Despite occasional dissonance in school district, music teacher brings racial harmony to classroom | St. Louis Public Radio

Despite occasional dissonance in school district, music teacher brings racial harmony to classroom

Feb 19, 2010

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Patrick Jackson stood alone on the stage of the packed Keating Theater at Kirkwood High School last Dec. 22, with just his double bass in his arms, playing an idiosyncratic and difficult solo called "Failing."

Jackson, a top-notch school orchestra teacher in St. Louis, was the final performer of the "Road to Carnegie" gala that had featured current and former students who have gone on to professional careers. Daughter, Patrice, a talented cellist who has pursued a solo career since her graduation from the Yale and the Julliard School, was among them. The December concert raised the money to send the school orchestra to play a concert at Carnegie Hall. (Click here to read an earlier Beacon story, "Patrick Jackson leads Kirkwood orchestra students to Carnegie Hall.")

Jackson's students had set the theater abuzz and now Jackson had this impossible piece to perform, requiring the soloist to speak and play at the same time, with each passage more difficult than the one before. Jackson almost had given up on the piece during rehearsal last summer, but a former student had once played it and he wasn't going to let himself be outdone by a former student.

Jackson was superb. The audience rose in applause.

That piece, "Failing," is a metaphor for Patrick Jackson's life.

He has succeeded most spectacularly when it may have seemed to him that he was failing. Son of a teenage mother, Jackson grew up in his grandparents' house in segregated McComb, Miss. He had dreamed of joining the Tonight Show band and, later, of getting a job with a top symphony orchestra. His grandmother insisted he hedge his dreams with a teacher's certificate. He put his orchestra dream on hold to make money for his young family with that certificate. The temporary plan became a career and for a generation of music students in Kirkwood, he has been that favorite teacher who could talk the students' language and inspire a new crop of dreams.

For many students, Mr. Jackson, as the students call him, is the only African-American teacher they have had during their entire childhood in the Kirkwood schools. The students don't know it and the parents don't know it, but Jackson feels that Kirkwood administrators have sometimes treated him and other African-American teachers disrespectfully. But, sit in his class and watch Jackson alternately praise, prod and gently insult his players and race is invisible.

This is a glimpse into the promised land of racial harmony where Patrick Jackson succeeds daily despite the school district's past failings on racial equality.

At the end of the dirt road

Jackson, 51, grew up in segregated McComb, a place that didn't hold its first integrated prom until 2008. His grandparents' house was the last one on the dirt road before the white folks' houses and paved roads. White kids would drive wildly down the dirt roads.

Reporter's observation

This reporter is not entirely objective about Patrick Jackson. He and his family are my friends. My children played in his orchestra and loved every minute. Today, when they are together, they soon are lost in a long, gossipy conversation about who is doing what in the music world.

I never had talked to Jackson about race until last month. Over more than a decade of watching him teach my children, I only had seen him working the magic of the colorblind society in his orchestra room. Patrick never told me about any troubles. I never imagined there were any.

The story is reminder of something I often forget. White people don't have to deal with race if they don't want to. African Americans have no choice.

Race has defined Jackson in many ways beyond his control, starting with his segregated childhood and segregated education. But Jackson is not confined by the box of his racial identity.

He is no more failing than he did on Dec. 22 when he brought the people of Kirkwood to their feet.

The schools were segregated through grade school. It may have been a decade after Brown vs. Board of Education, but that didn't mean much in Mississippi. Freedom Summer had yet to unfold. Jackson remembers sitting in the back of the balcony to watch the movies.

Music saturated Jackson's home. His grandfather, who taught him, was Willie Jackson, a popular blues guitarist who came from a long line of fiddle players. When grandfather got home around 5 p.m., he gave Patrick music lessons. Jackson's grandfather played at parties for whites in their homes, and his  great-grandmother worried that something might happen to him.

Jackson realized in high school that he wasn't going to get an orchestra job or a music scholarship playing the electric guitar, so he switched to the double bass. He got a music scholarship from Loyola in New Orleans and was admitted to respected Berklee College of Music in Boston. But his family didn't want him to go that far away to school and he ended up at nearby, segregated Jackson State.

The music program "wasn't that great" at Jackson State, he recalls. But a young, female piano major came up to him one day and said she had heard him talking about going to Interlochen music festival in Michigan and wondered if she could get information about it. That was Chakita, who became his wife and later a music teacher in Hazelwood schools.

After Interlochen, the Jacksons moved to St. Louis where Jackson studied with Henry Loew, then principal bassist of the St. Louis Symphony. After getting his master's, Jackson studied with the symphony's Carolyn White, who taught him free on her own bass. Auditions, where 75 players would show up for one spot, didn't land a job. Patrice was born and Jackson hatched the plan to work for a year to make money.

After a stint in the chaos of the St. Louis Public Schools' music program and a few years at Normandy, Jackson took the job at Kirkwood, where the high school music program, with only 19 students, was on life support.

Changing the world

Jackson said he was angry about how he was educated in the South.

"Some of the white teachers I had did not care," he said. "I always thought if someone had taken the time.... Instead of me being bitter, I decided to show that all African-American men are not like what you see on TV. I had to start changing the world."

He did change the world at Kirkwood High School and North Middle School. The orchestra grew and grew, finally splitting into two orchestras. A district orchestral program with 38 students when he came in 1991 grew to 315. Student musicians won top state honors.

Jackson won Secondary String Educator of the Year and the Kirkwood School District's Teacher of the Year award in 2003-04. But the one-plus ratings in state competitions and the awards don't do justice to what Patrick Jackson means to students. You have to watch him to know that.

Sometimes he instructs them: "Somebody is not playing C in tune," he says with a frown.

Sometimes he levels with them. "Some of you are getting it all. Some of you are just sight-reading. You don't know what you're doing." Then he pauses and says impatiently, his baton in the air, "When you're ready."

Sometimes he amuses them. "If we had boys in this class," he tells a class of wound-up junior high school girls at North, "we'd sound a lot better. Boys are smarter," he adds as the girls dissolve into laughter.

Even though Jackson is one of only two black teachers at KHS, he realizes that his presence matters as much for the white students as the black ones. "We've talked about just the issues with me and my white students in terms of diversity. What that means to them. In a diverse society, that is necessary. It's not necessary so much for African-American kids, African-American teachers, it's for the white students. Look at the relationship building I've had with my students. The white children don't get the opportunity other than with me."

Star teacher disrespected

Having observed the easy way in which Jackson interacts with the students, white and black, it's a surprise when he tells how he reacted a few years ago when a young white student invited him to the family holiday party. Jackson said he'd have to check his calendar. He felt uneasy about being the only black at the party and hoped the girl would just drop it. She persisted and he ended up attending.

More surprising, Jackson has not always felt as though white administrators respected him and other black teachers. Not long after he was chosen Kirkwood Teacher of the Year in 2003-04, Jackson and other African Americans met with Deb Ayers, the now-retired assistant superintendent for human resources. They were concerned that African-American teachers were not being treated with respect. One female teacher had immediately quit because of what she thought was a lack of respect, and a new African-American administrator was moved out quickly.

"I mentored some African-Americans on the staff, and they are all gone," he said. When the African-American administrator lost his job quickly, "many of us were devastated."

At the meeting with Ayers, Jackson says she told them she "didn't care what color people were, just whether they have 3.5 grade point averages." Not long after the meeting with Ayers, the central office began investigating a complaint against Jackson, a complaint that was unfounded.

"I felt this was payback," he said. "I don't walk on water, but I felt this was putting me in my place." 

Thomas L. Williams, the new superintendent, said through a spokeswoman  that Ayers' comment about the importance of the 3.5 grade point average "might have been misunderstood....That was not the only thing we looked at. It was one of the things.....Now we look at GPA, but it's one of many things. We look at experience, content areas and GPA."

Ginger Fletcher, spokeswoman for the district, said that neither Ayers nor the district could comment on the reprisal issue, adding that Williams had noted "this happened so long ago."

Jackson said the disrespectful attitude of some administrators was not a thing of the past. After a recent fingerwagging criticism, an administrator asked if he understood the reason. "I understand perfectly," he remembers replying. "I grew up in Mississippi."

Ask Jackson if he thinks Kirkwood has a race problem and his answer is, "I can't really say that. Ninety-nine percent of the parents who I deal with who are in the program are very positive. But we did get together and met with the new superintendent about how African-American teachers have been disrespected and mistreated."

Jackson has hopes that meeting, which was held several weeks ago, may bear fruit.

"You can go through this whole district," says Jackson, "and not have an African-American teacher. From kindergarten to 12th grade. I just don't know why that is not a priority.... That sets up a climate for the culture of this town."

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

Kirkwood’s Journey

This article is part of a series on Kirkwoodians' efforts to understand how race affects their city and what role it might have played in the City Hall shootings two years ago. Read more stories about Kirkwood's Journey. The series is part of the Beacon's Race, Frankly project.