School of Hard Rocks

From his wheelchair Doug Burris runs the show, loud and proud, at Miami Beach High

Cymbal crashes bounce off the walls of a semicavernous band hall at Miami Beach Senior High School. The low drone of a bass guitar and the crack of a snare drum build up a beat. Then the room erupts with sounds from electric guitars, keyboards, and a brass section complete with trumpet, trombone, and saxophone.

This is no typical high school band. They're not pumping out marches. They're playing rock and roll. On school time.

The singer, a freshman, steps up to the microphone. "I'm just a girl," she coos, the musicians behind her laying down a forceful rhythm on a cover of No Doubt's 1997 ska-punk hit "Just a Girl." All the while the young vocalist mimics, with suitable aplomb, the moves and mannerisms of pop icon and No Doubt frontwoman Gwen Stefani.

"I'm just a girl," she repeats, adding emphasis as the band behind her becomes more energetic. "I'm just a girl in the world," she wails explosively, "'cause that's all that you'll let me be!"

Actually just about now, Beach High music teacher Doug Burris is letting fifteen-year-old singer Costanza Pezet be whatever she wants: imaginary rock star, free-spoken young feminist, out-of-control punk. That's because she's at the mike in Burris's Rock Ensemble, an original program he has been running here at Beach High since 1972. The Rock Ensemble was about the only class of its kind in the country for many years, at least until the late Eighties, when a handful of schools nationwide began to copy his format. Those schools now include Killian High School in Kendall, and more recently, the Dillard School of the Arts in Fort Lauderdale.

Burris and his program are something to emulate. In the past 27 years his unusual ensemble and teaching method have collected numerous national awards. He has been featured in news stories on CNN and MTV. This past summer Burris played himself in an independent motion picture, tentatively titled Beach High: The Movie, scheduled for release later this spring by Miami-based 3LP Productions. And the Florida State Board of Education is considering using Burris's Rock Ensemble as a template for classes throughout Florida.

Those are remarkable achievements for anyone. But for Burris they are extraordinary: He is quadriplegic. He sits immobile in a wheelchair at the front of the class, using the power of his voice and the force of his personality to impart his knowledge and love of music. He's been fighting the crippling disease multiple sclerosis for more than 25 years, and so far he's been winning.

The 56-year-old teacher wakes each weekday at 5:00 a.m. and, rain or shine, showers in his back yard. He can't do this alone, of course. An aide wheels him out to the deck behind his home, straps him to the railing so he doesn't fall out of his rolling shower chair, and quite literally hoses him down. The record low temperature during this daily outing, says four-day-per-week assistant Manny Canete, a former student, is 33 degrees. "I wouldn't do this for anyone but Burris," Canete says. "I'm not considering a career as an aide. But Burris is like family." The aides are often former students to whom Burris pays a small wage to care for him almost 24 hours per day.

After toweling him off and shaving him, Canete dresses Burris, feeds him, and puts him on the lift-equipped Medical Care Transportation van that picks him up at 6:30 a.m. every school day. Canete rides with him to the Beach High campus and shuttles him to a classroom that only Burris has used since it was built in 1982.

Burris spends first period collecting his thoughts and downing a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee (three or four creams, a pack or two of Equal). Second period, freshman Karina Bermudez, the first of several student aides -- one for each of his seven class periods -- takes over. The aides give him a friendly pat on the back or peck on the cheek and remain with him until the period ends, helping keep order and run his classes.

"I feel he needs the help," Bermudez says. Besides first period she also spends her lunch hour with Burris and serves as the assistant director of the Rock Ensemble. "I like doing it. Plus it's good experience for me -- good business experience."

This morning Bermudez assists Burris in filling out various school administration forms and gives him updates on upcoming bookings for the Rock Ensemble and on another pet project, Beach High's Classical Guitar Ensemble. Both groups regularly play paid performances around town. They use the money to cover trips, instruments, and other expenses.

By 8:30 Burris faces his first students, who've come to his room for Classical Guitar I. He allows them a few moments to grab for the several dozen inexpensive nylon-stringed guitars he keeps in a walk-in closet at the back of the room. Then he quiets them and calls out a tune. As beginners they initially struggle to play the beginning notes of a melody, straining their eyes at the sheet music while battling simultaneously with errant fingers wrapped awkwardly around skinny guitar necks.

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