As a video of her students playing a song they wrote themselves played on the back screen of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” stage, Melissa Salguero couldn’t hold back her tears.
Salguero, a USF alumna who teaches music education at Public School 48 in the South Bronx, went to the set that day not realizing exactly what the show was going to be about. She was just happy to be in the presence of one of her favorite TV stars.
“Melissa, come on down,” DeGeneres said after the video played.
Salguero attempted to compose herself as she made her way to the stage.
In April, Salguero, who graduated from USF in 2009, arrived at PS 48 to find the school a shambles. She was the first one in the building that morning and the first to discover the school had been burglarized over the weeklong spring break.
Sagluero entered her classroom in shock.
Flutes, keyboards, saxophones and even her personal trumpet had been stolen. The USF Bulls posters on the walls from when Salguero led the Herd of Thunder (HOT) marching band were some of the only things that remained intact.
Though she hadn’t had any serious conflicts since she began working at the school in 2011, her first thought was, “Who did I upset?”
While the police took inventory of everything that was damaged, and Salguero tried to put her classroom back together, she held her daily music classes in the auditorium.
“That was important to me, that students didn’t miss their music class,” Salguero said.
Half of the students had taken their instruments home, but the other half of her class was left without instruments. Salguero pooled her own collection of instruments and those of friends to make sure all of the students had instruments in time for their upcoming concert.
She also rummaged through pawnshops, spending her own money to replace what had been stolen.
“They weren’t the best instruments to buy, but for 50 bucks it was going to work,” she said.
The burglars had access to the master key, which opened every door in the building. They spent the weeklong break coming in and out of the school, taking $30,000 worth of electronics and equipment from every room in the school, Salguero said.
The day after the incident, Salguero set up a GoFundMe Web page to raise money to replace the electronics and music equipment that were lost. That day, her after-school chorus group approached her with a song they wrote to express their feelings after the burglary, titled “We Will Rise.”
“Nothing’s gonna stop us/ We are gonna soar/ We will rise from the ashes/ Stronger than before,” the children’s song read.
Before appearing on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” Salguero had raised only $2,000 in donations over four months through the website.
After a short interview on her show, DeGeneres brought out her checkbook and wrote a $50,000 check to the PS 48 music program.
Again, Salguero, hands to her face, began to cry.
Salguero found her passion for music education around the same age as many of her current students. Salguero said she first knew she wanted to be a music educator when she began taking music classes at her elementary school.
“My favorite experience from that time was just going to music classes and playing instruments,” she said. “Even if it was just a triangle, it was just so much fun. I really connected with it.”
She was recruited out of Spanish River High School where she was selected to play in the Boston Crusaders Drum and Bugle Corps, a professional marching band headed by Michael Robinson, the band director of USF HOT at the time.
When she came to USF in 2004, Salguero spent two years with HOT before becoming the drum major for the band, a position she would hold for the next three years.
Robinson, who affectionately refers to Salguero as “Mellie,” said she was a born teacher and leader.
“She’s someone that other people want to follow and listen to and just respond well to,” he said. “She can get people to work hard, she’s a great musician, all the things that allowed her to be a great drum major and now have success as a music teacher.”
Salguero said she said she still remembers the feeling of performing in front of a crowd of 82,000 in Auburn.
The Bulls, who were No. 2 in the nation at the time, eked out a narrow victory over one of the best teams in the nation.
“Being in that stadium – oh my gosh – it was such an incredible feeling,” she said. “The stadium was just going crazy.”
After teaching music education for a year at Martinez Middle School in Lutz, Salguero had what she calls a “crazy dream” to live and teach in New York City.
However, when she arrived in New York City in 2010, Salguero discovered that her dream wasn’t going to come easy.
She spent her first six months making smoothies in the Jamba Juice at Columbus Circle while hunting for a teaching job, which she found in 2011. In January, she received a callback from a nonprofit program called Education Through Music.
The program started in 1991 with the goal of bringing music education to schools that don’t have a full-time music educator.
Education Through Music provides instruction to music educators around the country on how to structure music programs in schools and how to make school a place where kids want to be.
Assistant Program Director Nicholas LaFleur said the program also works to get parents and communities in New York City more involved in student success.
“When we get a good music program running in a school, there are concerts,” he said. “When concerts are good quality and students are performing well and doing well and they are happy, parents get really happy and start showing up to concerts. That’s a very strong connection for parents and community engagement.”
After going through a number of professional development programs, Salguero was placed at PS 48 in the Hunts Point area of the Bronx, an area where almost half of all residents are living below the poverty level and only 22 percent of residents hold a high school diploma, according to figures from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Though Salguero said Education Through Music helped immensely in training and providing basic instruments, her class was nearly empty when she arrived.
“They didn’t even have a board to write on,” Salguero said. “It was drastically different than my experience at Martinez (Middle School). There I could make as many copies as I wanted or order whatever I needed for my classes.”
When she first arrived at PS 48, the selection of instruments consisted of her own guitar, some hand drums provided by Education Through Music and a few tuned percussion tubes called Boomwhackers.
So she improvised.
Salguero taped rhythm patters onto Solo cups, got paper cuts from cutting out music notes that students could move around and spent her days rummaging through dollar stores to find small, makeshift instruments.
“I never thought I’d be able to get through a lesson with no resources,” Salguero said. “Basically all I had was my guitar, but I got through it and I learned and grew.”
Eventually Salguero found her footing. She said her favorite lesson to teach to her third through fifth grade students is one on innovation in music, where she traces the history of how the technology used to play and record music has changed over time.
She played a vinyl record, something most of her students had never seen before, using a rolled up piece of paper and sewing needle.
Salguero said the look on student’s faces when they begin to hear the hum of the record is the best part of the lecture.
“I have kids who I had three or four years ago who are still like, ‘Oh my gosh, I remember when you did this and it was so cool! Can you do it again?’” Salguero said. “They still remember that.”
The next school year, Salguero got a VH1 Save the Music grant that provided her classroom with 33 instruments to start a band at PS 48.
With the check from DeGeneres and additional support from Education Through Music, Salguero said all of her students now have instruments, and new sparkling, secure lockers to leave them in.
Salguero said she will use the money to benefit PS 48’s music education program and continue to use music to reach out to the children and their parents in the Hunts Point area of the Bronx.
“I don’t want to just make my students musicians, I want to make them music lovers,” Salguero said. “Because five, 10 years down the road, they are going to be the people deciding how to fund education, and if they had an experience in my music program that changed their life in a positive way, they’re going to advocate for music and yell it from the rooftops.”
As much as Salguero hopes her students have left her classroom knowing about music and self-expression, she said the incident has allowed her to realize what she has learned from PS 48 and the students she has taught.
“They’ve taught me how to look at the brighter side of things,” Salguero said “My students don’t complain about anything, you know. If we need a new carpet, we don’t complain about it, we figure out how to do it. It might take us years, but that’s the thing: It can always get better and we won’t stop till we get there.”