By Angie Leventis Lourgos
The Harvey middle school band director tugs and pulls at the crisp navy jacket until it fits the eighth-grader's broad shoulders just right.
Music teacher Roosevelt Griffin bought the suit during his lunch break Thursday because he knew the student was a good kid in need of something to wear to a school dance. Although the student doesn't play an instrument, he often seeks haven in the band room at Brooks Middle School. During quiet moments free of the pulse of a bass guitar or croon of a sax, the teen likes to share his thoughts with Griffin.
Griffin was surprised in class Wednesday when he was honored with a Golden Apple Award for excellence in teaching, one of 10 Chicago-area teachers to earn the honor. Each recipient receives a tuition-free spring quarter sabbatical to study at Northwestern University and $3,000 cash.
Through music, Griffin said he strives to be a force of consistency as his students transform into young adults amid the sometimes chaotic world of Harvey, an impoverished, high-crime south suburb.
"It's so kids can have a place of continuity as they're going through other changes," he said.
Griffin grew up in Harvey and played tuba at Brooks — he points out his old locker, F66. He went to Northern Illinois University on a music scholarship and returned to the middle school about 10 years ago to take over for his old band teacher.
Griffin's 60 or so students range from third to eighth grade and model the disparate socio-economics of Harvey. He has a student in foster care, shuffled among a half-dozen families. He has students who worry about drugs in their neighborhood. There also are kids whose parents have graduate degrees, families who have lived in Harvey for generations and don't want to abandon their hometown.
Griffin said he shows them all his college transcripts, introduces them to local professors and links them with mentors in occupations that interest them, often in fields outside of music.
He wears a suit and tie to work every day.
"I want them to be able to see themselves in me," he said.
As a percussionist warmed up before practice Thursday, Griffin chided him to relax.
"It's just hard to concentrate," the boy said, slumping behind the drum set.
"Stop concentrating, have fun," Griffin said. "You've got to stop thinking about the groove so much. You have the groove."
The students play local gigs such as the recent opening of a rib joint, where they've been invited back for repeat performances, said student teacher Matt Ingelson. They attend competitions and conferences across the country and have performed at the Chicago Jazz Festival.
The band room "trophy case" typifies Griffin's values as a music teacher, Ingelson said.
Ingelson was cleaning after practice one day and stumbled on piles of trophies boxed in a dusty, closed cabinet.
"The trophies aren't what it's all about," he said.