By Patrick Rogers
December 02, 1996 12:00 PM

A dedicated teacher asks as much as she gives

ROBERTA GUASPARI-TZAVARAS takes teaching very, very seriously, and she doesn’t hesitate to let students know it. “Adam!” she chides a young pupil at Harlem’s River East Elementary School who has worn cowboy boots to class. “I’ve told you those boots look slippery. Don’t wear those on violin days!” Another second grader provokes Guaspari-Tzavaras’s most mortifying reproach of the day: “I’ve told you time and time again, Kenny: You cannot play the violin with those long nails!” On the spot she produces a pair of clippers from her knapsack.

Despite such rigor, none of Guaspari-Tzavaras’s 150 students seem to regard her as the Violin Teacher from Hell. On the contrary, her innovative East Harlem Violin Program, which provides free-of-charge violin instruction at three New York City public elementary schools, attracts so many eager applicants that Guaspari-Tzavaras, 49, holds a lottery each year to keep classes a manageable size. “I know she’s a tough teacher,” explains 9-year-old Jose Rojas. “But it’s for my own good.”

That kind of attitude might seem rare in a grade school student, but Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras—the subject of an Academy Award-nominated documentary, Small Wonders—is an uncommonly determined teacher. Squirming beginners are required to spend two hours a week working just on posture and form, while students at higher levels snap to attention and play a Vivaldi double concerto. Declares Guaspari-Tzavaras: “Music is as important as learning to read and write. It exercises their brains. There’s this wonderful feeling of pride and empowerment.”

And those empowered become eager mentors. “Someone may be having trouble with their bow, and the second-year kid will go right over,” says Guaspari-Tzavaras. “They love it! And it reinforces what I’ve taught.”

What she teaches has been accomplished against all odds. In 1991, New York City’s financially strapped Board of Education eliminated all art and music programs in the schools, costing Guaspari-Tzavaras her job. Undaunted, she organized a fund-raising group called Opus 118 Music Center (after the address of her townhouse on East Harlem’s 118th Street), which pays for violins and her own $50,000 salary. Then, last month, some 70 violins and cellos were destroyed when violent rains flooded a school closet where they were stored. “I’m fighting all the time,” says the beleaguered teacher.

Her passion for music began at a public elementary school in a working-class neighborhood of Rome, N.Y. The oldest child of Assunta Guaspari, a now retired kitchen worker, and her husband, Guy, who died in a 1974 factory accident, Roberta began studying violin in fourth grade. She eventually graduated with a music education degree from the State University of New York at Fredonia in 1969. While working on her master’s at Boston University, she met George Tzavaras, a Navy officer studying at MIT. “I was 24, Italian and not married,” she says. “The pressure was on from my family.” They wed in 1971.

As George rose through Navy ranks—with postings in Honolulu and Newport, R.I.—the family was always on the move. Teaching violin and persuading school administrators to invest in musical instruments proved a dauntingly tough career choice, especially after the birth of the couple’s two sons. (Nicholas, now 21, studies cello at the New England Conservatory of Music, and Alexi, 19, is an Amherst College sophomore.) Finally, when the family moved to Greece in 1977, Roberta devised a solution. Withdrawing $5,000 from the family savings, she bought 50 tiny violins and persuaded the headmaster of the British-run Campion School to hire her. No sooner had Guaspari-Tzavaras established herself there than George asked for a divorce. “It was the lowest point of my life,” she says.

But Guaspari-Tzavaras rebounded. With her sons—and violins—in tow, she moved to New York City in 1980, subletting an East Harlem apartment from a couple whose children attended Central Park East schools, a city-run alternative program. That led to an introduction to the school’s music-loving principal, Deborah Meier, and a part-time job. Three years later, when she was hired full-time, Guaspari-Tzavaras had fallen in love again—this time with her gritty new neighborhood, where she lovingly restored the townhouse she lives in with Sophia, a 5-year-old from El Salvador, whom she adopted in 1991. “My mother really needs to come home and be a mother,” says Alexi. “She is just as passionate about mothering as she is about teaching.”

And there are those who are passionate about her. In 1993, world-class violinists, including Itzhak Perlman and Arnold Steinhardt, helped organize a Carnegie Hall benefit concert that raised nearly $300,000 for her program. “This woman has an incredible, demonic amount of energy,” says violin virtuoso Isaac Stern. “She draws things out of the kids. And from her they gain a sense of self.” That’s certainly true for Guaspari-Tzavaras alum Melia Crumbley, 15. When kids who hang out on the street mock her for spending so much time practicing, says Melia, “I just look them right back in the eye and say, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ ”