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Southside Fundamental Middle School band goes out with a bang

ST. PETERSBURG

Outside the Palladium Theater, a light rain patters out a beat. Beneath the stage, Chris Touchton unleashes a storm.

"Okay," says Touchton, the band director at Southside Fundamental Middle School, "you got 30 seconds to warm up."

All at once, 185 students let loose thousands of clashing notes. Trombones honk. Clarinets flutter. A baritone croaks.

Touchton blows a whistle to restore order. Things have been crazy around Southside, he tells his kids, but you poured your hearts into the music.

"We're never going to let the music die," he says. "It's not going to die tonight. And guess what? After tonight, it's still not going to die, is it?"

The kids all shout no. And they mean it.

But it's still not easy to believe.

• • •

In January, Pinellas school officials announced they would close Southside after 82 years. Declining

enrollment, an old building, budget cuts. Something had to go. Seven other Pinellas schools are going too.

Southside's principal, Mike Miller, says his dying school is going through the classic stages of grief. Many parents and teachers are closing in on acceptance. Some are still eyes-blazing angry. How can Pinellas shut down its best middle school? How can it bulldoze eight decades of history? Sure, the building is held together by duct tape and bubble gum. But who's complaining? Now a proven teaching corps is going to be splintered? Now most of the black kids at Southside are going to one school and most of the white kids are going to another?

The band kids are especially upset. They're nearly a third of the school. They're not a clique. They're the clique. And forget the stereotypes, there's a swagger to 'em. "Band geek" is boldly highlighted on black T-shirts that say, "Without Music, Life Would B Flat." Year after year, Southside's band is acknowledged as one of the best in the state. In the band room, with its peeling paint and droning air conditioners, a dusty trophy shelf might collapse with the proof.

Mr. T is why they strut.

Bald and stocky, Chris Touchton, 34 — the kids call him Mr. T — looks more like a fullback than a band teacher. But put a conductor's baton in his hand and his movements become smooth and decisive. He is stern one second, jovial the next, then a combination of both.

"How do you miss me and my tempo?" he says one day, when the kids don't keep time with his baton. "I'm shiny on top. Round in the middle."

For smart-alecky sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders — in-between creatures who need boundaries but are hard-wired to ram them — Mr. T is perfect.

Every year, he organizes a spring concert, the big to-do for the band kids and their parents. Mr. T and the students always put a lot of care into the show. This year there's some anger in there, too.

They want people to hear the most amazing middle school band they've ever heard and think:

The school board voted to kill this?

• • •

May 4. The teachers' lounge.

No one speaks. No one even says, "Good morning." Pastries and strawberries hint that it's National Teacher Appreciation Week. But on this blackest of Mondays, the mood at Southside is anything but grateful.

Faculty members have known for months that Southside is closing. But it wasn't until letters from the Pinellas school district arrived over the weekend that individual teachers learned their fates. The lucky ones are headed to Madeira Beach Middle, which is becoming a back-to-basics school like Southside. The rest will remain in limbo for five more weeks, until a potentially worse ending: a gig at who knows where.

Some parents have signed their kids up for Madeira Beach Middle on the assumption that Touchton will continue to be their band teacher.

But he won't be. The letter Touchton got over the weekend says, bleakly, "You were not assigned a position for the 2009-2010 school year. Therefore, you have been identified as an involuntary transfer."

Translation: Touchton has no idea where he'll be teaching this fall. He's not sure he'll be teaching at all.

In the band room on Black Monday, he breaks the news to his students.

"I have to be honest with you. I'm a little disappointed," he says. "But that's life."

Touchton makes $38,795 a year. He and his wife owe a ton on their New Port Richey home. He also worries about what's going to happen to his 12-year-old daughter, who's now able to attend Southside with him.

But at school, Mr. T remains upbeat.

He still has kids to teach. Still has a show to put on.

Trumpets, make sure all the notes have the same quality of sound. It sounds like the middle note is being lost.

And then:

Tubas, we've talked about it before, but you have to blow air faster. Please stay with us. We don't want to leave you in the dust.

When he lucked into the Southside job six years ago, Touchton didn't know what a fundamental school was. He feared the worst as he drove through rundown parts of St. Petersburg on his way to the interview. Inside, he found the sweetest surprise. "I said, 'Holy cow. These kids are good.' "

He realized he could do a lot with these kids — kids with involved parents, kids who breeze through the FCAT. He could challenge. He could push. And these kids would keep reaching higher.

The staccatos are not being done with the trombones. It's getting lazy.

Tempo and accents are the least of Mr. T's lessons. He hits the kids with heavy stuff, too. Why music matters. Why it's more than just notes on a page.

One day, the band meekly begins what should be a raging funk jam, Jungle Boogie. Mr. T tells the baritone sax player, "You got to be angry." He scrunches his face in mock fury as he bobs to the beat.

"Angry at somebody?" Mr. T shouts over the music. The boy laughs and shakes his head.

"Angry at your mom?" Another shake.

"Angry at Nazis?"

This time the boy nods and dives into the riff.

The kids still talk about the time, about a month ago, when they were working on Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. It's a tough piece for middle schoolers. Slow. Emotional. Mr. T told them some listeners would be moved because they would associate their faith with the music. Others would be transfixed because it's so lyrical and lush.

But the audience won't feel anything if the musicians don't, he said.

Feel it. Emote it.

Finally, after days and days of practice, they rolled through the whole thing, from beginning to end. And they nailed it.

It was so good, Mr. T held the last note for an extra few seconds before signaling the band to stop. There was silence as he lowered his baton and tapped his fist against his chest.

As the kids looked on, stunned, tears ran down Mr. T's face.

• • •

It's hard to fall in love with a tuba.

Ethan Wheeler is 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, a shy giant of a seventh grader with Nickelback and Fall Out Boy blasting out of his iPod. He wanted to play saxophone or trumpet at Southside. But Mr. T got him to play tuba in a tryout for new musicians and told him, "You have the best sound I have ever heard from a beginning tuba player."

Ethan wasn't convinced. "I was afraid to tell people when they asked me what instrument I play," he says. "I'd say, 'Guess.' "

For nearly two years, he did his best. But he never got goose bumps about the 25-pounds of coiled brass in his lap. He thought about quitting.

Then, a breakthrough: The Southside wind ensemble, with Ethan on tuba, earned top ratings during a judged event in April. Ethan was proud and pumped. Suddenly, he couldn't wait to go on a band trip to Atlanta, the thing for band kids.

But then — wah wah waaaaah — a sour note. Ethan didn't have permission to go because he hadn't finished a book project that had been assigned a month earlier.

After some pleading from Ethan's mom, Ethan's teacher reluctantly offered a compromise. If Ethan could get the project done by the time the band bus left for Atlanta — about 5:30 the next morning — he could go.

Ethan wasn't feeling the science fiction in The House of the Scorpion. He was a little confused by El Patron and the zombie slaves and the orphans that eat plankton. But he got moving. Right after school, he began assembling a comic strip that highlighted the themes in the book and writing a report explaining them in more detail.

He finished at midnight. He awoke at 3:30. He and his mother pulled into the school parking lot at 4:45.

In the darkness, he heard Mr. T's voice. "Anybody with homework issues, come with me."

Thanks in part to the vagaries of the 12-year-old brain, this was the first time it seriously occurred to Ethan that he might not be going to Atlanta. The color drained from his face.

Mr. T gently grilled Ethan about his project. Why did you draw this figure? Why did you zero in on this theme? Ethan did his best to answer.

"Okay," Mr. T said, finally. "You can go."

Ethan boarded the bus as fast as he could.

Now, just in time for the band's final concert, he's learning the deeper lessons.

He's starting to understand something amazing about his humble tuba. When he's feeling angry or frustrated, he can blow into it and feel better. The harder, the better.

"I can let it out," he says.

Ethan has a lot to let out. His parents split up around Christmas. He and mom lived in his older sister's back room for two months. For a month, he was without his tuba.

Now, he and mom are settled in a one-bedroom apartment. Neighbors don't say Hi. Cars come and go at odd hours.

In his living room, Ethan blows. The sound is deep and rich.

• • •

The Palladium. Wednesday night.

The show is "That's Entertainment." Parents stride a red carpet. Programs proclaim, "Simply amazing!"

In front of packed house, a mystery question is beamed on to an overhead screen. "Where is Mr. T?"

The next image shows Mr. T in the band room, sprawled over his desk, asleep. The audience roars. And they keep roaring through a video that shows him desperately trying to reach the Palladium in time for the show. As the video ends, Mr. T, in the flesh, dashes through the auditorium wearing a Superman cape.

The band kicks into Hooray for Hollywood.

For two hours, with Mr. T as MC, six Southside bands take 660 family members on a trip through time and space. They do disco. They do classical. They do marches. They zip from Holly­wood to the Big Apple (New York, New York), from Mexico (Magnificent Seven) to Europe (The Sound of Music). They rock Edvard Grieg, the Norwegian composer who wrote the spooky In the Hall of the Mountain King. Then they rock The Trammps, who wrote Disco Inferno.

Mostly, they have fun. They snap their fingers like the dancing gangsters in West Side Story. They do the hand jive like the kids in Grease. For Y.M.C.A., the whole audience joins in.

Somehow, they manage all night to keep the bitterness at bay. But it's there the whole time, simmering beneath the surface. When the music finally stops, it flares.

The audience gives the band a standing ovation. The kids give Mr. T a new iPod. And then, it's over. All of it.

"With that," Mr. T tells the crowd, "we say, 'Southside's finished.' Good night. That's the end."

The words land with a clunk. The audience isn't sure how to respond.

A chorus of No's fades into awkward murmurs.

• • •

The next morning, the band kids quietly turn in their instruments.

Mr. T, tired and drained, checks to make sure they're intact, then logs them into a computer. In a few days, the students going to Madeira can rent their instruments for the summer.

Ethan lugs up his tuba.

"Do you still have a problem with one of your valves?" Mr. T asks.

Ethan says yes.

"Do you have the case for the mouth piece?"

Ethan shakes his head.

"Are you going to need it for the summer?"

Ethan nods.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873. Staff writer Donna Winchester and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Southside Fundamental Middle School band goes out with a bang 05/23/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 25, 2009 10:03am]

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