By MARILYN TINNIN
Every weekday, Mr. Torris Bell heads to Baker Elementary School at 300 Santa Clair Street in South Jackson. He is the resident Maestro for 382 students, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, and he creates musical experiences for everyone within the space of a five-day school week. This is not a job for the faint of heart! From the wiggly, innocent enthusiasm (but limited skill set) of the pre-kindergarteners, to the blasé, very cool attitude of the fifth graders, he puts his creative talent to work inventing lesson plans and musical activities that engage, educate, and entertain his captive students. He does indeed have a gift—and most importantly, a genuine love for children. His talents are abundantly clear as he manages his classroom. Discipline is not a problem. It is clear his students adore Mr. Bell.
The local law firm of Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz became an official adopter of Baker Elementary School in August 2000, through the Partners in Education “Adopt a School” program. Linda Traxler, a legal secretary, has been personally involved in activities at the school since the beginning. When Torris took over the music program in 2003, she noticed right away that the young Mr. Bell had that hard-to-find, but impossible-not-to-notice ability to inspire his students.
“Torris Bell is an energetic young teacher who approaches his job with integrity, enthusiasm, and lots of imagination. He puts as much thought and planning into the curriculum for his students as he would if he were conducting the Metropolitan Opera. He is a special treasure to his students, his school, and the Jackson Public School District,” Linda says.
Bell, an Indianola native, is the youngest of three boys. His mother and father encouraged a love for music with their sons making several instruments available at home and enrolling them in children’s choir as soon as the director would let them join. “There was always music around our house,” Torris says. It was easy to decide what he wanted to be when he grew up. Any career would have to involve music.
He received a Bachelor of Music Education degree from Mississippi Valley State University and is presently working toward his Masters at Mississippi College. His first assignment post college was in a middle school, and although he enjoyed it, he has found his special niche at Baker. There is something a little paternal in the way he approaches teaching beginners. “I love seeing the ‘spark’ that is so apparent in their eyes when they really get a new concept.”
And they have many opportunities to “get” new concepts as Bell challenges them in various ways. Whether it is singing, playing an instrument, dancing, or understanding rhythm patterns, you can be sure Torris keeps it interesting, as well as rewarding. Teaching classroom music to the youngest of the millennial generation means incorporating technology, keeping the pace fast, and banishing the boring from every activity. This is not your typical music class.
New equipment was an immediate need. Rather than become discouraged about the lack of abundant funds, he explored options like grants. He also became involved in the National Association of Music Educators. He and his students entered a contest vying for a donation to their music program. Schools from all over the United States sent in their original videos and 73 winners were chosen. Baker Elementary received $10,000! Bell was able to purchase a new, baby grand electronic piano for the auditorium, new blazers for the choir members, a new sound system for the auditorium, and an iPad for the classroom. The iPad, by the way, is a plethora of musical apps that provide terrific musical education opportunities in a format the kids love.
But like most great teachers a student remembers long after their time in his classroom, Torris Bell sees each child as an individual with worth, potential, and a future. He looks for opportunities to inject character lessons, citizenship lessons, and good old family values along the way. At Christmas, he arranged several choir performances, including at the State Capitol, the William Winter Archives, and Blair Batson Hospital. At Blair Batson, the students also took treats to the patients. Torris explains that although many of his students come from backgrounds that might be classified as “disadvantaged,” he believes in encouraging them to be “givers” and to give from the heart.
What does it take to be a gifted teacher in the middle of a school where there are many faiths represented? Ask Torris, and he will tell you it takes asking God every day to make the Fruits of the Spirit evident in his life in the way he treats his students and his co-workers. Amazing the way that light shines and how that attitude is “caught” by others.
Weekends are not lazy. You will find Mr. Bell at the Terry Grove Missionary Baptist Church where he directs four choirs! You can’t slow down the Music Man!