Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Nissy

Seems I have a little bit of experience, now, with the passing of important figures in my professional life. And this afternoon, along came word that another passing had occurred. And the one who is no longer with us played a very large role in helping me think that maybe I could be a journalist when I grew up … and then, later, that maybe I could become a music teacher.

Other people who might write this essay would replace “journalist” or “music teacher” with “textile artist”, “documentary filmmaker”, “dance teacher”, “motion picture special effects designer”, “puppeteer”, “playwright”, “photographer” … or, yes, “Broadway star”. I know each and every one of those people (including the Broadway star), and many more besides.

Not an easy feat. In how many different disciplines would one have to be proficient in order to have so many students going in so many different directions?

As it turns out, Priscilla Dewey only had to be proficient in one.

 

In 1978, I was a twelve-year-old kid, going to summer camp for the first time in my life, and not too thrilled about it. I think my previous few summer vacations had consisted largely of me spending the days doing whatever fun thing struck me, all day, on pretty much my own schedule. Except perhaps if the family was going on a family vacation – but that was OK too.

Stereotypical day camp: Arts ‘n’ crafts. Obstacle courses. Groups of campers named after animals. Swimming. I had zero interest in any of it; in fact I’d taken swimming lessons a few summers prior to that — to no avail. So it was not going to be any kind of fun to have my summer weekdays wiped out by this.

After four weeks as a camper at the Charles River Creative Arts Program, I’d had my concept of day camp happily exploded in a thousand or so different directions.

Oh, early on in the month, I resisted. Even after the first week, during which I’d [1] taken part in the invention of a mad, mad, mad shadow-drama skit, [2] written an article for the camp newspaper, and [3] participated in my first fencing match, I still wasn’t sold on the concept of summer camp. Mysteriously, though, after the final day of the camp session – Arts Festival Day, which was a giant Presentation For The Parents (so they got some idea what their money was going toward, presumably) – I found myself immediately looking forward to the summer of 1979. Already, I could feel myself missing the campers who were suddenly my great friends, and the counselors who were so much fun (and pretty good at what they did, by the way).

During that first summer at CRCAP, I became aware of one person who clearly didn’t teach in any one of the subject areas that made up the camp’s curriculum – not art, or music, or dance, or writing or video or gymnastics (or the other sports that, too, were present in the camp course list) – but she was ever-present. Priscilla Dewey – known to most folks as “Nissy” – was the camp’s director, and she spent quite a bit of each camp day checking in with the various classes and activities that were taught throughout the several buildings of the private school campus that housed the summer program. This grandmotherly figure could very often be seen riding a relatively ancient bicycle from class to class, stopping to see what sort of showtune was being sung by 14- and 15-year-olds around a piano here, or what sort of painting or drawing was being created by an 8-year-old there, or what sort of improved tennis serve was being developed by 11- or 12-year-olds over there.

And all the time – constantly, consistently – she was encouraging all those kids to keep going, and to continue to pursue those activities that clearly interested them; and she was expressing almost starry-eyed wonder at the creativity that was happening. When members of the arts camp staff (myself included, years later) would try to do impersonations of Priscilla Dewey, the first phrases that would be used were always, “That’s wooonnnnnderful!” … “maaaaaarvelous!” … “faaaaaabulous!” … and in a sing-song tone of voice that might strike people as so relentlessly cheery and positive that it simply had to be phony. But it wasn’t.

[In fact, many years later, in reply to the publicity mailing that heralded the production of the first musical theater show I ever wrote – by a theater troupe established by, you guessed it, CRCAP-affiliated people – Nissy dashed off an eMail that said, and I quote verbatim: “Robbie, congratulations! How fabulous. It sounds so wonderful. Break a leg – I know you will!” She signed it, “Nissy”; but she didn’t have to. I’d have known who it was anyway.]

Nissy (whom I never ever called “Nissy” – it was always “Mrs. Dewey”, even after I graduated from college) didn’t teach any classes at the camp, at least not that I was ever aware of. I’m not sure, but I suspect that she would no more classify herself as a master musician, or painter, or filmmaker, or dancer, or poet, or photographer, or player of four-square (a major element of the camp’s athletic program!) … than she would classify herself as a jet plane.

What she did, in the early 1970s, was take her own enthusiasm for young people, and her considerable resources, and utilize them to create an environment for children to explore their artistic creativity. The discipline Nissy was proficient in was arts administration, but that’s a dry and clinical-sounding term. Her proficiency – her gift – was enthusiasm for, and belief in, the creativity of the humans around her.

She helped establish a summer arts program in which no activity was mandatory (so no, I didn’t have to take a swimming class); but where instead students were offered opportunities to explore the arts, to try new things, to use those experiences to develop interests in the arts … to hone skills related to the arts … to discover and express a love for the arts. All of which might set them on paths toward becoming lifelong participants, consumers and advocates of the arts, and, in more cases than are statistically likely, toward making the arts their profession. There are more than a hundred spin-off arts programs now in operation around the world that are built upon the model that started in 1970, in Dover, Massachusetts, under the enthusiastically watchful eye of Priscilla Dewey.

Just as importantly, every time she paused in her bicycling rounds to see what sort of weird or wonderful creative thing that campers or counselors were up to, we knew that she was genuinely interested in what we were doing, and who we were.

And in so doing, it’s fair to say that she was responsible for launching a lot of careers in the arts. For myself, I know that my first teaching and musical arranging experiences occurred at CRCAP. And, if my experience is anything to base a conclusion upon, she was responsible for a lot of lifelong friendships, as well. There are people, who operated both within and outside my areas of artistic interest, whose presence in my world I treasure, whom I never would have met had the creative environment that was (and still is) the Charles River Creative Arts Program not been established and nurtured.

 

Priscilla Dewey passed away today.

It’s a day of the kind which we couldn’t really imagine; or rather, although this day was inevitable (Mrs. Dewey was, after all, human), we just chose not to think about the world would be like without her in it somewhere.  Happily, on this very day, CRCAP is in business, chugging along in its usual second-week-of-the-summer fashion, in the midst of its 43rd season.  The foundation that was laid down turns out to be more than strong enough.

So. Godspeed, Mrs. Dewey. As legacies go, yours is a grand and significant one. It’s about creativity, and enthusiasm, and love. And I can imagine that perhaps you’ll no longer need that bicycle in order to get where you need to be, in order to see and enjoy what your legions of students are up to.

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July 6, 2012 Posted by | arts, CRCAP, education, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments