School’s out. And with the passing of this academic year, so goes the passing on of a local hero.
His name is Mark Hughes, and the mark he left on thousands of New Orleans kids and parents is incalculable.
Mr. Hughes was the music teacher at the lower school campus of the Lusher Charter School– the K through 5th grade student body on Willow Street Uptown. He was the guy charged with teaching 1st graders how to beat sticks and tambourines in rhythm and 5th graders how to run jazz scales on a Fender Strat.
Lusher is weird in that that way. It’s an arts-oriented magnet school. We don’t win many baseball or basketball titles, but we kick ass in chess, violin and drama.
We don’t have a marching band, but at halftime during home football games, a dozen students gather in a small huddle in the stands, eyes lowered, feet tapping, playing Duke Ellington compositions.
But what makes Lusher so cool – and Mr. Hughes such an influential presence – is a daily ritual called Morning Meeting.
Instead of just dropping kids off in a carpool line, most Lusher parents park nearby or walk their kids to school and gather in the school playground. The kids are assembled by grades in the front, parents mill about in the back.
A principal or other administrator runs through the requisite school announcements and such, ginning up support for upcoming sporting events or fundraisers, recognizing certain students for recent awards or achievements, and rolling through the Pledge of Allegiance, natch.
And then, every morning for the past 20 years, Mr. Hughes has stepped up to close out the morning assembly with a song. Not just a song, but a performance. Not just a performance, but a lesson.
With his electric guitar strapped over his shoulder, he introduced the song of the day, most often a classic composition from the pantheon of classic New Orleans R & B.
Fats Domino. Allen Toussaint. Ernie K-Doe. Lloyd Price. Smiley Lewis. Sometimes he dipped into the broader portfolio of popular music – the Beatles, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis.
This is how the kids start school every morning at Lusher, where all three of my kids went. They dance, they jump, they shake out their willies so that when they finally get to their classrooms, they are chilled out, musically infused, and ready to carpe the hell of the diem.
Lusher is a public school, so they don’t start school with a prayer. But try and tell me starting school with James Brown doesn’t give you religion.
Mr. Hughes retired last week, ending a run of indelible influence and memory. He made a difference.
For your consideration, I’ve attached a Youtube video of a typical Morning Meeting, led by Mr. Hughes, accompanied by Lusher dad and saxophonist Derek Houston. Hope it makes you feel good.