School of Hard Rocks

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

Although he still made his money putting in late nights with bar bands, school work came easier. Burris graduated in 1967 with a bachelor's degree in music education and a major in instrumental music. "I really feel like that's one of the major accomplishments of my life," he says, "to actually have graduated from FSU."

Shortly after accepting his sheepskin, he landed a teaching position at Highland Falls High School in Highland Falls, New York, just minutes from his hometown. Burris taught jazz band, concert band, marching band. The school was in the center of town, and when he took the marching band out to practice, much of the community turned out to watch. Burris would get together after school with his more-accomplished students to score avant-garde movies made by another teacher's film class. He also taught private guitar lessons at a local music store. For a while he continued to play in a band, though he was finding it increasingly difficult to summon the physical energy for all these endeavors.

Burris and Brinkman married soon after he took the job in Highland Falls (they divorced in 1974). By 1969 she had grown tired of the New York winters and persuaded her husband to give up his teaching position and move to South Florida. (He would pursue a master's degree at the University of Miami while she taught high school chorus.) They drove south the same weekend many of their friends (and some of Burris's students) were heading for the musical extravaganza and cultural turning point taking place in a neighboring town, Woodstock. Once settled at UM, Burris plunged into classical guitar, putting in long, focused hours with his instrument, all the while growing more exhausted.

"I felt like I belonged. There were other people there playing classical guitar, too, and practicing four, five, six hours a day. I did that for eighteen months," he recalls. "Those years of practicing and getting really good on an instrument, and loving every minute of it, those are times I'll never forget. I'll always remember that feeling of being totally immersed in an art, by myself. I didn't have to play with a marching band, I didn't have to play with anybody else. It was just me, making good music."

He collected his master's in January of 1971, substituted at various Dade County schools during the spring, and then accepted a job teaching guitar at Beach High, beginning in September. He's been there ever since.

Unfortunately so has his multiple sclerosis, an insidious disease that affects approximately 2.5 million people worldwide. A genetic infirmity for which there is still no cure, MS sneaks up slowly, destroying the linings that protect the nerves, making muscle control unreliable, and in severe cases, eventually impossible. MS can and does kill. Those with the disease have an average life span of twenty years after the first symptoms appear.

A young Burris first noticed his sagging energy in the mid-Sixties. Although doctors wouldn't diagnose his problem until years later, he knew something was seriously wrong. "In '64 I had my first attack," he remembers. "I was in bed for two weeks and had numb spots in my legs." His mystery illness levied a heavy emotional toll. Before robbing him completely of the ability to walk, or even to lift a cup of coffee to his lips, the disease played head games with him. He appeared to have beaten the illness a year or two after that first bout. He would recover, he thought.

But MS does not give up so easily. By 1968 it was back. He began struggling with the marching band, stopping to rest every few blocks. "I was fatigued," he recalls. "I was a great swimmer, but I'd go in the ocean and practically drown." By the spring of 1970, when his condition was finally diagnosed, it had begun to interfere with his guitar playing. By 1971 he needed a cane to walk (he preferred to use a stick his father had cut from a tree), and resigned himself to the fact that he'd never again be able to teach marching band. Beach High principal Solomon Lichter was not concerned about his abilities, and he hired Burris to teach guitar.

"Basically my qualification for a teacher," Lichter says, "was, 'Are you capable and competent and do you care about kids?' I intuitively felt he liked kids, and that he could communicate. So I had no hesitation whatsoever. His condition was never a problem with me." Burris spent the 1971-72 school year teaching six beginning guitar classes per day. He recruited the best players to work out pop and rock tunes after school. He would often sing while the students strummed their guitars.

"I knew I was hired to be a guitar teacher and I did the best I could," Burris remembers. "I had studied classical.... I was very enamored with it, but what was going to be appropriate for the masses? In those days it was Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and whoever else came along that could do a great pop tune.

"After one year I said, 'There's got to be something else.'" There was. With Lichter's blessing the next year Burris was leading a full-scale rock band, with guitarists, vocalists, bassists, drummers, and keyboardists. The students auditioned for the parts. The class took the official title Rock Ensemble and sold donuts to raise money for a public address system.

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