Mr. Petes & The Moment
A particular highlight of the first year at Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School (1973-74) was developing a friendship with Peter Tarshis. One of the most brilliantly creative people I have ever known, Peter had recently graduated from Union College in upstate New York and was living around the corner from me in Rye Brook, where his Mom was the Health/Sex Ed. Teacher in the district. While figuring out his future, Peter (“Mr. Petes”) began substituting at Blind Brook and we quickly became fast friends, based on our mutual love for New York sports (the Knicks & Yankees), the arts (theater, film, cartooning, et al) and our left-handedness. During that first year at Blind Brook, we spent countless hours going into New York City --- to Madison Square Garden, to Yankee Stadium, to the theater. Peter introduced me to the Wooster Group, the Ontological Hysterical Theater, Andre Gregory’s fabulous experimental production of Alice in Wonderland, and, most significantly, Sam Shepard’s early works (The Tooth of Crime, Cowboy Mouth). Because he was substituting so frequently, we found ourselves working and “playing” together all the time --- and it was a blast!
I knew I’d be working at Colgate in the summer of 1974 (as a “Graduate Student Liaison & Video Supervisor”) and encouraged Peter to apply to the program. The way I saw it, he could get his certification (and a master’s degree) in a year and then a full-time job at Blind Brook (we had no doubt David Schein would hire him --- he was a natural in the classroom). We could then continue our adventures in and around New York City --- what could be better? And, in fact, that’s what happened. Peter got into Colgate, did a teaching internship at Eastern Middle School in Greenwich, Connecticut, one semester (so we got to continue hanging out) and, by the fall of 1975, began teaching at Blind Brook as a full time English/Drama teacher.
An interesting sidebar involves that summer in Colgate, 1974. In Peter’s cohort were several notable people. A former schoolmate of Peter’s at Union, Jamie Jacobs --- a brilliant math/science scholar and gymnast, was in the group, as was Del Shortliffe, a newly minted Morehouse Scholar graduate of the University of North Carolina. The four of us quickly became inseparable on the Colgate campus that summer (and in and around the town of Hamilton --- where Del’s aunt lived!), forging friendships that have withstood the test of time. The plan that Peter and I had idealistically hatched during his substitute year came to fruition in the fall of 1975 with Peter becoming a full time English and Drama teacher at BBHS. A side note: David Schein wanted to hire Del, too, but felt he couldn’t hire two English teachers from Colgate at the same time, as he had already hired me, Roger Smith, Mike Nyhan, and Bill Metzler (a math teacher who was in Peter’s cohort) --- worrying that people would think he had some kind of kickback deal with Colgate. Del, of course, was hired in 1977, as soon as another English position opened up --- but that’s a story for another time.
Peter Tarshis’s impact on Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School in that first decade was incalculable. His development of the drama program --- as well as his work with George Trautwein’s wonderful musical productions --- was stunning. I’m not sure if Peter was ever aware of how much his enthusiasm for dramatic theater and his ability to translate that into brilliant teaching effected not only his students but also his colleagues. As a result of working with (and learning from) Peter, I had no qualms about taking on producing and directing school plays when I taught in Winchester and Bronxville.
After a decade at Blind Brook, Peter was looking to move beyond teaching high school, professionally, and in 1986 he directed a music video that won the MTV Basement Tapes contest (for “Boys” by the Triplets) which included the group getting a contract with Elektra Records. Shortly after, Peter left BBHS, beginning a very successful career as an Emmy winning producer and executive vice-president at the A & E Network. Nonetheless, like any great teacher, Peter’s influence is still felt by the students he worked with at Blind Brook. As I’ve been compiling stories about the first decade of our unusual “no-walls” progressive school, I received the following narrative from Marc Ackerman, Class of 1985. I believe it speaks to how special Blind Brook --- and particularly Peter’s work there --- was.
The Blind Brook Moment
I consider my years in BBHS (1981-1985) to be the late stage of its “golden era.” The more
progressive ‘70’s had yielded to the more conservative ‘80’s, with Dave Schein no longer
roaming the halls and Ronald Reagan leading the country. There was even talk about building
walls in classrooms and restricting the school’s open campus. The walls were literally closing
But fortunately, my classmates and I were still able to experience that unique BB magic. Del Shortliffe took an expansive view of the English curriculum, taking time in class to introduce us
to the jazz stylings of Charlie “Bird” Parker’s and the avant garde prog rock of David Byrne and
the Talking Heads. Zach Charon taught us how to make tofu in Physics, which I’m sure made
perfect sense at the time. We made our own video games in computer class with Dave Press,
whose corny jokes masked that he was teaching us valuable problem-solving skills and what we
now known as coding. Gary Cialfi, that intimidating, and irascible, but ultimately kind and goofy
music director, whipped us into mastering the classics in concert band, and then encouraged us
to put aside our scores and explore the vague wonders of improvising solos in jazz band. The
band and choir traveled to Italy to learn more about the world and ourselves. And, ultimately,
the campus remained open and free periods were genuinely free, giving us the ability to make
some choices we’d regret and some we’d be proud of, but all of which helped us understand
For me, the real magic happened every spring when I opened the doors to that small black,
rectangular studio we called the LGI (Large Group Instruction Room), and began rehearsals for the spring play with Pete Tarshis. I can still hear Pete’s laugh during auditions. He’d throw out a few random words and ask you to improvise a monologue using them–a near impossible task for an awkward teenager that Pete would make easier by laughing heartily at any choice you’d make. And then rehearsals would start, and we’d create entire worlds within those LGI walls. Pete would ask us to imagine our characters’ lives beyond the script and stage directions, asking us as we lay on the stage in a semi-meditative state: What does your character’s room look like? What objects are there? How does your character feel when you see those objects? Then we’d slowly rise
and walk around the stage and do our best to adopt our character’s physicalities. How do they
walk? How do they sit or stand? How do they smile or frown? We did this every day and it
never felt repetitive or unnecessary. Pete somehow kept it fresh and important, and
encouraged any choice we made. Pete’s approach to directing was not to dictate to his actors,
but to provide them the tools to make their own choices. We somehow knew that none of our
choices were wrong–they were simply ours. How about that for a life lesson?
I couldn’t wait to get to the LGI every day for rehearsal, and I hated to leave. It was not unusual
for cast members to arrive early or linger at the end just to soak in a few more minutes together.
Which is why there were always mixed emotions when it came time for the performances. We
were excited to share our work with family and friends, but we knew it would be over soon. Pete
sensed this, and in his perfectly understated way prepared us for it. The day of each opening
performance, he told us: You’ve got a lot going through your heads right now–lines, blocking,
costumes, homework and more. But don’t pass up the opportunity to remember a moment.
That moment is the one when the lights are down, the play is about to begin and you’re ready to
make your first entrance. In that moment, take stock of how you are feeling. Feel the
nervousness, the excitement, the anticipation, and the fear. Remember the work you’ve put in to
get you to that moment and feel proud. Really drink in that feeling and connect to it. There is
nothing like it.
To this day, I can put myself back in those moments. I can conjure up precisely how I felt just
prior to my first entrances, experiencing those emotions as vividly now as I felt them then. Pete
and all the teachers, students and administrators that made up the BB institution gave us the
gift of moments that enable us to put ourselves back in BB at any time in our lives. My
moments were in the spring play, but everyone who passed through BB has such a “moment.”
This ability to connect with our past makes it easier to face the challenges of the present. I also
learned to try to recognize the important junctures in life and, in those moments, take a beat to
be present. Remember what I am feeling so that someday I can look back and feel how I felt
then. It’s a priceless exercise that has made my life fuller and more fulfilling.
This wonderfully articulate expression about Peter’s teaching (as well as that of Del and David Press and Zac Charon and Gary Cialfi) is just one of the narratives I’ll be sharing in my effort to capture the unique experience that Blind Brook was during that first decade, 1973-1983.