Johnnie VanBuren II represents the epitome of what it means to give back to the place that shaped who you are.  As an alum of Marion Abramson Sr. High School, Johnnie made it his business to return to the very place that he attributes to providing him with the discipline and character that has made him the man he is today.  And although the school name is different today, Johnnie continues to work hard to give the students of the now Abramson Sci Academy the same feeling of pride that he once had on the same grounds.  Through his gift and love of music, Johnnie has managed to not only launch a quality band program within the classroom, but he has also orchestrated a marching band/unit that is up to par with other reputable marching bands within the city.  Doing all this in just one school year, Johnnie has much to share with others who are looking to impact schools and education through the arts, specifically the art of music.

Where did your love for music begin?

My love for music actually started as a way to get out of class.  In 3rd grade, I was offered the opportunity to miss class to go to music class. I started out on the violin and played it for one year. When I went to Edward Livingston Middle School, my friend asked me to join the band. I was clueless about what to play. Mr. Dickerson showed me all the instruments, and the instrument that caught my eye was the saxophone. For some reason, I loved the way the saxophone looked and decided to learn how to play it during my 8th-grade year at Livingston Middle School.

When I went on to Abramson for high school, my skills on sax began to flourish and the better I became, the more serious my conversations became about music.  In addition to school, church also was a place that allowed me to take an interest in music.  And as a result, I began to play the drum set in church at about 14 years old.

What are some of the ways you believe being a part of Marion Abramson’s band groomed you into who you are today?

Being in Abe’s band taught me to never give up. I’ve taken a lot of things I learned then and applied them not only to my music but into my everyday life.  Mr. Foy, who was my high school band director, refused to let us settle for less. His expectations were so high for us and he never settled for mediocrity. One of our mottos at the time was, “ No excuses. No mercy.”Today, I can honestly say that if it weren’t for Mr. Foy’s stern approach with band and musicianship, I would not be where I’m at today.

Johnnie VanBuren pictured with former Marion Abramson band director, Mr. Foy

As a black male educator, how important is it for you to be in the position that you are today, working so closely with many male students?

I think that is very important because a lot of students don’t have positive male figures at home.  As for me, my dad wasn’t the only one who influenced my life to become the man I am today.  If I, as a black male educator, don’t step up and try to be a great male figure for our students, then the system will repeat itself over and over again. I just want to be an example for our students to see that it doesn’t matter where you come from; you can make it and be somebody.

What are some of the difficulties you have run into (if any) being a black male educator?

I think some of the challenges come into play when you see yourself in a lot of these kids and want so desperately to give that tough love that is known to active fathers. It kills me to see young black males be disrespectful, whether it’s them cursing and using foul language or just not stepping up to the plate to hold the door open for a woman or simply saying thank you.  I notice that some young men become defensive when older men try to teach and tell them better, especially if there are not many positive males in their lives. So attempts to correct negative behaviors and teach differently are sometimes met with resistance because they feel threatened and don’t always know how to receive love from another male.  But my only mission is to challenge them to be good men.

Having come into ASA and completely turned around its music culture in just a short amount of time, how do you balance your personal and professional lives with giving so much to the school and its students?

Last year when I took this job, I knew it meant putting in a lot of time in order for it to become a great program. That meant I had to sacrifice a lot of things and time to reach the goal that I set out at the beginning of the year. In the beginning, it was very hard because I have three young boys of my own. At times, I felt like I was putting them aside, which I thought was wrong. My oldest boy, who is three years old, definitely took it the hardest. So to make the best of the situation, I would sometimes bring him to my band practices. He really enjoyed being around his father and also loves to be around music, so it’s the best of both worlds for both him and me. So I try my hardest to let my sons be involved with ASA’s band as much as I possibly can.

What advice would you give to our young men who are having difficulty with being pulled between school and the streets?

Leave the streets alone!!! Period!  Statistics show that most African American young men that affiliate themselves with the streets end up either dead or in jail. Young men that die between the ages of 15-20 really haven’t even experienced life yet and it’s so unfair.  This is why I always encourage young men to get involved with something positive (extra-curriculars at school, church, etc.) that can help you pull away from the streets.  Stop being lazy and get yourself involved in something, find more meaning in your lives.   Music DEFINITELY saved me from the streets.

Years from now, what do you want your legacy to be?  How will former students describe and refer to Mr. Vanburen?

I want my students to feel like I made a difference.  No matter how much they may hate how tough I am on them in the moment, as adults, I want them to look back on their lives and say I had the same impact on them as Mr. Foy had on me.  I want my students to become:  leaders, good citizens, good wives and good husbands. Although I am a musician and I teach music, the life skills (discipline, confidence, work ethic, etc.) taught me, in addition to learning and playing music, what is most important.  I just want to be responsible for having a hand in molding good people.


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