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.

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.

"I only had one goal, to help the kids," he says, adding that the Wilson band was so good it exceeded his wildest expectations.

Lee certainly wasn't the first inner-city child whose fragile ego was boosted by Ballard and his steel drums, and he certainly isn't the first child disappointed by a Ballard departure.

Prior to coming to Wilson Primary School last fall, Ballard had organized three other steel drum bands. He did this as a part-time teacher who made ends meet by selling pharmaceuticals to doctors on the side.

He also learned to work the press--one band appeared on a network morning show and others were covered by local television and print media.

"What I do is come into the inner city and teach kids to kick butt," Ballard says. "I could have worked at Gilbert or Mesa, but I choose to work in the inner city."

He will tell anyone who will listen that he's a great teacher, and, his ego notwithstanding, I think he is.

Last fall, Ballard thought he'd landed his dream job when he was hired as the music teacher at Wilson Primary. Thanks to a huge industrial tax base, the Wilson Elementary School District is one of the richest in Arizona--an irony considering that most of its students are very poor. The district contains only two schools, but its operating budget this year was about $7.2 million. Wilson teachers are among the highest paid in the state.

Ballard, of course, thought money would be no object as he built the district's music program. This year, he coached the steel drum kids during his lunch hour at Wilson Primary. But he wanted administrators to add a multicultural music curriculum next year. Steel drums in both schools. African music. A mariachi ensemble.

"You've got to fight for music programs because most people consider it fluff," says Keith Ballard. "That's what they teach us in college."

And fight he did.
What follows is Ballard's version of events; Wilson Primary Principal Jane Juliano and district Superintendent Roger Romero wouldn't talk about events leading up to Ballard's departure.

Ballard says he submitted a proposal to improve the music program to school officials early this year. He says he waited and waited for an answer. When Juliano finally told him in early April that it didn't appear that his multicultural program would fly, he became exasperated.

In his frustration, he did several things that are so impolitic they are comical.

First, he told Juliano he was going to take his case to the school board and parents.

He claims the principal replied that if he organized parents, he'd be fired. But Ballard couldn't help himself. In an assembly attended by parents, he insulted school officials who were also in attendance. He begged parents for their support. Of course, not all the parents in this mostly Latino school district could speak English, and Ballard could not speak Spanish, so parental support was tepid.

Next, Ballard backed himself into a corner. In a note to Juliano, he threatened to resign if she didn't give him a final answer about his music proposal.

Judging from her written reply to Ballard, Juliano was furious. She accepted his resignation that day, subject to approval by the school board, as required by state law.

Ballard was put on administrative leave until the school board could convene on April 16.

Ballard hired a lawyer, who claimed the music teacher had only intended to resign at the end of the school year, not in April.

Despite his attempts to rescind his resignation, it took the angry school board only six minutes to accept it. Of course, the school board didn't have to accept the resignation. The board could have taken a step back, seen that the teacher was a talented guy devoted to the children and slapped his wrist and kept him on staff.

But in this ridiculous standoff between the stubborn teacher and the stubborn school officials, everyone forgot about the inner-city kids they'd devoted their careers to helping.

Ballard now realizes how foolhardy he was.
"I never intended it to go like this," he says. "Never, ever.
"I'm the type of guy who has no problem saying, 'Hey, we're all a bunch of fools. Let's sit down and talk. This whole thing was crazy.' But they won't sit down and talk."

I think he's right. Superintendent Roger Romero was not in a conciliatory mood when I asked him whether the kids weren't being needlessly punished. The superintendent implied that his hands were tied and that the real problem was with Ballard himself, not district finances. He would not comment further, citing those personnel rules. (The day after I interviewed Romero, Lee's mother got a letter from the school principal saying that the district would try to organize an after-school music program.)

Ballard blames the whole mess on money. If he'd gotten his multicultural music program, he would not have made such a fool of himself.

"This is Mr. Holland's Opus in reverse," says Ballard. "Mr. Holland's music program was shut down because of budget cutbacks. But the Wilson district had the money!"

I asked Ballard why, if he is so dedicated, he doesn't get the steel drum kids together on his own, for free, maybe at the local Boys and Girls Club. He says he'll try to do this, maybe get the band together for scheduled gigs. But there are transportation problems. And the kids are hard to get together--not all of the parents speak English or have phones.

And he says there's one more big problem: The Boys and Girls Club meets at the Wilson schools.

And besides, he's already taken his drums to the Roosevelt district, where he's starting up a new band--for free. He hopes to get a job there, he says.

In short, there's not much chance Lee's steel drum band will be revived.

Lee shares his house with 10 people--including his mother, grandmother and 7-year-old brother. On my second visit there, I sit in the front yard with Rosa so that Lee can play outside for a while.

Strange people live in the storage shed next door. A young woman wanders off the street and goes into the shed. She carries what appear to be heavy saddlebags. She is neatly dressed in a little brown linen outfit that looks like it was purchased from Ann Taylor. Except for her bare feet, the woman looks as though she belongs at a Kappa Kappa Gamma tea party instead of in this seedy neighborhood.

A few minutes later, the woman comes out of the shed looking dazed. She is no longer carrying the saddlebags. She stares at Lee, who is playing in an old car in his front yard.

"Don't look at her," Rosa tells her son.
Rosa says the only decent thing about the 20th Street and Van Buren neighborhood is that it is near downtown Phoenix and the Hyatt Regency, where she is a "turndown maid"--she turns down beds for the evening, puts candies on the freshly fluffed pillows, fancies up the rooms so guests can sleep restfully.

But her son Lee rarely sleeps well. His house is constructed of wood, and he worries that bullets will penetrate the walls.

Rosa hopes to move Lee and his brother to a different home in June, a home constructed of block.

"Block homes are best," Lee says, "block homes with bulletproof glass in the windows so I don't get killed."

--Greene Sterling


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