Beloved Burlingame teacher could hang up after 50 years of teaching kids the joy of music

When Carol Prater began what she thought were a few years of teaching in Burlingame elementary schools, she had a master’s degree in music and a knack for math and technology, never imagining a career as “Mary Had a Little Lamb ”and“ Hot Cross Buns ”played fake and fake.

It was 1972 and Donny Osmond was singing about the love of puppies and the average family had three TV channels to choose from, with “The Mod Squad” and “The Waltons” in a fierce battle for Thursday nights.

And then the years began to pass, then decades and finally half a century. In mid-November 2021, Prater smiled at his marching band and listened to the opening notes of “Jingle Bells,” with the screams and squeaks that have marked his entire professional life.

These fourth and fifth graders are likely among the last of about 25,000 students that Prater will be teaching to play music in what is now its 50th year at public schools in the city of the Peninsula. She’s leaning towards retirement – but isn’t firm about it.

“I just don’t know about 51 …” Prater said with a laugh after a group of kids from kindergarten to elementary school Roosevelt walked out of her music room after singing and dancing with her. Her husband, who was also a music teacher in the district, retired years ago.

Prater knows how unusual his long career is. Among the ups and downs of the state education budget, art and music were often the first items on the chopping block, sometimes only saved in wealthy communities where parents could afford saxophones, trumpets. and teachers.

While the Burlingame Education Foundation now raises $ 2.5 million per year for its seven schools, the community has not always been a wealthy enclave. Prater is among a declining number of California teachers who remember how hard Proposition 13 hit California schools after voters passed the tax restraint measure in 1978, including his own. Libraries, visual and performing arts and other programs have suffered significant cuts.

“It’s never been the same with the arts,” said Prater. She still vividly remembers the years when she supplemented her income as a part-time music teacher with a second job at a private school and private instrument lessons in the evenings.

“We needed to eat,” she said, adding that there had been countless times over the years when she thought she couldn’t do it anymore, she couldn’t afford to. to do. She learned to code software in the 1980s, just in case.

At 73, Prater’s voice still cuts through the first row of flutes, trumpets and trombones and well beyond the last two rows of clarinets.

“Sit up high with your feet on the ground,” she told the marching band practicing on the playground, pandemic protocols still in place. She said these exact seven words multiple times in every class she taught, every day, 180 days a year for five decades.

Phil Grenadier was one of his first students to hear them when he was in fourth grade in 1972. He is now a professional jazz trumpeter in New York City, touring and recording, and remembers how “Mrs. Prater ”saw something in him.

“She hit me as a young woman back then,” he said, realizing that 50 years have passed for them both.

She taught him to read music, helping him understand the difference between a double, an eighth note and a quarter note with her mantra: “Mississippi, candy, Coke.”

He hasn’t seen her since he was a child, but found her on Facebook and thanked her, a relatively common occurrence for Prater, both online and in the aisles of a grocery store or in stores. restaurants. She now teaches the children of some of her former students.

Craig Darling, 46, remembers that she made an exception at Franklin Elementary, so he could play in the school band when he was in kindergarten. He was probably dyslexic, although never diagnosed, but he loved music and Prater saw something in him. She believed in this 5-year-old boy with a trumpet in his hand, he said.

“I was probably terrible and there was not much I could do,” he said. “I haven’t had that success on the track or in school. Being in the group gave me a sense of pride.

Darling’s son is now in fourth grade, dyslexic and plays the trumpet in Prater’s Lincoln Elementary band after getting his own waiver a year earlier to play with the big kids.

Prater taught father and son that people will believe in you if you give them a chance, that “there is nothing wrong with taking risks and chances,” Darling said. “That’s what she gave me.

On Jefferson’s playground, the two dozen students practicing holiday songs with Prater on the school pavement were trying their luck on Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”.

“Let’s go. Your most legato,” Prater said, before translating the musical notation into kid-speak. “Like hot fudge on an ice cream cone.”

After the rehearsal, the students – mostly in fourth and fifth grades – struggled to describe what 50 years of teaching meant to them.

“She’s quite old,” said Lucas Crespo, 11, adding that Prater is fun rather than mean and clearly enjoys teaching. But 50 years? “I’ve never seen him before.”

“I think it’s really crazy that she’s still teaching,” said 10-year-old flautist Daisy Biao.

Naina Punyani, 10, just thought it was amazing, “because it means she loves music and working with children.”

Prater is barely in his fifties, however. Pandemic wore on, teaching music on Zoom, learning new technology, forcing 90 students to record while singing, then bringing them all together in a digital performance, adjusting the pitch and tone to suit.

She had planned to retire, but wondered, “Do I want it to end like this?” All summer, I thought about it.

Roosevelt principal Matt Pavao, who was born the first year Prater started teaching, didn’t want her to leave without seeing her students in person.

“Nobody wants to go out like this,” he said. But this was rectified with in-person teaching authorized again. And 50 “that sounds good,” he said. So now is not a bad time to retire, he said – if that’s what she really wants, of course.

Prater said she had recently been awake at night, replaying the past five decades in her head: the time when college students held a garage sale and sold their stuffed animals and books to help save post music. -Prop. 13. The sobering moment after September 11, 2001, when asked if his group could perform at a community commemoration, in the presence of grieving firefighters, and telling his students that people “really need music now “.

And then there were all the times she thought she couldn’t take it anymore, too tired, too overwhelmed to write another scholarship to make sure there were enough trumpets, thinking how easy it would be. to leave and retire and retire at 59. At 59, she pushed the plan to 62, then to 65.

“Then I thought about maybe 70 years old,” she said. She will be 74 this spring.

She seems ready this time. Like maybe that’s really it. May be. And then you see her dancing with kindergarten kids.

“You look great on the dance floor if you don’t do the same for too long,” she told them, demonstrating the hitchhiker’s thumb movements and climbing the ladder. “And you keep the beat.”

Jill Tucker is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @jilltucker

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