To those teachers who exacted excellence
Book reviews shouldn’t begin with dedications. But with Strings Attached (ISBN 978-1-4013-2466-7, $24.99) being the book under review, I feel compelled to commence by issuing a few long-overdue honorifics:
To Miss Sadie Fleming, my third-grade teacher, who could with one glance put the fear of God into a classroom, for demanding, and getting, the best from me;
To Mr. Paul Darden, my ninth-grade English teacher, who taught me to set high standards;
To Professor Ed Burrows, my college history professor, who drove me forward through a combination of humor and high expectations;
To Professor James Barefield of Wake Forest University, who quietly ripped apart my writing for my master’s thesis, nearly reduced me to tears, and taught me the fundamentals of English prose;
To all teachers, coaches, and mentors who set a high bar for the young people in their charge and then force them to make the leap over that bar.
In Strings Attached, Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky give us a vivid portrait of Jerry Kupchynsky, Melanie’s father and Joanne’s music teacher. A Ukrainian refugee — he nearly died first at the hands of the Russians, and then of the Nazis — Mr. K, as he was later called by his students, made his way to the U.S., where he ended up teaching and conducting music in East Brunswick, N.J. Despite further hardships — Mr. K’s wife suffered a debilitating disease that left her homebound and in a wheelchair for years; his younger daughter was murdered — this man and his high school orchestra won local and national awards year after year. He worked his students mercilessly, screaming at them in broken English, pushing them into playing impossibly complicated pieces, stomping his feet and waving his baton like a blade at them.
One example of this man’s tough-love teaching methods will illustrate his style. Once a violin student named Darlene Morrow was so nervous about her first concert that she broke down in tears on stage. Mr. K came over to her with a smile on his face, as if to reassure the audience that he would console her. Here’s Joanne’s account of what he whispered to Melody as he bent over her:
“You leesen to me, seester,” he was spitting, the smile for the benefit of the spectators never leaving his face, “You shot up your crying right now. You going to put your bow on these string and you going to play the best concert you ever played een your life. And you going to love eet.”
Joanne concludes her account of Melanie by writing: “She did as she was told.”
Here is a teacher who terrorized his students, who frequently shrieked “Mahnyiak!” at them (his way of saying “Maniacs!”), who could be heard far beyond the music room berating his students, yelling “Who ees deaft in first violins?” Today, as both Lipman and Kupchynsky acknowledge, his rants and his ways of pushing them far beyond what they thought possible might offend some parents or educators, yet these two women — and the countless students who gathered to pay him honor at his funeral and to play a last orchestral piece for him — credit Mr. K. with changing their lives.
So where did this passion to demand excellence from these young people originate? The answer to this question — and it’s not, I suspect, the full answer — comes only in the middle of the book, when we learn the circumstances of Mr. K’s own youth. He lived in the Ukraine when Stalin was starving millions of peasants there, stealing their crops and leaving them to eat grass and at times, each other.
Then the Nazis rolled into the country, and Mr. K, like many of his countrymen, was shipped off and forced to work for the Germans. He nearly starved to death, suffered various illnesses, and lived in places that were routinely bombed by the Allies. By the time he made it to the U.S., having rejoined his mother after a long separation, his dreams of a life in music seemed over for good. On his arrival, however, he met a Ukrainian-born professor who taught at a Kentucky university, who offered to take the young man back to Kentucky, where he could enter the university and where the professor himself would teach him the violin.
Strings Attached gives us many gifts. It allows us to look into the world of music (Melanie Kupchynsky plays today for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra); it reminds us of the promise of America to immigrants with ambition; it gives us a portrait of a man who struggled against great odds in life, who suffered great adversity, but who always forged ahead in spite of his many trials.
It also reminds us to be thankful for those teachers who made a difference in our lives, those who refused to listen to our excuses, those who terrorized us as did Mr. K., who pushed us to overcome obstacles, who took us out of ourselves and helped carry us toward our dreams.
Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky. Hyperion, 2013. 352 pages.