By Ben Joravsky
On a sparkling afternoon in early October, more than 50 people jammed a Formica-counter coffee shop on the near west side to view the drawings of high school artists.
It was an unconventional setting for an art show, and the congregation of teachers, administrators, and tattooed art students startled diners. But for Barry Bruner, the show's organizer, the moment crowned his career. After 32 years of teaching art in his inimitably mellow, hipster way, he's stepping down. He'll retire at the end of the year to, among other things, start a new rhythm and blues band. His students at Whitney Young say it's way too early for him to go.
"Mr. Bruner has his own style," says Christina Cornier, a junior. "He's unique. He's cool. He plays music in his classroom. He tells us stories. He takes us on field trips. They shouldn't let him go. He's too good."
The roots of his teaching style are planted in the late 50s, when he was a restless white teenager from the northwest side who listened to black AM radio stations and manufactured a phony ID that got him into south- and west-side jazz and blues clubs. At Taft High, he joined a band ("D.D.T. and the Dynamiters--the lead singer was Daniel Dawson Trinski"), played rock 'n' roll, and hung out with other doo-wop devotees--like Jim Jacobs, who went on to write Grease. "The gym teacher asked us to write about someone we really admired," says Bruner. "I think he was expecting Abraham Lincoln. But I wrote about Bill Haley and Jim wrote about Little Richard."
After high school, Bruner moved to a flat in Old Town and joined a band called Ronnie Ross and the Sidemen ("Our first gig was a Mafia-type bar in Cicero"), which eventually led to a meeting with a drummer named Maurice White, who went on to found Earth, Wind and Fire. Bruner enlisted White to play in his band backing the Sheppards, a popular vocal group. "We played at every ballroom on the south side--the Grove, the Grand Ballroom, the Rum Boogie Ballroom, the South Shore Ballroom, Times Square. We were making pretty good money, but the whole time I'm going to art classes because I was trying to be practical. I saw music as sporadic, but art could get me a job I do every day."
By 1965 he had something even more pressing on his mind. "I didn't want to go to Vietnam. I didn't want to shoot anybody I didn't know and I didn't want to be shot at. I figured I'd become a teacher and get a deferment until the war's over."
So he enrolled at Chicago Teachers College (now Chicago State University), and in January 1967 got a job teaching art at Parker High School (now Robeson) in Englewood. "Barry was teaching art in a third-floor classroom where the desks were bolted to the floor, and he had zero budget, no money for supplies," says Marty Majewski, a longtime friend. "I walked in once, and you had three guys in the back rolling dice and some other guys sleeping and a few others just sort of listening to music. And Barry's up front with a few kids around him. He's talking to them, trying to teach art in a school without supplies."
Bruner says it wasn't quite that bad. "I don't remember the guys playing dice, but it was hard. I was sort of a hippie teacher with long hair and beads, and I walked into a class of 47. You try teaching art to 47 kids. The school had racial problems. I remember some kids carried the principal out of the auditorium in a chair. It was an assembly and they just picked him up and carried him out. It was hard to teach with all the distractions. It burned me out and I quit."
For two years he was a public aid caseworker. "I discovered I missed teaching," he says. "It wasn't just a deferment thing. I actually wanted to teach."
In 1972 he returned to the classroom, this time at Calumet High School in Chatham. "It was another all-black school but it was a different scene than Parker," he says. "Things had settled down. I had supplies, I could get things done. There were other young, idealistic teachers. There was Randy Bates, a drama teacher, and he had the kids staging plays. Me and John Allen, another art teacher, got into painting murals with the kids. We painted a whole church--from the basement to the upstairs--with about 20 kids."
In 1976 the principal at Calumet moved to Whitney Young, which was just opening. Bruner decided to move with him. "I liked my time at Calumet, but I liked the chairman of the art department at Young and I had to take it," he says. "It was different. Young's integrated, and the kids are more interested in their academic subjects. But I think the kids at Calumet were more into their art--their art might have been more important to them."
The years wore on. As he raised a son (Boyd), divorced, remarried, played in bands and danced at clubs, traveled around the world, joined a 16-inch softball team, and took up roller skating and golf, he taught at Young. He taught drawing and painting and introductory art, coached girls' softball, and continued painting murals. As the art teacher, he had more freedom than his colleagues. While the students worked, he played jazz, R & B, and classical music, and he talked. He loves to talk. Once he gets going it's hard for him to stop. "I think that part of teaching is telling stories and captivating the kids," he says. "I think they like to see that their teacher does other things than teach."
He figures that over the years he's told a thousand tales. Like the time he saw John Coltrane at McKies Disc Jockey Show Lounge at 63rd and Cottage Grove--"He opened with 'My Favorite Things' and played it for over an hour." The time he and a high school girlfriend won a case of soda pop in a dance contest on the old TV show Record Hop--"We danced to 'Rock Around the Clock,' or maybe it was 'See You Later Alligator.'" And the sad story of Ral Donner, an early 60s crooner who went to Taft--"Actually he got kicked out of school 'cause he sang like Elvis and every time he did a concert they almost had a riot.
"Ral Donner was a sensational singer. He was singing opera when he was five," says Bruner. "He sang Elvis songs at the Apollo and he went over big. He bought himself a purple Cadillac with the money he made. But he got ripped off by the record companies. He died penniless of cancer sometime in the 1980s. I remember seeing that purple Cadillac parked outside his parents' house over on Newark and Devon long after he died. You could write a book on Ral Donner. The poor guy never had any luck."
Whenever he can, Bruner takes his kids out of school. "I love field trips--so far this year I've been on five. I want to break the record--I want 20. I like to take them to museums or just out on the street where they can draw.
"You know, I never really plan things out in a conventional way. At Calumet I was notoriously known as the worst record keeper in the school. They'd say, 'What do you use--crayons?--to keep these books?' I figure as long as I never run out of ideas I'm all right. I go water my lawn in the morning and it's quiet and the water's running and the ideas come to me."
While watering his lawn a few weeks ago, he conceived of staging an art show at the Palace Grill, a diner at Madison and Loomis. "I'd taken my class to draw the diner and I figured, why not put on a show there? I asked the owner and he was cool."
During the show on October 5, word spread that Bruner was going to retire in June. In the aftermath, disappointed students have been exchanging their favorite Bruner tales.
"It seems like everyone he knows is famous or was almost famous or should have been famous," says Caitlin Cunningham, a junior. "He's got these crazy ideas, like he wants to pour paint over the buildings. It's just different."
"He's definitely a feel-good teacher," adds Christina Cornier. "I'm not saying he won't criticize your work. He just does it in a way that makes you feel better. He'll say, 'That's great, but you can do this to make it even better.' He does unconventional things. Once he decided we're going to dance out in the hallways. He put on loud music and he was twirling and spinning and teaching us to dance. A lot of people were looking at him like he's crazy. But he's a role model. Everybody likes him. I mean, we talk about how cool he is."
It's unlikely that an unconventional teacher like Bruner would have lasted 32 years in the rigid conformity of today's public-school system, with the central office's scripted curriculum and mandatory test drills. "It's a lot different now than it was when I started," he says. "There's much more emphasis on test taking. We got kids in high school taking three standardized tests a year. It's crazy. It takes up too much time.
"But that's not why I'm retiring. It's just a good time to get away. I got a lot of things I want to do. I want to spin records and do more of my art. My wife Keiko and I want to travel more. But I also want to get my band back up. I know a few guys like me who are ready to play. We can get some gigs. After all these years it will be like I've come full circle."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.