Grads talk about the influence of their school years

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook tracked down a number of Philadelphia public school graduates who are accomplished in the arts and invited them to respond to the question: How did your arts experience in Philadelphia public schools affect your development as an artist? Here are the responses we received.

Magician, Penn & Teller

My artistic mentor was David G. Rosenbaum, my Central High School English teacher and drama coach, who was also a magician. He was a man who had such great faith in the power of classic dramatic literature that he boldly staged “Oedipus Rex” in modern dress in the style of a school assembly. He gave his young actors the technical and “depth acting” training to carry off his conceptions. He devised a performance of “Macbeth” in which magic tricks were adapted to enact the terrifying images in the poetry.

Rosey (as we called him) and I spent innumerable afterschool hours talking about theater and stage magic in the drama club room under the Central High stage. The ideas we developed there inform everything I’ve done since. His was the only formal acting training I ever had, and it has stood me in mighty good stead.

Rosey himself was a superb actor, deep and convincing; a frequent contributor to magicians’ journals, and a magician of great charm. He carried himself with immense style, verve, and presence. Rosey died over a decade ago, but anytime I’m working on a new bit or walking onto a stage, he’s right there inside me.

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Photo: Scheherazade Tillet

Aishah Shahidah Simmons

I attended AMY Center City (Alternative Middle Years) from 1980 to 1983. My experience at AMY played a transformational role in my educational career. Classes were small, students had a lot of access to the teachers, and there were a lot of extracurricular activities. The arts were an integral part of the educational process. I was supported and nurtured by almost all the staff. Three teachers – Gloria Mitchell, Sonjia Stanton, and Ricardo Martin – not only demanded my academic excellence but also encouraged my creativity, supporting my academic and creative journeys long after I graduated.

After AMY, I attended Philadelphia High School for Girls. At Girls’ High, academic excellence was supported, but my creativity wasn’t. But there was one teacher, Irene Farley, who created a special class, “Contemporary Women‘s Studies,” that planted some of the seeds for my recently completed feature-length documentary NO!, which is about rape, sexual violence, and healing in African American communities. One of the greatest gifts that I received from Girls’ High is the lifelong friendships, sisterhood, and camaraderie with some of the most creative and prolific cultural workers, scholars, and activists that I have maintained for almost 20 years. Through these connections, I have been inspired and challenged to create work that makes visible the invisible.

Kirschen with Yo Yo Ma

Jeffry Kirschen
Musician, member of the Philadelphia Orchestra

My musical career started at Farrell Elementary, where I was given an aptitude test and then a cornet and orchestra rehearsals. This continued until, at age 13, I heard the French horn – or simply “horn,” as it should be called – at Wilson Jr. High School. I quickly switched to the horn. I was so excited to be a member of the Band and Orchestra that I would meet the conductor, Joseph Simon, at 7 a.m. to set up the chairs and stands.

While at Northeast High School, I was part of a group of enthusiastic musicians, many of whom are now professional musicians. We took over the music department, then directed by Henry Perlberg, and created our own “club.” I spent more time there than any other place in the school. It was then that I knew that I wanted to be a performer. Thanks to the Philadelphia schools, I was able to take the first steps toward a fantastic career.