Tina Fey was Frenchie, I was Rizzo. But the real star of our sold-out performances of Grease in high school was the Upper Darby School District — a place where kids like us from humble homes were taught not just English and algebra, but how to dream big, think big, and make big things happen.
Tina and I were compadres of the Class of '88. And though we had the solos, the spotlight, and our names on the program, and we packed the house for four straight nights by hand-jiving and bebopping in theater makeup and thrift-store costumes, we were really just bit players in a K-12 public school system that had made it all possible.
Our lucky breaks started in elementary school, with teachers who tempted us with singing and smiled as we flung mallets onto xylophones.
But today's kids might not get those breaks if a threatened budget-cutting plan becomes reality.
This town on the border of West Philadelphia wasn't swimming in gold back when we lived in its rowhouses, twins, and postwar single homes. Today, things are even tougher. Due to years of politicking, a brutal economy, and the slashing of school aid at the state and federal level, this stepping-stone district faces a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall.
The district serves 12,000 students, making it one of the largest in Pennsylvania. Seventy languages are spoken at home in this melting pot of newer immigrants and longtime locals. District income draws from a mostly residential tax base that is much poorer than, say, cocooned Haddonfield or the gilded Main Line.
The effect: Short on cash, Upper Darby is looking to save about $3 million by eliminating specialized classes in vocal arts, library, and gym at elementary schools.
This matters. And here is why.
Special people came from this special place. Special, I say, because so many of us succeeded without the wealth and privilege that increasingly defines education and opportunity in America. Our imperfect schools fortified us with an ambition and grit you don't necessarily pick up in a district loaded with iPads and moneyed parents.
"How can I help?" Tina Fey offered when she heard I was working on a story. The now-famous writer and comedic actress was about to head into a movie shoot but would make time; this was important.
Another friend, Nora Murphy, hopped onto the phone from the Boston suburbs, where the onetime recipient of teaching awards from Harvard is now a high school biology teacher with a Ph.D. from Tufts. She used to sing with me in chorus, before the viola stole her heart.
"Horrified by it," Nora said of the cuts. "There's lots of research out there that shows kids who study music do really well academically. … I think music made me smarter, truthfully."
Closer to home, I rang Tony Sorrentino, the marching band musician I tapped to play piano for me in a high school talent show. Now a top adviser in the administration of the University of Pennsylvania, he was upset like the rest of us.
"I shudder to think of a world in which we don't have arts education at a young age," said Tony, who is helping steer a $6 billion campus expansion project at Penn. "What are we raising? Robots? Do we not believe in the soul?"
I didn't know until I was an adult that I had been poor as a third grader at Highland Park Elementary School. No one had ever told me why I had a nifty card that got me free Tater Tots in the cafeteria. Years later, as a colleague analyzed government free-lunch data for a story about poverty, I put two and two together.
My parents had struggled mightily after emigrating from war-ravaged Greece in the 1950s and '60s. They were cash-poor and busy getting the family sandwich store off the ground in 1978, when I enrolled at Highland Park.
I was routinely bullied at the bus stop. My parents spoke very little English. I was 8 and transferring from Bywood Elementary. My new school felt like a hostile, foreign outpost.
Except for music class.
We'd break from cursive and Christopher Columbus lessons by marching to a classroom with xylophones on the floor and chairs in a semicircle facing a teacher named Ms. Buynak.
One day, Ms. Buynak blew me away by holding up musical eye candy: a shiny trumpet, a violin, and other instruments.
"You can learn to play one of these next year," she said, with the same sparkling smile I saw on a recent visit to her classroom. The same classroom, in fact, though now she's Mrs. Hartigan.
Tina's musical memories were being forged across town at Cardington Stonehurst Elementary, a school that has since been torn down: "Learning to play 'Good King Wenceslas' on the recorder is a rite of passage," she told me as we reminisced.
"The hours that you spend going ta, ta, tee-tee ta," she said, "at the very least those little kids are learning to sit down and focus and pay attention. Then they're eventually learning things that really become math." Her father was in the development office at Penn, her mother at home with the kids.
Tony was at Aronimink Elementary when he picked out a clarinet to play. At the same time, he started piano lessons through a district summer arts program. His young piano teacher was Barbara Benglian — a woman who would later run elite choral groups at the high school (Tina and I sang for her), and who would be named Pennsylvania teacher of the year. Benglian is at the high school still, pushing kids beyond their wildest expectations.
At their first meeting as student and teacher, Benglian played a Stevie Wonder record.
"If a boy who grows up with no resources and is blind can make music like this," she told Tony, whose father was a pharmacist/professor and whose mother was a secretary, "I think you and I together, you'll learn how to play the piano."
"This woman," Tony recalled with wonderment, "is basically sitting me down, saying, 'You can do this.' "
If adulthood is about striving for dreams, then childhood is when you hatch them. And we hatched ours in elementary school.
"I remember when I was at Hillcrest Elementary," said Nora, whose mother was a public schoolteacher and whose father worked in computers. "One time in music class, a couple of kids and I were singing 'Angels We Have Heard on High,' and we were singing it so well that our teacher sent us to the principal to sing it. What a way to connect with a principal of your school!"
In fifth grade, my class was trucked to Beverly Hills Middle School to see The Pirates of Penzance. My jaw was wide open as I watched and wondered: I've got to do that one day.
"We saw that, too!" Tina volleyed back. She also remembered that watching her older brother utter a few lines from Bye Bye Birdie there was an early inspiration to perform. She played the flute for a year in fifth grade, too.
"The last time I picked up that flute was Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live," she said. "They asked if I could play anything on the flute. I said, 'I can play 'The Hustle.' " And she did, ages after having tooted it in a school Christmas concert in 1980.
Winning the audition for Rizzo in high school — and how I view life as an adult — had everything to do with those early days.
My parents had done little to encourage my musical ambitions, hoping instead that I'd indulge a more economically viable passion. This was bittersweet, as my own father had a voice so beautiful it would stop you in your tracks. You could get a taste as he hummed while stacking cans of soda at the deli.
Had teachers not stoked my musical muse, I might never have imagined beating out everyone in a school of 2,400 kids for a lead role in a high school musical directed by the irrepressible Harry Dietzler, who orchestrates the district's eye-popping theater arts programs to this day.
My famously aloof father saw me perform only once. He came to the spring choral concert senior year. I was on the bill for a solo of "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables.
Amid hordes of parents in the stands afterward, I scavenged for him and my mother. I found my dad in a crisp button-down shirt — not the dreary work flannel he almost always wore. But what startled me most was when I tried to make eye contact.
He was crying.
To those who believe underfunding of school districts isn't their problem, I say this: Such is the power of music in the soul of a child.