By Michael E. Miller
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Under his tutelage the students have mastered, at various times, the complex live performances of entire concept albums including the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Queen's A Night at the Opera, and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (the 1987 performance came complete with a multimedia and laser light show in the high school's auditorium). In the spring of 1997 the class released a professional-caliber, self-recorded CD of original and cover tunes. They recorded the album in the school's own Hi-Tide Recording Studio, the only facility of its kind in the school district.
Burris has pulled off a personal triumph as well. His students often drop by his small, sparsely decorated two-bedroom home to listen to and talk about music, watch movies, and kick back. One current class celebrated Halloween at his house. A senior and her family regularly take him out to dinner. Even years after graduation, former charges visit or call.
"He was like a father to me," 1981 graduate Adam Chester explains. "And he still is. I call him at least once a month."
Although Burris is surprisingly quick to advise against it, several of his students have gone on to pursue careers in music. Chester, who studied music at the University of Southern California and has lived in Los Angeles ever since, has scored songs for a Tim Curry film and two recent network TV movies. Paul Smith, a 1990 alumnus, was the head recording and live-sound engineer for the reggae act Inner Circle. Demetrius Brown from the popular local rock band Manchild is a former ensemble player, as was Ann Curless, of the successful late-Eighties pop singing group Expose.
Eve Nelson, a 1983 graduate now living in New York City, has written songs with artists such as Angela Bofill and Donna Summer, and with celebrated hitmaker Carole Bayer Sager. She recently signed a six-album deal with the Virgin Records subsidiary V2 on behalf of a sixteen-year-old artist named Billy Crawford, for whom she will produce and write. "When I first saw the Rock Ensemble when they came to perform at Nautilus [Middle School in Miami Beach]," Nelson recalls, "it was like a world opening up for me. I had been studying classical piano and I saw these kids get up and sound great.... I never felt like I belonged in the classical world. I said, 'I have to be part of this.' It was a huge, huge part of my growth as a youngster. I would say he's one of the bigger influences in my entire career."
Burris's band room houses several gleaming trophies (some as tall as the students who've earned them) collected this past year from a national music competition known as Musicfest Orlando. Others, from competitions held throughout Florida and around the country, line the walls of nearby rooms. The Miami Beach Senior High School Rock Ensemble and Classical Guitar Ensemble are known nationwide as musical models.
"We've never gotten anything but a superior or first-place ranking," Burris says, beaming.
His tenure has not been entirely trouble-free. In the past detractors within the school district have negatively commented about Burris's deteriorating physical condition and how it affects his ability to instruct. They questioned how he could teach music without picking up the instruments and demonstrating how to use them. They wondered how he could control a roomful of rambunctious teens from a wheelchair. "'Burris's kids are outside the room,'" he mimics, repeating an often heard protest. "'He can't handle the discipline aspect of it.'" Twice Burris has been placed on surplus, the status given to teachers who are considered expendable, who soon will be relocated to another position in the district or let go altogether.
In 1978 Burris says principal Marty Rubens told him he didn't want anyone in a wheelchair on his faculty. "He told me that within two weeks I'd be out of there and I'd be placed at Lindsey Hopkins teaching dance to handicapped kids," Burris says. It wasn't meant as a joke. Thirty angry parents showed up in Rubens's office the day after a TV news report detailed Burris's imminent demise. "They wouldn't leave, and they wouldn't let up." Burris recalls with a smile. "After that he left me alone."
Then in the early Nineties, with declining student enrollment in fine-arts courses in general, Burris was on the chopping block again. But a savior stepped in, in the form of a concerned parent with the ear of the school board.
Shortly thereafter Burris and his Rock Ensemble were invited to perform at a school-district event. Speaking from the podium to hundreds of educators and administrators, deputy superintendent Solomon Stinson (now school board chairman) heaped praise on Burris's students and their teacher. Later he approached Burris in person. "I felt a hand on my shoulder," Burris recollects, "and in a deep Southern drawl, a voice said, 'Doug, it's Solomon Stinson. You don't have to worry about your job anymore. Your job is intact.' It sounded like the voice of God."
"Of course I miss all the things that someone would expect a quadriplegic to miss," Burris says one night after a Classical Guitar Ensemble performance at a Miami Beach hotel. He isn't afraid to talk about his condition, nor does he hide his contempt for the disease that's kept him in a wheelchair for two decades now. When asked how things would have been if he didn't have MS, he says resolutely: "I would have been an even better teacher."