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.”