by Maura Stephens
Twenty-two years down the road, James Rouse '85 thanks a teacher who changed his life.
James Rouse '85 remembers, without a trace of nostalgia, what it felt like to be 16 years old. "I had transferred from a parochial school to a large public high school," he says. "I was a lost and confused kid, and my grades were suffering. I lacked direction and the will to try to excel in learning."
James would prowl the corridors at school, feeling too out of place to enter the classrooms where he was supposed to be. One day some body intervened. "After seeing me wander the halls many times, never reporting to my assigned class, this music teacher stopped me," James remembers. "He asked to see my class schedule and noticed that I had only basic courses, no electives. He told me to report to the music room to study during my free time, so that he could monitor me."
Never having taken a music class, James was sure he would feel as disengaged from that subject as he did with everything else. "But that teacher knew what he was doing," he says. "He made me feel like I belonged, and ascertained that I had a special talent for music. He encouraged me."
James's grades improved, and his overall high school experience took a sharp turn for the better. The music teacher even gave him the lead in the high school musical. But as a junior, as James readied to apply to colleges, he learned that his less-than-stellar earlier academic record would make his chances for admission to college pretty slim.
"I was saddened by this news," James remembers, "and confided in my music teacher that I wanted to go to college more than any thing." The teacher taught James three arias that he thought would best demonstrate the boy's vocal ability. "He took me to an audition for the Ithaca College School of Music," says James, "and I was given a scholarship on the spot!"
James went on to do very well at Ithaca College, not only in his music studies but in all the courses he took. "That teacher taught me to connect with a musical intelligence I didn't know I had, and because of that I learned to engage other areas of the curriculum and master all disciplines. I believe that this 'transference' of the learning process is evidence that multiple intelligences stimulate the student and can promote overall achievement."
James was only erratically in touch with his old music teacher, but he thought of him often during the years. As a teacher of emotionally disturbed and learning disabled children at a special education school in New York City, he tries to use what he learned from his high school teacher and from his professors at Ithaca to help his own students realize their potential. "I have been happily employed as a pianist and a music teacher ever since completing Ithaca College," says James. "Mr. Still and the staff and faculty at the School of Music equipped me with a first-rate music education back in the early '80s that will stay with me for a lifetime. I have loved my work so much that I have never really felt that I have worked a day in my life."
James received a master's degree in special education from Touro College, graduating with a 4.0 GPA, and is now finishing up a second master's degree in school administration and supervision. At his Touro College graduation in June, held at Lincoln Center, James was class speaker.
He dedicated his entire speech to his high school music teacher. John Still '65 was brought to Lincoln Center that day by his daughter Lynlee Still '96, under the pretense of seeing an opera. "He had no idea why he was really there," laughs James. "Lynlee told him that before the opera she needed to stop at her friend's graduation at Avery Fisher Hall, and that he might as well join her." John Still recognized Jimmy and thought it surprising that he would be graduating at the same time as Lynlee's friend. "I looked up his name among the graduates, but I didn't think to look at who was speaking," John says. "When Jimmy was called to the stage and started to speak, I got a lump in my throat."
"I told the audience that my speech was about a teacher who was in the audience," says James, "a teacher who changed my life. During the speech I had him stand and receive a heartfelt round of applause. It was very moving to hear the roar of that applause.
"I ended the speech by urging all educators to realize that they, too, have the power to change a life. I was glad to be able to give my teacher Mr. Still the grand 'thank you' that he has deserved for decades."
John Still has retired after 30 years of teaching at Port Jefferson High School, but his legacy continues. He is a longtime friend of Larry Doebler, Ithaca's fabled choir director, and over the years he has sent many of his musically gifted students to study at Ithaca, including Noreen-Adele Foster '90, Ingrid Olsen '91, and Vanessa Gaul '02. This year Ithaca has a new second bass, Adam Strube '07. "He and I sang together in a professional group," says John, "and he transferred in on my recommendation. He has a wonderful bass voice. Two weeks after school started this year, Larry Doebler called to thank me for sending Adam."
Of his old student James Rouse, John says, "Jimmy never talks about his own singing, but he has an absolutely beautiful Irish tenor. It just floats. And he plays piano now, something he picked up at Ithaca College." John knew back at Port Jeff High that the wandering, displaced 16-year-old boy had something special and just needed to find it within himself. "When I brought him into choir practice the first time, the other kids sort of groaned and rolled their eyes. But then he began to sing, and the kids all just went 'Wow.' "
James still performs, but these days the audience is primarily his students. "Since I have been so busy with my graduate work I have not been performing as a pianist the way I used to," he says. "Although I accompany my students every day on the piano while I am teaching music, I have not been engaged as a solo performer in quite some time. However, I miss it very much and am longing to resume my work as a pianist. After New Year's I will begin reconnecting with that passion."
James, the boy who had no direction back in high school, has found his way quite clearly. His passionate pursuit of learning has been undertaken with a serious goal. "I hope," he says, "to become a school administrator who appreciates teachers like Mr. Still. I will always use his work as an example of what every teacher should strive to do: change lives for the better and have an impact on generations to come."