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Hudson Middle gives, jazz band delivers

The musicians travel to New York to perform for P.S. 234, a school near ground zero for which students raised $1,600 in a day.

By MICHELE MILLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 5, 2002


NEW YORK -- After Sept. 11, schoolchildren from around the nation and around the world sent gifts to P.S. 234, a red-brick elementary school that sits just three blocks from the World Trade Center.

Origami paper cranes came from Japan. Beanie Babies from Texas. Teddy bears from Oklahoma City. Kindergarten drawings from the south of France. On Thursday, a gift arrived from Hudson Middle School.

A jazz band.

"We've gotten a lot of presents," said Public School 234 principal Anna Switzer. "But this one is unique. These kids spent two days in a bus to come all the way from Florida to see you. Would you like to spend two days on a bus?"

"No!" shouted the fourth- and fifth-graders gathered in the school auditorium.

Hudson eighth-grader Joel Quina -- until last week, the tallest building he'd ever seen was in Tampa -- fired up those same kids with a drum solo that drew hoots, hollers and a rousing round of applause.

"I thought it was great," said fourth-grader Harry Cammer, who himself plays the saxophone. "I really liked the drums. When he did his solo -- I couldn't believe how fast he moved his hands."

Kids who know hardship

Weeks before they discovered P.S. 234, children at Hudson Middle had been trying to help.

"We had done different things -- sent money to the Red Cross and the United Way, but it didn't feel like that was enough," said guidance counselor Kelly Davey. "We were looking for a way to personalize it for our kids."

Davey went on the Internet and learned about a school near the World Trade Center that had lost everything "from staplers to arts and craft supplies."

Soon, principal Thomas Imerson declared that Oct. 9 would be "P.S. 234 Fundraising Day."

"We raised $1,600 in one day," said Davey. "Kids dug under their sofa cushions looking for change. They came to the office with Baggies full of money. In a school where 60 percent are on free and reduced lunch, that's amazing. These are kids who know hardship -- kids who have no money to give."

As it happened, band director John Keon already had plans to take his 26-member jazz ensemble to New York City as part of a trip that included a stop in Allentown, Pa., for a band competition.

Keon, who was born in Brooklyn and earned his master's at Columbia, thought a performance at P.S. 234 would put faces on the children Hudson students had been helping.

"To perform for these kids who have been through so much -- who have seen way too much -- and maybe bring them a little comfort is so wonderful," Keon said. "This is something our kids will remember for the rest of their lives."

A part of history

When the first plane hit, Annie Luce was delivering school supplies to a first-grade classroom.

"I heard parents screaming, and at first I thought a bomb had gone off in the school," she said. Luce pulled down the shades so the children couldn't see what was going on. "That's when I saw the second plane."

Luce, whose two boys attend the school, said the scene "was chaotic and scary outside. I just needed to find my husband. I needed to have my family together."

Family assistant Kathy Sussell and her 11-year-old daughter Emily left the school after the last 100 students had been evacuated.

"We scrambled to get out and were thrown back in (the school) after the second building fell," she said. "There was stuff coming down the street that I don't want to think about."

Luce still volunteers at P.S. 234. But now, her duties are different. She coordinates the parents' efforts to write thank-you notes, sends unneeded supplies to less fortunate schools and preserves many of the cards and gifts sent by well-wishers around the world.

"This is very important to archive this information," Luce said. "We feel like it's part of our school history."

"A lot of our kids are still having problems," said Switzer, the principal. "I think it's going to take time. I think we're in wonderful shape, but I think it's going to take a long time."

On their way into school each morning, the children pass a garden loaded with pink tulips. Just beyond, taped to a pole, is a monitor that measures levels of toxic materials and dust outside the school.

When the levels are too high, there is no recess.

'Totally awesome'

Before Thursday morning's performance, members of the Hudson Middle jazz band were greeted with bagels, muffins, orange juice -- and a steady rain.

That was okay, Switzer said. "I think it's a great day on a rainy day to have music like this," she told her students.

As usual, the band didn't disappoint. They started with the tune Inside Out. In between numbers, the players showed off their instruments. Alyssa Bolich demonstrated the trumpet; Jessica Kyzer, the saxophone. Nathanial Jones played Amazing Grace and got plenty of "oohs and ahs" when he showed off his baritone sax.

"It was totally awesome," said keyboard player Dina Grilli. "It was so cool to see the kids' faces light up and hear them clapping. For all they've been through -- it was pretty cool."

Susan Sawyer, chaperone and mother of band member Anthony Sawyer, said she was glad her son was getting the opportunity to play.

"I think our kids are desensitized because of what they've seen on television," she said. "I want him to see their faces -- to know that this happened to real people."

After the performance, Switzer told band director John Keon that the performance was "fabulous."

"We've had an outpouring of love and support from all over," she said, "but this was a way to engage the kids directly. We've gotten a lot of inanimate things -- from teddy bears to letters and pictures. This was important for our kids to actually see some of the people who have been helping us.

"But I think you've created a little problem here, John," she said to Keon. "I have a feeling we're going to get a lot of requests from our kids for drums."

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