I was a mediocre high school student at A.B. Davis High School in Mt. Vernon, New York. One day when I had to turn in a book report about a book I had not read, I decided to copy a friend’s paper. I did not realize that my friend had plagiarized his paper, so my act of plagiarism was once removed from the original act. Nonetheless, I was submitting work that was not mine. My history teacher, Mr. Elman, for whom the report was written, discovered my duplicity and failed me for the course. He was very disappointed in me and I felt ashamed of what I did.
Today, I thank God that I had Mr. Elman for a teacher and that he failed me. He taught me an invaluable lesson of honesty early on in life and I am eternally grateful to him. In hindsight, I realize that getting caught was a good thing. At the time, it was an academic catastrophe, but later on I saw the good that came out of an unpleasant incident.
The notion that out of disaster good can come underpins the narrative arc of Music of the Heart, the heartwarming story of Roberta Guaspari. Roberta, a talented violinist who put aside her musical ambitions to be a loyal wife and mother, has been left fifty violins by the husband who deserted her.
Her whole life in turmoil, she seeks employment as a music teacher, but can only find work at an innercity New York school. She is hired as a sub, but slowly becomes an important player in the school’s music program, especially when she gives her students violins to play as she initiates a string program at the school. At first, parents are ambivalent about the program, but when they see the excitement in their children’s eyes, their objections to the program vanish.
The film skips to ten years later when three schools are successfully implementing Roberta’s violin program. Her grit and energy have been transmitted to her students; they are happy to be acolytes in her program, which fosters discipline and gives the students recognition within the city school system. Indeed, the program makes the kids feel important.
At the zenith of her success, another problem arises. Budgetary cuts force the program to close and Roberta is compelled to find a funding source that will enable it to continue. To solve her problem, she, together with former students, parents, and teachers, decide to stage a major fund-raising concert at the 92nd Street Y. All seems fine until, only a few weeks before the concert, they lose their coveted venue. A lay leader, impressed by Roberta’s program comes to the rescue. Her husband, Arnold Steinhardt, is a world-class violinist and he secures Carnegie Hall for the concert. Moreover, he enlists his friends, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, and Mark O’Connor, to participate in the concert with the student performers.
In the closing scene of the film, Roberta’s mother reminds her that none of the good stuff she is experiencing now would have happened had not her husband divorced her and forced her to establish herself in a new career. She transformed herself from a housewife and mother to a successful teacher and mentor to many children who passed through her classes.
Judaism never sees catastrophe as terminal. In fact, Jews traditionally say a blessing both for the good and bad that life brings them. The reason: one never knows if short-term adversity will lead ultimately to a good outcome. Indeed, when Jews were exiled from their land after the destruction of both first and second Temples, they did not despair for long. They recognized that now they had to redefine themselves as a nation without a land but bound by the Torah, the God-given law that enabled them to survive for centuries. The ability to affirm life after calamity strikes is the crux of Roberta Guaspari’s story. Music of the Heart illustrates her journey from despondency to success.