Each Friday at lunchtime, a dozen or so students at a Flushing middle and high school head for the auditorium with sandwiches in one hand and drumsticks or guitars in the other. In a school that offers no music classes to any of its 600 students, these Friday jam sessions provide not only an opportunity to learn an instrument but a refuge from teen pressure to fit in.
The teacher in charge of the music club at World Journalism Preparatory School is Vincent Cross, a hip, 41-year-old English and journalism instructor who spent more than a decade as a street musician and squatter. Cross knows something about being an outsider. An Irish boy who was raised in Australia until he was 10, he returned to his homeland only to be bullied at an all-boys Catholic elementary school for his non-Irish accent. Living in an apartment above his family’s pub, Cross fell in love with the records his parents had long since tossed from the jukebox — which meant that while his classmates were grooving to 1980s pop songs, he was bopping to tunes from the 1950s. As if that weren’t enough, this Australian-Irish lad’s favorite music was pure Americana: bluegrass.
Cross’ message to the students in his club — and in his English and journalism classes — is that everyone follows a different path to reach his or her dreams. With a mass of untidy curls and a school uniform of T-shirts and jeans, Cross exudes unconventionality, and makes it comfortable for kids to do the same.
On a recent Friday, James O’Neill, a sixth-grader playing electric guitar, said this is his first year in Cross’ jam session. As O’Neill perched on the stage next to his big brother, Will, his shaggy brown hair slipped over his closed eyes as he strummed his guitar and bobbed his head to “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash.
“I used to get bullied because of my long hair,” O’Neill said as he put away his guitar after practice. “I used to wear a jacket that zipped all the way up, and someone kept trying to tug on it and pull it over my head. It took me a long time to get used to this school.”
O’Neill said his brother invited him to the jam sessions, which he thought would be a lot like a book club where people talk about favorite books, except in this case, he thought the group would sit around and talk about favorite songs. He was surprised when the club members started to “jam out.”
“It was the new ‘Call of Duty’ for me,” O’Neill said, referring to the video game he plays an hour a day, until his mom tells him to put it away. Before he joined the club, he hadn’t picked up his guitar much, but since he started attending Cross’ music enrichment sessions, he’s been practicing every day.
Another student, Nadine Cavanaugh, a junior, is the only singer in the club. At first, she said she was reluctant to join the group because she didn’t play an instrument. Now she looks forward to the Friday sessions, because she feels like she belongs. Plus, as the singer, she’s the one who gets to pick out the songs for her peers to play.
“I don’t have to refrain from being myself because other people won’t appreciate it,” Cavanaugh said, as she described how her involvement in the club has helped her feel socially accepted. “I was always the weird one. I’ve had Asperger syndrome since I was young. I’m the in-your-face kind of person, and that’s how I bond with people. Some people take it fine, and some can find it hard to handle.”
Vincent Ganpat, a junior, has been drumming since 8th grade, when he found out about the club through the school newspaper. He doesn’t own a drum set, so Cross found a set of donor drums for him to practice on at school. Ganpat has been learning to play rhythmically, and as he watched his friends jam with their instruments, he found their passion contagious. He hopes to learn guitar once he masters the drums.
“Certain songs require certain beats,” Ganpat said, as he reflected on what he’s learned through Cross’ lessons. “I thought you could just use the same repetitive beat, but the drummer’s job is to make the sound fit. And in order to do that, you have to listen to how you’re playing and listen to everyone else.”
Cross, who proposed the club three years ago and has run it since, said he wanted to focus the sessions not so much on refining students’ music abilities but on boosting their self-confidence and creating an avenue to express themselves. He added that although he received little support as a young musician or a young man defying norms, he wants to encourage his students to use music to get through the tough years of adolescence.
“They’re entering a musical journey, and I’d like to send them on their way,” Cross said. “Music brought things out and allowed me to access a deeper dimension of myself.”