Little Drummer Boy

Across the street from the house where 8-year-old Lee Holmes lives, there is an empty doghouse, presumably built by a neighbor who has since moved. Scrawled on the doghouse is this epithet: "Bear the Shithead."

The doghouse sums up the ugly vibe I get from Lee's central Phoenix neighborhood. This place is so meanspirited and violent that even street gangs seem to avoid it. Only the low-end crack merchants and their wigged-out whores thrive here. It looks as though drug deals are going on across the street from Lee's house and in the little storage shed next door.

Sometimes, crackheads pound on the door, ask Lee for money.
Mostly, Lee stays inside the house watching Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network.

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Life at school isn't any better. The clumsy, pudgy half-Latino, half-Anglo kid says in a low voice that he hates school because kids tease him--for being part Anglo, for not speaking Spanish, for not being good in sports.

"White boys can't jump, fat boy," the kids scream at him during recess.
Lee daydreams in class, forgets to take his spelling words home, flunks tests. His mother, Rosa Holmes, a hotel maid and high school dropout, adores her son and dreams of him getting a college degree, but I don't think she has the first inkling of what it takes to get him there.

"How'd you do on that spelling test?" she asks.
"Not so good," Lee says.
"That's okay," she says.
Rosa watches her son fool with a video game that has no batteries.
"I have a steel drum under my bed and I practice it all the time," Lee says.
"Don't lie," Rosa says.
Lee goes back to playing the dead video game.

Lee wasn't always so isolated. Just a couple of weeks ago, he was a part of something unique and rewarding, something he could be proud of--a steel drum band that had been organized at his school. Lee's months in the band had literally transformed his life.

Then the adults stepped in and ruined a good thing.
Lee and 22 other kids in the steel drum band became the victims of a stupid squabble between unyielding administrators at the Wilson Elementary School District and a hotheaded, egotistical, extremely talented music teacher who had organized the band and selected Lee to play in it.

For the first time in his life, Lee had been a star--one of six lead drummers in the band, which had been featured on local TV newscasts. Just a few weeks ago, the Arizona Republic wrote a big story about the band. "Hard work opens doors for school's drum band," the headline said, and the article talked about how playing these instruments of Caribbean origin (they're cut from large barrels) taught these inner-city kids how to enjoy music, discipline themselves and learn teamwork.

Given the confines of Lee's life--the violent neighborhood, the relentless taunting at school--I find it amazing that when school started last fall, Lee actually summoned the courage to try out for the band that was being assembled by the new music teacher, Keith Ballard.

Three hundred children tried out for the band, but there were only 23 openings. When Lee learned he had made the band, he was ecstatic.

"I stayed in my ordinary self, but inside I felt wild," Lee remembers.
His self-esteem soared. Like the other children in the band, he learned the rewards of working hard. He actually looked forward to going to school. His failing grades became passing grades. He even brought his spelling words home.

And the steel drum band was becoming famous. Soon the band was playing "Tequila" and "Day-O" and "Mary Ann" at assemblies, and everyone in the school, including the creeps who taunted him, liked the band.

Big corporations and important people wanted to hear the band. Last February, Lee and the other members of the band played for Martin Luther King III, Attorney General Grant Woods, former Phoenix mayor Terry Goddard, Mayor Skip Rimsza and Bishop Thomas O'Brien.

Seemed like one gig would lead to another, and before long, the band was booked through May.

Then something terrible happened.
On Saturday, April 12, Lee got up early, ready to play in a scheduled performance.

His mother tried to break the news gently. Mr. Ballard wasn't at the school anymore, she said. He'd gotten in a fight with the principal. The steel drum band had been disbanded.

Lee went into another room, closed the door, and cried for a long, long time.

I wonder if he will ever take a risk again.

Judging from the many times Keith Ballard has telephoned me to spin me on all the ways he has been persecuted by the Wilson Elementary School District, I can say without reservation that he can be an exceptional nag.

But after watching videos of the band and interviewing parents and students, I also have no doubt that he's an exceptionally talented music teacher, well-liked by both children and their parents.

Strange as it may seem, Ballard seized on the idea of teaching inner-city kids how to play steel drums. There were several reasons Ballard believed disadvantaged kids would fare better learning the steel drum instead of more traditional instruments like clarinets or oboes. Students wouldn't have to pay to rent the instruments--Ballard owns them--and they wouldn't be taken home, where they might be abused, lost or stolen. What's more, kids seem to learn how to play the drums faster than regular instruments, and have more fun doing it.

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