Two years ago, 16-year-old Mike Williams was just another negative statistic in one of the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. “I was having problems at home,” he says. “And it just got to where I couldn’t take it anymore. I quit going to school.” He was living with his father and hanging out on the streets. “Man,” he says, “you would not believe how bad it is out there—all the drugs. It’s so easy to get caught up in it.”
But Williams escaped that fate. He became friendly with a boy from Eastern High, his former school, who was staying late after class every day to sing in music teacher Joyce Garrett’s choir. His new pal was almost evangelical about the experience: “He told me I should join,” says Williams, who returned to Eastern to do just that. “I loved to sing, so I tried out.”
For the last year and a half Williams has been blending his rich bass into the spirited ensemble of 54 voices that Garrett, 44, has molded into one of the finest school choirs in the country. “She makes you believe you can do anything,” he says. “She won’t accept anything less than 100 percent, and somehow she gets it out of you even when you don’t feel like giving it. That’s why the choir is the best.”
Indeed it is. For the last two years Garrett’s charges have sung their way to championships in the National High School Gospel Choir Competition in New York City. Last July they captured second place in the world’s most prestigious mixed-chorus contest, Vienna’s International Youth and Music Festival. They have also performed to thunderous ovations at the Kennedy Center in Washington and at the Reagan White House. They even have their own classical-to-gospel compact disc, The Eastern Choir.
“I take raw talent and refine it into gold,” says Garrett, a diminutive, energetic woman whose choir room has been a haven ever since she brought her baton to Eastern 16 years ago from a D.C. junior high. “This is their home. Out these doors it’s insane. I often wonder how some of them can keep their minds on singing and school work when they have to worry about where they’re going to sleep or if there’ll be enough food.”
The answer is that Garrett is much more than a choir director. “If I find that a student doesn’t have money for food or clothes,” she says, “I’m going to see that they get it. When I was an infant, my parents divorced. My two aunts and grandmother [who lived in Kinston, N.C.] took me in and raised me like I was their own.” Garrett went on to earn a B.A. and a master’s in music education, the latter at Catholic University in Washington. Yet no lesson was more valuable than the one taught by her surrogate parents. “Because they helped me make something of my life,” she says, “I’ve always felt a strong desire to help others get along.”
Mike Williams, who plans to accept a scholarship offered to choir members by the University of the District of Columbia, can vouch for that. “Mrs. Garrett’s been the difference in my life,” he says. “When I began having problems with my dad, she helped me solve them.” Bounding into rehearsal, Williams kisses and hugs Garrett and says, “Hi, Mom!”
The enthusiasm level was quite a bit lower in September 1987, though, when Garrett set out to convince the choir they could compete in Vienna on a world-class level. “They just didn’t think it was possible,” she recalls. “Most had never even been out of their immediate home area. I had to do this incredible selling job to get them motivated enough to at least try.”
Many of the students skipped the exhausting, three-hour rehearsals for the 60-minute program. “I cried a lot on the inside,” she says, “but I decided that whether there were two or 52 kids, I would have rehearsals. They had to see they couldn’t get me down.” Another problem was learning the required Latin and German classical works, which they memorized word by word and note by note, since few could read music.
Arduously, they learned, but a final hurdle loomed: They had to raise $140,000 to pay for the trip. The crowning fund-raiser was the choir’s $20-a-seat benefit concert at the Kennedy Center last May. “It looked like it was going to flop,” says Garrett, who received unflagging support from her husband, James, 47, an electronics engineer, and their two children, Rodney, 17, and Melanie, 12. A few days before the concert only 500 tickets had been sold in the 2,500-seat hall; then people started buying, and by curtain, she recalls, “the place was packed.”
In Vienna, the Eastern High choir-one of four invited from the U.S.—finished second among eight international finalists. Says bass Albert Graves, 17: “We all had so many personal problems. It just goes to show you can do anything if you want to—and if you have someone like Mrs. Garrett on your side.”
In the last month Garrett’s devotion and leadership have thrice been honored, with the International Teaching Award of the Chicago-based Dolores Kohl Educational Foundation, the Washington Post’s Teacher of the Year citation and a Capitol Hill Community Achievement Award. But Garrett’s attention has been focused mostly on preparing her newest recruits to climb the mountain to perfection. Rehearsing a rousing spiritual, she calls out, “See that note! See it like it’s the top of a cathedral. Pretend you’re a hammer and just hit it!” A voice interrupts: “Mrs. Garrett, I’m tired.”
“Just 10 more minutes,” she says gently. The choir musters its energy and the room resounds again. They practice for 90 more minutes. Afterward they are weary but clearly pleased, and so is Garrett. As they file out, many of them call, “So long, Mom!”
—Ron Arias, Chris Phillips in Washington, D. C.