Fall River drama teacher retires after 36 years
FALL RIVER — After more than 30 years teaching music and drama at BMC Durfee High School, Gary Bigelow has finally reached his final calling.
“It means something to me, that I’ve spent my whole life doing things that I love getting out of bed for,” he said.
Bigelow is retiring this month after 36 years in high school as a teacher, not including two years as a substitute teacher and, before that, four years as a student in the original Durfee building on Rock Street .
For decades he was a mainstay in the school’s drama program, where he worked alongside his wife Jane Bigelow before his retirement in 2014.
Bigelow started in Durfee teaching choir, music theory and a theater workshop. About 30 years ago he began teaching a music production class, in part to allow students without access to their own instruments to continue studying music. The program is still going strong, with plans underway to start teaching it in colleges. He still teaches music production alongside technical theater classes, whose curriculum he developed, in addition to leading the school’s annual winter music competition and spring theater teams.
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Durfee’s art department has a tight-knit group of educators, and Bigelow is the glue that holds them together, said Jackie Francisco, the school’s director of fine and performing arts.
“He’s like the team’s papa bear,” she said.
Throughout her years at school, Bigelow never stopped learning new things, Francisco said. In a recent example, he learned to use Promethean interactive whiteboards and new Mac computers in the new Durfee, which they didn’t have in the old building, during his last year on the job.
He pushed for the department to have the best technology and tools, to help train students to actually work in the theater and music industries when they graduate. He even worked with the architecture team that designed the new Durfee to guide the design of the performing arts wing.
“Without Gary, you wouldn’t have the attention to detail that you see in this auditorium,” Francisco said.
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His work paid off. Bigelow has seen students work as stage managers, actors, musicians, music and theater teachers, and more. One former student worked as a writer for Drew Carey and another read scripts for Jim Henson, he said.
He never tires of seeing former students become teachers, including some in Fall River, and seeing people he taught come back to visit him as parents at parent-teacher conferences.
“Kids keep you going. And you learn so much,” he said. “They talk about teachers teaching, but what I’ve always loved is learning.”
One of his former students formed a particularly compelling connection with the Bigelows; Jane is expected to receive a kidney transplant from him soon.
“It really means a lot,” Bigelow said.
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Why was Bigelow able to connect so much with his students? Encouraging their creative expression goes a long way, he said. Over-focus on testing can lead to over-emphasis on finding the right answers. Instead, he tries to push students to try new things without worrying about right or wrong.
“I don’t want them to be afraid to be creative,” he said.
Respect for students is also essential. A lot of people push a platitude that kids can do anything, but they don’t always mean it, Bigelow said.
He thinks so.
“I think the children are wronged,” he said. “People underestimate children. They underestimate their talent, their abilities.