Article by Bruce Berr
am a graduate of Murphy University. If you look up that school's name on the internet, you won't find it listed anywhere. Yet throughout the country there are many alumni who, like myself, have stories to tell about how their lives were transformed during their brief residency at that institution. I am fortunate and eager to share my story with you.
My first day of sixth grade in the fall of 1962 was unlike any other previous September start at Bywood Elementary School in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. I was a little nervous, slated to have my first male teacher-Mr. Murphy. But once the school day began, special things started to happen. First, he called our attention to the day's schedule on the blackboard. It listed various subjects (such as arithmetic and reading) happening at various times. The last item on the list was when school let out, but for some reason, it had something written there, too: "I.L.A." He asked us what we thought that meant, and someone said flippantly, "That's the time we get to go home." Everyone laughed, including Mr. Murphy. Then he said something like the following, which would prove to be the "mantra" for this class from that time onward: "Yes, that is the time you get to go home. And that's also the time you begin your most important work of all: Independent Learning Activities. What we do here in this classroom is not that important compared to the learning you do at home, on your own, both with homework and other things you are interested in." He explained that we would be living most of our lives not in school anyway, so the I.L.A. were the most important. I had never heard a teacher talk about school and learning in this way, and yet it confirmed something I had already suspected to be true. He had my attention right away-here was a teacher who would tell it like it is!
That first day brought other surprises. Even though we had music class with another teacher two days a week, Mr. Murphy began our first session by teaching the class the song, "Getting to Know You." He told us the story of The King and I and how our class this first day of school was just like the one in the Broadway show. He then taught us the lyrics by rote. At first, many of us (especially the boys) were reluctant to sing. But here was this muscular guy with striking red hair who carried himself more like a sailor than as a teacher, singing his lungs out! His exuberance won out-I couldn't help but join in. I even liked it! This was different than our music classes-here we were singing 'cause it was fun!
There was definitely a new tone to this class. We figured out by morning's end that our first names weren't going to be used anymore-he addressed each of us as "Miss Padlasky" or "Mr. Berr." During recess in the schoolyard we all wondered why he was doing this (little did we know then that he was already preparing us to have the highest expectations of our own adult-like behavior).
Throughout that first day, he repeatedly put learning itself on a pedestal, and also showed that he was a zealous learner himself. Just like a beautiful piece of music, that school year unfolded with the same delight and wonderment as did its opening day. Mr. Murphy enticed students to be curious about the world, then to read to satiate that curiosity. He frequently described the class as being a "community of learners" and he did whatever was necessary to make it happen. He volunteered extra time before and after school, giving remedial work to those who were struggling, and additional topics for those who wanted more challenge. It was also evident that Mr. Murphy enjoyed his job and looked forward to being at school with us every day. What do you think we learned from that?
He empowered everyone, day in and day out, to become better learners in ways too numerous to mention here except for a few. For instance, he occasionally had students tutor other students. This turned out to be my first teaching experience! Mr. Murphy stood by and guided me on how to help my fellow classmate with a reading problem. He gave me a de facto introduction to some methods of teaching, but the most important things he taught me were patience and humility-he said that school teachers are persons who just happened to be born before their students. He reminded us frequently that we could achieve as much or more than he did-he was just older and happened to get a head start.
I remember a class early in the year in which he needed to make a dramatic point about something. He suddenly jumped up on the top of a student's desk (doing precisely what we were NEVER supposed to do!), stretched his arms out wide, and yelled!! We were dumfounded and delighted! It wasn't just that we had never seen a teacher do this before-THIS WAS A REBELLIOUS BUT APPROPRIATE ACT ON THE PART OF THE TEACHER!! (We almost expected the principal to come running in to punish him!) Mr. Murphy was indeed one of us, even though he always maintained firm control of his class. You might suspect that after an episode like this, behavior problems would crop up-they didn't. Not a single student jumped up on a desk that year-the desktops were now the domain of only Mr. Murphy! Talk about respect.
The piece de resistance for the school year was the June school play. Instead of staging a pre-written affair, Mr. Murphy organized the class into creating it from scratch! Each student had responsibilities based on interests and strengths. Some created the art work and stage props; the more dramatic folks would be the actors; some were put in charge of stage operations; and I helped write the script, and compose and perform the music. Every student contributed to a wholly original work. We ended up surpassing the previous expectations-we had become a community of creative learners!
When I started to teach piano at age twenty, I seemed already to know more about teaching than I should have for my age (based on feedback from students and their learning), and I already had convictions about teaching. It was not until my early 30's that I realized that from that very first day in Frank Murphy's classroom, I wanted to become a teacher. That year was not only sixth grade for me, but it was my first and most influential pedagogy course. Frank Murphy's knowledge, sincerity, and enthusiasm; his irreverence at times for the "rules"; his occasional self-deprecating humor; his commanding yet graceful control of the class; his love of life and learning; his unusual combination of gruffness and refinement-these were some of the parts of the total experience. One brief school year with this person, and I was never the same again. He is still inside me everywhere I go; he is in every class and lesson I teach.
I stayed in periodic touch with Mr. Murphy during my adolescence and adult years. I dedicated one of my first educational piano music publications to him in 1990, and in classic "Frank-style," he said, "That's great, because I didn't know a quarter note from a cyclotron." Oh yes he did, in the ways that are important.
Without even trying, he continued to be my teacher. A retired person in his 60s backpacking alone across Europe for two months-is that not an I.L.A. that inspires? Frank sometimes said things that appeared at first to be cliches ("The worst thing I've seen on this earth is a human being; the best thing I've seen on this earth is a human being"), but that later would reverberate mentally for months, revealing successive layers of meaning. His unbridled optimism was apparent in his "It's a great day for a race-a great day for the human race." And when saying good-bye, he frequently closed with "Keep on punchin'" (probably related to his boxing days in his youth).
Frank re-married in the mid-1990s to a longtime friend and marvelous teacher in her own right, Dolores Purcell. I attended their wedding and was startled at the reception dinner to discover legions of people who were either past students of Frank's, or parents of past students (or both!)-all extolling his influences. Some of the tales from that day and others:
It is noteworthy that Frank Murphy's "credentials" before becoming a teacher probably appeared suspect. He had been thrown out of high school for fighting. He then served in the army doing communications work, and his main interest during that time was amateur boxing. However, during this same period, he developed an interest in teaching, and so completed a high school equivalency diploma. (He then went on to LaSalle College for an undergraduate degree). Additionally, he openly admitted in later years that he struggled with a drinking problem at various times in his life.
What I learned from all of this: a person's credentials do not necessarily show up on a resume-they are who the person is, what their passions are, how they live their life, and what they bring to the people around them.
Space limitations preclude my telling you much, much more. If we meet at a convention or conference sometime, please pull me aside and I will be more than happy to talk your ear off about the Chancellor of Murphy University-Frank Murphy!
Sadly, Frank Murphy was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1998. He is currently in a professional care facility in Media, Pennsylvania, and is being looked after by his loving wife, Dolores. The author was fortunate to visit his teacher last year.
Editor's note: Frank Murphy passed away on Friday, April 5, 2002.
In the spring of 1987 I was just completing my first year of doctoral work in piano performance and pedagogy at Northwestern University. I sent a letter to Frank, relating to him my wonderful experiences that year doing lots of supervised teaching, and teaching in new settings and with enhanced sensibilities (One of my pedagogy teachers that year was Marcia Bosits, whose article is found in this same installment). Frank "wrote" back to me, but not in letter form - he sent me an audiocassette letter. In that tape from July of 1987, he discussed many things and thought out loud on numerous issues, particularly the art of teaching.
I have extracted some segments from this tape. It is not just the content of these clips (on the subject of teaching) that is significant; I believe these impromptu excerpts also convey some of the color and emotion and "music" that were always a part of Frank's delivery, regardless of whether he was in front of a classroom, or just conversing one-on-one. He was a marvelous communicator.
I had forgotten about the existence of this tape until after I had written the above article. It was quite a treat for me to hear it again after almost fifteen years. I hope you will also enjoy these clips, and I hope they will allow you to feel what it was like to be Frank Murphy's student, even if just for a short while.
BRUCE BERR is a graduate of Murphy University. He is also Website Designer and Editor of the Rhythm column for Keyboard Companion.