Little Details (5/7/09)

Lasting lesson: Aim for the high notes

May 7, 2009

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Williston Central School’s production of the “The Wizard of Oz” showcased much more than the theatrical talents of our children. It demonstrated the resiliency of our community as we came together to realize the artistic vision of veteran teacher and school director Al Myers. Al’s untimely passing challenges us to celebrate his memory while embracing the many lessons he taught us.

Eighty-five middle schoolers, whether lead, chorus, dancer or tech crew, assumed their role with a little bit of Broadway. Nimble fingers stitched together costumes highlighting an impressive line of Munchkin and Winkie-wear to the rhythm of “stitch stitch here, stitch stitch there.” Sets and special effects transported sold-out audiences to the enchanted Land of Oz. The orchestra, composed of teachers and students past and present, finessed the whimsical score. Grandparents, parents, siblings, friends and WCS Drama Club alumni turned out to support Williston’s young thespians.

Dorothy most certainly took a trip on a cyclone to be greeted by a chorus of melodious munchkins. Scarecrow and the Tin Man sang their way into our hearts as the Cowardly Lion fretted and fussed with exceptional flair. Flying Monkeys descended on the Haunted Forest, delivering Dorothy to the Wicked Witch of the West, who cackled deliciously between cracking a few well-timed jokes.

These productions could not happen without the support of teachers, students, parents and friends. This year, however, was different. Al’s sudden passing created a cavernous void that inspired a vast outpouring of support from current and former students, their parents and his elaborate theater network. We worked through our tears and followed the lead of our amazing children who did not waiver in their task. We all had roles to play — some small, some seemingly gargantuan. Folks stepped up with their time, treasure and talent.

I was cast as Dorothy in the Farnsworth School production of “The Wizard of Oz” 34 years ago. Our director, Ms. Kokoras, was a small woman who set high expectations for her actors. What we lacked in facilities — our school didn’t have an auditorium — we made up for in sheer enthusiasm. We rehearsed in the basement and, when ready, carted our production across town to a school with a stage and sound system. I’d assume other roles over the years — some small, some large — but my love affair with theater started with that first audition beside a piano in Ms. Kokoras’ classroom.

Just a few weeks ago, I told Al how playing Dorothy made my life. I learned to stand straight and tall and enunciate my words. I learned to aim for the high notes in singing and in life.

Theater teaches children to think on their feet, improvise when necessary and speak with clarity. Formulating a good message is important. Finding an effective way to communicate one’s message is equally important. Being able to “perform” in front of people is a skill whose value is not limited to the stage. Finding and speaking your voice, especially in circumstances when others are unwilling or unable to speak, can change a course of events. This is true in the classroom, the boardroom, the courtroom and even a contentious public hearing.

As an educator, parent and theater-lover, I appreciated Al on so many levels. He was a first generation college student whose passion for learning — life-long learning — was infectious. He deftly balanced the gift of his multi-tasking brain with just the right dose of humility. He always answered my e-mails.

Al found a role for every child who wanted to participate in the school musicals, holding that child to high expectations. He bought Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream to celebrate the end of the quarter with his algebra students. Imagine these young mathematical minds dipping spoons into and passing around assorted pints of Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia in his classroom. He whistled while he worked.

When asked, Al graciously agreed to emcee a recent Old Brick Concert, a fundraiser for the WCS Mentoring Program. It was the first night of February vacation and many of his colleagues had already left town for well-deserved vacations. Al showed up, fueled by Robitussin, as he nursed a cold.

I thanked Al for coming out on the snowy night as I passed him a water bottle to soothe his symptoms. I felt badly that he was so sick and yet opted to show up. His words to me: “I’m happy to do it.”

As we move forward as a community to heal from our loss, the legacy of Al’s teaching and directing will echo and reappear in new and wonderful ways. Peace to you Al … we will forever see you in the magic of an illuminated stage.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or