Mark O’Connor and Public Education

Mark O’Connor, one of the greatest fiddlers on planet Earth, is from my home town and went to the local high school here.  He… does not have kind words for his experience:

I am Mark O’Connor, violinist, composer, fiddler and Mountlake Terrace High School graduate of 1979. I will attempt to recount some of what I experienced during my time at high school in a musically desolate 1970’s northern Seattle, Washington. The first thing I will tell you was that the music teacher was Mr. Kristofferson. I don’t remember his first name, but I doubt he remembers my name either. At least he forgot my name when he introduced me for my performance debut in the school gym. His introduction before my peers, the  faculty, as well as my family, went something like this: Did you bring your earplugs? We could have made a killing at the door selling earplugs! Anyway, these guys come in to my music room everyday and I am not sure what they do in there. I even forgot their names! I just sign them in. So I just refer to them as the jazz trio. So here they are, the jazz trio.

Yes, it was humiliating. It’s also my last memory of school. No wait, there is another. At the graduation ceremony, with my mother once again watching in the bleachers, we got to hear about the special achievements of many students as they came up to receive their diplomas, including one student’s $25 coloring bee prize from a local grocery store. I kid you not. When my name was called, nothing was said. Just my name. Not one word of my own accomplishments. That is how high school ended for me. That night I told my mom that I was leaving the next day on a plane to find my music and to find a better way. I had to figure out how to begin my life again.
Within two months, I won the audition to join a national concert tour with the legendary violinist Stephane Grappelli, and I was trading violin solos with this musical giant and personal hero of mine on the stage of Carnegie Hall!
What achievements could the school have recognized at my graduation ceremony just a few months earlier? Well, they could have mentioned that I was the first high school student in the history of the Edmonds School District to teach classes and get full credit towards graduation. Yes, it is true. Somehow I convinced the district’s public school board that  I should provide this music class since our music program was so bad. They allowed me to hand pick the students. It turned out that I found just two students who were qualified, a bass player and a drummer. With me on guitar, we were a trio. Was this the only achievement they could have mentioned? By the time I was a senior in high school, I had recorded six solo albums, won the National Oldtime Fiddler’s Contest in Weiser, Idaho, the youngest person ever to do so; the Grand Master Fiddling Championship in Nashville, Tennessee, the youngest champion ever; and the National Flatpick Guitar Championships in Winfield, Kansas, twice, and once again the youngest ever to win! There was more, but you get the picture.
The bad situation at school came to a head when I was in 10th grade. Frank Domero, who ran the music program at the Edmonds Community College, offered me a wonderful opportunity to join them just in time for their first international tour to Panama. How it was going to work was that Mr. Domero would arrange for me to enter college at age fifteen, and the classes I would take there could apply as high school credit for the remaining three years so I could graduate with my class. My grades and musical talent were enough to accomplish this, according to the college’s administration. What a wonderful break! But just a second here. The Mountlake Terrace High School principal and his staff would have nothing of it. They told my mother, right there in the school’s front office, that it was not going to happen. That day changed me forever. Ever since then, I have had an utter distaste for the nonsensical rules of the entrenched, and a fiery desire to plead another approach. Just look at my musical career and you can understand why it has unfolded the way it has!

There’s quite a bit more.  It makes me feel a lot of pity for the guy–and a hope that he can get past his hurts.  High school sucked for me too.  But I don’t think much about it now.  This piece makes it appear he thinks a lot about it.

Anyway, a great fiddler.

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  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    Anyone who truly enjoyed high school has to have a strong masochistic streak.

    • said she

      The only ones who enjoyed it were the jocks and the cheerleaders. Everyone else was just trying to get through it.

      Go to your reunion 30 years later, and see that the jocks and cheerleaders are either dead or nearly so. The success stories all come from those who suffered the most in high school.

      High school can help prepare you for real life, but only accidentally.

      • Dave G.

        Any stats to back up those observations? In my experience, most of the Jocks/Cheerleaders I know are quite successful, happy, and alive. One of my best friends was captain of the football team, class president, Salutatorian of the class, and last I heard, owner of his own software development company. And that’s par for the course based on those I know.

        • Donna

          While my high school years were far from perfect, my high school did have the advantage of having a strong and well-supported music department and performing arts program. I’m quite sure that the college opportunity would have not only happened at my school, but they would be bragging about it,

        • said she

          I don’t know if there have been any studies. You have your anecdotal data, I have mine. Obviously, “it all depends”.

  • Kelly Reineke

    When you’re in the high school bubble it seems like the most important thing in the world. After you’re away for a couple of years…not so much.

  • Dave P.

    Personally, I would have gone over the prinicipal’s head to the state superintendent, my state senator and representative, and even to the Governor’s office. I also would have talked to a few reporters at the Seattle and Tacoma papers about the principal’s squelching of my son’s educational opportunity.