Not many have the dedication to teach special education students.
Not many can lead those students to their fullest potential.
Not many teachers find the time to add a band class to their schedule.
Not many band teachers design their school’s band room.
Not many teach for more than 40 years, working past age 80.
There aren’t many Joyce Grays in the world. It would be a better place if there were.
“My feeling is when you’ve stopped, you’ve stopped,” muses the spunky Seeley Union Elementary School teacher. “If I hadn’t made the commitment, I might stay in bed and pretty soon I wouldn’t be able to get out.”
A slight woman with keen eyes and a sharp wit, Gray’s domain is a reflection of her persistent enthusiasm: a spacious, impeccably laid out and well-equipped band room. Void of students between classes on an early Thursday afternoon, it feels as if it is about to erupt with a brassy crescendo as students from across the years pick up their pieces and gently fall in behind the direction of their maestro. It’s not just the memories of Joyce Gray; it’s her today and, for the foreseeable future, her tomorrow.
Recalling a conversation with school Principal Ruben Castro about two years ago, she explains, “(He) said, ‘Is there anything you need for band?’ I said, ‘A band always needs things.’ He said, ‘Make a list.’ ”
That she did.
“They bought it all for us. We’re really coming up in the world. We have more than just the necessities. And I’ve got one little boy who says he’s going to take my place,” she smiles, adding that Castro, along with Superintendent Cathy Denton, the school board and the parents all are “very supportive.”
If that youth fulfills his dream, he’ll have gotten started on his career path much sooner than his mentor.
Born in depression-era Illinois to Omar and LouEmma Galbreath, Gray had as an early role model, a father, who was a teacher by trade, but was unable to provide for his large family on such a small salary and instead became a sort of jack of all trades. Working in wartime industry during World War II, her father was transferred to San Diego in 1945 only to have that conflict end and with it his job. He found a job in El Centro and moved the family to Seeley. Gray was a sophomore in high school.
In a household where education was stressed, she lit early on her first love.
“Music was my interest in life as a kid. We were poor as church mice, but my parents would come up with money for music lessons,” she recalls fondly.
Her first instrument was a 25-cent harmonica purchased from a traveling musician visiting her school. Gray eventually progressed to the French horn, even earning a high school scholarship allowing her to play with the Evansville, Ind., philharmonic orchestra, a gig cut short by the family’s move west.
“It broke my heart,” she says, drawing up a decades-old sorrow.
Music then had to wait. Women coming of age in the era just after World War II most often put any career ambitions aside in favor of marriage and family, and she was no different. She married Bill Gray, now a retired owner/operator of several successful service stations and rental businesses in El Centro, in 1948 and they had five children, one of whom sparked an interest.
“The thing that moved me was one of our children was just having a terrible time (academically) and I thought: ‘How many more are there like that?’ ” Gray recalls of her decision to return to school in 1964, “I always had good teachers. I thought I’d like to be one and I always liked kids.”
She earned her teaching credential from San Diego State University-Imperial Valley Campus, in Calexico.
Asked what her husband thought of her returning to school and launching a career in her late 30s already with five children, Gray recalls he was supportive, though adherent to old-fashioned family values: “He said, ‘Alright, so long as you’re home when the kids get home from school.’ ”
Gray started her teaching career in 1968 at the same Seeley school where she is now, though her first assignment, by choice, was special education. It was a vocation she enthusiastically embraced.
“The biggest thing was finding out how they learned: auditory or visual. Start where they can succeed. You can’t put a square peg in a round hole,” Gray explains with instructional precision. “They know they have a problem. They have to learn to work with it. If I couldn’t figure out what the problem was, I could figure out how to help them learn.”
Yet another child sparked the expansion of her teaching into band. The Grays had taken in a youth with whom his mother was having difficulty, and Gray introduced him to the trombone and the school band.
“He had to practice at school when I was getting ready for the day. He started bringing other kids into practice with him. Eventually, I had 18 kids coming in. When I asked the principal if it was OK, he then asked me to take over the band,” Gray recalls, that she was quite surprised at the offer.
Though unsure of whether to formally accept the position she agreed to think about it. Her fate was sealed at the start of the next school year when Jim Hughes, superintendent/principal, introduced her as the new band teacher.
While it was tough enough teaching special education and band, Gray had the rigorous inconvenience of not having a separate room for band.
“Every day I moved furniture in and out of my classroom several times so we could also use it as a band room. I did that for four years,” Gray says. “And finally I told Mr. Hughes he needed to find someone else to take the band.”
“He (Hughes) said, ‘What would it take to get you to continue to do band? I said, ‘A new band room.’ I was being flippant, not expecting his reply. He had a clipboard and said, ‘Draw what you want.’ I drew what’s here,” Gray says, glancing around the large room.
Over the years, Gray, through a rare combination of tenacity and grace, has never stopped growing the band’s prowess, marching in parades throughout Southern California, entering contests, winning trophies and even scavenging for used instruments in pawn shops while on out-of-town trips. Today she teaches three classes at Seeley with more than 100 students and two classes at McCabe School. Her Seeley marching band has about 60 members, and they know who’s in charge.
She says she tells her sometimes willful students: “You sit on the front half of your chair and sit up straight or you can stand. I’ve got one holding out. He’s been standing for three days.”
That stubborn boy doesn’t bother her, though; she takes the same approach she did when she taught special education.
“My special ed kids were some of my best band students. If they find a place they can succeed, there’s no medicine better than success,” Gray explains, adding of her band students, “I’ve had parents tell me their children have done better (academically) since they’ve been in band. Plus, anything that keeps them away from drugs and alcohol is OK.”
Gray tried to retire once at 65. No go. The school couldn’t find anyone to take her place. Though they’ll have to someday. Even when she no longer leads the band, her influence will ripple through the years like sweetly played notes — successful children whose talents and ambitions that will in turn inspire many others.
“I enjoy it. You have to. It’s hard work,” Gray muses. “I haven’t done anything great. I’m just an old woman who loves kids. I love to see my kids succeed.”
If that’s not greatness, what is?
It Is More Than a Job! Joyce Gray: A Teacher Beyond Measure