Dakeyan Chá Dré Graham was always a band kid.
When he graduated from C. Leon King High School in 2003, he was the school’s drum major of the marching band. He played almost every woodwind instrument, starting with clarinet in sixth grade.
But on the day he walked across the stage of his senior band banquet, he told his band director Cheri Sleeper he wanted to attend UF for anesthesiology, she said.
She looked at him and said, “I give you a year. You’ll be changing your major.”
It took two years, but Sleeper was right. Graham made music his sole focus — and almost 20 years later, he is four months away from finishing a year-long leave traveling across the state as the 2020 Teacher of the Year and the Christa McAuliffe Ambassador for Education.
Graham, who received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in music education in 2007 and 2009 at UF, has visited all but five counties in Florida to provide keynote speeches and professional development courses to educators, he said.
He also meets with state government officials monthly to discuss goals and standards for education in the hopes of influencing future legislation.
About 1.3 million elementary school children don’t have access to music classes in the United States, according to music education advocacy group Children’s Music Workshop Children’s Music Workshop. And as schools face budget cuts, music programs are some of the first to go, Graham said.
“Whenever I meet with state officials and things like that, we talk a lot about the importance of the arts,” he said. “It allows the brain to operate and function a little differently.”
But education has worth beyond just students, Graham said. When he visited the Marion Correctional Institution, a band of six inmates played for him and gave him a hand-drawn sketch of his headshot.
“I got a chance to hear straight from them how life was, what education meant to them — that opportunity for a second chance,” he said.
Graham being named Teacher of the Year had an effect back home, too. One of his music program students received an $8,000 two-year Florida college scholarship from the Florida Prepaid College Board.
Bianca Mateo, a 17-year-old junior at C. Leon King High School in Tampa, received the award after consideration by a C. Leon King High School academic board.
“I just decided to go for it because there was no point in not doing it,” she said.
Mateo, who the high school’s drum major, said she wants to attend UF to study microbiology or biochemistry. But despite not pursuing music in college, she still values it and her band, she said.
Despite Graham’s absence, the band still feels his influence, Mateo said. And Graham hasn’t forgotten his students, either.
“I’m actually going to be a good teacher now that I’ve had the opportunity to see so much great teaching,” he said. “I’m missing my students dearly and can’t wait to get back to them.”
Contact Hope Dean at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @hope_m_dean.