Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Philly music teacher wins first National Respect! Challenge

Samantha Byles/Inquirer Staff Writer/Philly.com


The seventh-grade students at Tilden Middle School in West Philadelphia toss their sweaters and bags to one side of the room and take their seats behind one of several Casio WK-1350 electric keyboards. Some sit two to a keyboard.

Music teacher Alandra Abrams is at the front of the classroom, tuning her keyboard and putting on her microphone headset. The students follow her moves and appear ready to warm up and play their first song of the class, "Jingle Bells," when a student announces that her keyboard won't turn on.

"This is exactly where that money is going. Toward new power cords for the keyboards, because using batteries will just not cut it," Abrams says as she walks to Station 11, home of the broken keyboard.

Abrams is one of two 2012 winners of the first national Respect! Challenge, sponsored by the San Francisco-based nonprofit Futures Without Violence and Macy's. The Respect! Challenge encouraged the public to start a conversation about respect and asked participants to write about a person that inspired them.

Futures Without Violence selected 10 and posted them on Facebook, asking the public to pick the top two stories. The Saginaw (Mich.) High School Teen Advisory Council also received the top prize.

"It was a relatively simple program, and that's because we wanted everyone to enter," said Futures Without Violence founder and President Esta Soler, who has partnered with Macy's for five years on other projects. "We received entries from all over the country, hundreds of them expressing the concept of respect by talking about a role model or a mentor in their life."

The two winners were each given $10,000 toward a nonprofit or school of their choice. They will also travel to New York for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

Abrams' entry described her junior high school music teacher at the lower high school at Strawberry Mansion, Karen Michalka, who taught Abrams respect by giving it to her.

"My music teacher looked out for me and taught me to love and respect self and others through music," Abrams wrote in her entry. "She helped me to build pride in myself, to respect others despite how they treated you, and good self-esteem."

"It blows my mind every time I think about what she did for me," said Abrams, 51, who lost contact with Michalka. "She was the ignition for everything I do today."

Abrams had wanted to play the flute in her music class, but since all the flutes had been handed out, she agreed to the French horn.

"She had given me this mouthpiece and told me to practice blowing in it, and I thought that was the French horn," said Abrams. A month later, Michalka told Abrams that she was ready for the French horn, at which, Abrams said, she replied, "There's more to it?"

Michalka expected students to take their instrument home to practice every night.

Abrams, the oldest girl among six siblings, remembers stuffing a sock into the horn to prevent anyone from hearing her practice, knowing that she would get in trouble.

"I would get laughed at and called names for bringing it home, and it just wasn't a good environment for any child to grow up in," Abrams said of her childhood home in North Philadelphia. Abrams said she suffered from verbal and physical abuse while growing up but that it was taboo to talk about it.

"I carried that shame and pain to school every day, hoping that no one would notice," said Abrams. Michalka made an effort to notice her and supported her by finding her financial assistance and music programs.

Abrams graduated from Temple University in 1989 with an undergraduate degree in music education. She has taught music and technology at Tilden for 18 years. Abrams also supervises the school's Praise dance, chorus, bowling, and track teams.

"When we decided to expand the number of student activities, Mrs. Abrams went above and beyond expectations in giving students rich and valuable opportunities," said Jonas Crenshaw, Tilden's principal. "It's these classes where students determine what they are passionate about, discover their talents, and expand their learning opportunities."

Michalka, who now lives in Berkeley, Calif., vividly remembered Abrams and her musical talents.

"She was absolutely incredible, and she had such a talent with the French horn," Michalka said in an interview.

Abrams was a member of Michalka's first class after she graduated from Temple. While Abrams remembers Michalka as being tough, Michalka said it was necessary: "Too many people didn't expect much from the students in my class, but I expected a lot from them. There were no excuses as to why they couldn't succeed."

After five years teaching in Philadelphia, Michalka moved to the West Coast, where she continued to teach music to children.

She lost contact with Abrams, but is thrilled that her former student is still passionate about music and is committed to share it with kids. "It just blows me away. And giving the money back to the school is something that I would do, because that's what you're supposed to do as a teacher who cares about her students."

For Waker Murray and Anthony Gamble, Abrams' music class has become a friendly competition between the two friends who share the same keyboard during class. The stars of the class, their parents have agreed to buy them keyboards to continue their passion for music.

Abrams' prize money will be used to purchase new equipment for her classes as well as other improvements at Tilden.

"Investing in the children is a priority for me. Moments when I can talk and connect with the students and they can see that I care about them and that I believe that they can be successful is what counts," said Abrams.

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