCA, the Classical Guitar Society — those are all of my relationships that I’ve built over the years and programs that I started. When I told them that I might not be returning, they were crazy. And when I showed up for one meeting, I walked in and they said, “Are you representing Normandy?” “Yeah.” “Oh, thank goodness! Can we bring Paul Taylor Dance Company there, October 15th? Can we bring these two opera singers there December 9th? We’re going to do the guitar program at these three elementary schools.” It was instantaneous. I kind of took that and ran with it. They know that I’m here for the kids and that I’m going to fight tooth and nail to make sure they have everything that they need.

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“If there was one thing that your students need that would make a tremendous difference right now, what would it be?”

Better technology. This school building is not wired because it’s so old. We have our Promethean boards. They look great. We had some notebooks we passed out last year. Three kids can get one, but not everybody. If we had updated technology, I think students would feel more valued. They want to feel valued and, sometimes, material things make them feel valued. Things around here need to be renovated. Better facilities. And, honestly, we’re on the right path to giving them what they really need and that’s more of a school culture, not just during school but after school. We’re bringing back intramural sports. We haven’t had it here since the 70s, and now all the kids are signing up. They don’t want to go home. There’s going to be a seven o’clock bus. For after-school stuff, a lot my kids eat and go into their activities. I will have Netflix here and snacks, and they’ll be waiting for the seven o’clock bus. That’s how we build our community, our choir community. They just need to feel valued.

Anything that has to do with performing, I can live in it all day long and get lost in it.

The teacher was outstanding. And, might I add, the teacher who was here before me was the replacement for Mr. Buggs. So, it’s been Mr. Buggs, Miss Brown, and me. I still do choir, drama, and dance. I build sets, I choreograph, I make costumes, I do make-up, I style wigs, and I go over lines. I don’t play the piano that well, which is why they hired an accompanist, but I can play parts. Anything that has to do with performing, I can live in it all day long and get lost in it.

They’re not letting the arts go here. As a matter of fact, the new superintendent said, “We’re not touching the arts. It’s the brightest light in our district. Every piece of good news, good press that’s come out of this district for the last five years has been about the choir, the musicals, the orchestra at the elementary school level, or 125 kids playing at Powell Hall on the stage. So, we’re not going to touch that.” Yes, it’s normally the first thing to go, but not in this district. This is why I feel that somehow, some way, this is going to end up being a Performing Arts High School. Right now, it’s a pathway for performing arts, biomedical engineering, and entrepreneurship. So kids who want entrepreneurship, they’re taking business classes. We have our real, real, real, real smart kids who we placed in biomedical engineering, but the theory is that most of our smart honor kids are in the band and choir. That’s just the way it’s always been.

I’m not going to rest until every building principal, every district fine arts coordinator, DESE, and the U.S. government know that it’s not just about a child sinking a basketball or kicking a field goal, but it’s about that child who is playing the violin, blowing a horn, singing at the top of his lungs, and emoting on stage.

When I won the Arts and Education Council Award 2013 Teacher of the Year, I said that I’m not going to rest until every building principal, every district fine arts coordinator, DESE, and the U.S. government know that it’s not just about a child sinking a basketball or kicking a field goal, but it’s about that child who is playing the violin, blowing a horn, singing at the top of his lungs, and emoting on stage. Those kids need to be completely and totally protected. And the curriculum needs to be corrected because students with ADHD and ADD — I attribute that a lot to fine arts programs being taken out of elementary schools. They took those things away and kids don’t have any type of constructive, emotional outlets to get rid of the waste they get at home. Our kids are coming from so many different energies from home, that if you don’t have it set up at school for that child to be placed in a situation where he can plug in and go, “Ohhhh,” whether it’s by playing an instrument or singing, drawing, dancing, photography… it’s almost like going to a steam room. The arts are like the steam room. They’re like a workout.

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“What has been hard for you to talk about, or to wrap your head around, since the events of last year?”

Perception. I feel so helpless, because I really wish that I could make it all better for my students in how they are perceived. My girls, yes, but especially my boys. I wish that I can just say to them, “Express yourself anyway you want to. Don’t worry about being judged.” I wish I could make that disappear. I wish that they didn’t have the double standard. I wish that they could speak and be heard. They have a lot of great things to say. I wish that they didn’t have to be judged by the craziness that happens from time to time. Zykhime, who is auditioning for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis Artist In Training Program, gets stopped all the time on the street. Not one cop would know that he’s an aspiring opera singer. Because of the way he looks, he has to deal with that. I have to deal with it, but I’m older so I process it differently. For him, is he going to say, “Officer, I’m an opera singer. Why are you stopping me?” He’s not going to believe him, number one, unless he starts singing. I just hate that he has to deal with that.

It’s about changing the narrative. How do you change the narrative? You do things that the public become aware of.

It’s about changing the narrative. How do you change the narrative? You do things that the public become aware of. After the choir got back from New York, we went to the Mexican restaurant El Palenque in Ferguson and we had on our jackets, There was this older White couple sitting two tables down. We had just been at UMSL to do a college visit. We were eating and laughing, and the couple got up, and came over, “You’re the guys from the Normandy Chorale who just went to New York?” “Yeah.” “Oh, that is so wonderful. My wife went to Normandy and there’s just so many bad things coming out of there. It’s just so great to see this.” It does matter. It does matter when the public passes by and sees a football game and sees the stand completely filled up with students, as opposed to last year when there was hardly anyone. Our first game was almost completely filled up. Why? Pep rally. A new teacher. I donate thirty tickets. Another new teacher. I donate thirty tickets. Most of the new teachers donated tickets because the student tickets are $2.00. I’m like, “Yes!” That started something. But it’s perception, perception, perception. That’s with anybody. We don’t want all of our good to be evil spoken of.

“Is there something that I didn’t ask you that you’d like me to ask you?”

Will I ever leave?

“Are you going to ever leave?”

I just said to myself, “I’ll probably never leave there unless something happens where I have to leave or it closes.” I’ll never leave because I started later than most teachers. I might as well stay until I can retire. And I want to stay until it turns around. When it turns around, then I might entertain the idea of leaving. I want to see this place turn around because I want to look at everybody’s faces. It will make national news because it’ll be such a big deal. I want to be here when that happens. That will be winning the lottery for me. I’ll quit when I win the lottery.