From painful childhood to instructor’s baton, Southeast teacher inspires by example.
In a music room at Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy, the advanced orchestra ensemble — an auditioned group of sixth, seventh and eighth graders — hit the quavering, perfectly harmonic final notes of Deborah Baker Monday’s “Conquistador.”
As the closing chord faded, the silence that took its place bordered on reverential. At the baton, James Divine closed his eyes, enjoying a moment that was as sublime as his last name.
Then it was back to work.
Divine — orchestra conductor, school teacher, former Army sergeant, motivational speaker and longtime professional jazz musician — asked his students to weigh in on what was spot-on and what needed improvement. This was serious; the students were mere weeks from their May 9 concert, and they were committed to honing their art in time to perform for friends and family.
As the bell signaling the end of this particular Friday morning session rang, students filed out. A few moments later some returned, lunch trays in hand.
Some picked up their instruments, practicing between bites, while others merely listened and socialized in a space that sparked creativity. At the center of it all stood Divine, talking, encouraging, answering questions and just being available for the youngsters who sought him out.
“I found my calling by accident,” he said in a prior interview. “It still gives me chills.”
Divine was not groomed from his youth to be a professional musician. Nor did he originally have any intention of becoming an educator.
In fact, the 52-year-old didn’t really find his muse until he was the same age his students are now. His early years, he candidly admits, were tough.
He was raised in a low-income, single-parent family headed by a powerhouse matriarch; his father was abusive; he survived molestation at the hands of a trusted adult; and he was bullied. Shortly after his kindergarten year, his mother Rita Fiorina relocated he and his sister Lillian Divine to Naples, Italy. They stayed for two years before returning to the U.S. and settling in Norfolk, Virginia.
It was there that Divine got a taste of how empathetic, caring teachers can help shape a young life.
“I think about all the teachers who had patience for me. I feel blessed to be able to have that same effect on our students,” he said.
The young Divine loved to read, and in middle school, he had the option of passing the first academic period of the day reading in homeroom or joining an arts program like choir or band. In 1978, as a sixth grader he gravitated toward the sit-and-read option, but his friends had different ideas.
They steered him toward band. That move redefined him.
“Music saved my life,” he said, frankly. “I wasn’t good at sports. I wasn’t good at outdoors. Music was something that gave me self-esteem and that I was good at.”
He took up the clarinet. The complicated woodwind instrument didn’t come easily, per se, but it came naturally, and in sixth grade was his instrument of choice. A year later he discovered the saxophone, and his mother — seeing a talent that he had yet to fully appreciate — splurged on a $2,500 saxophone.
He still has it.
“She was my biggest supporter,” Divine said. “She said, ‘Follow your dreams. Follow your desires.’”
Finding his beat
Buoyed by his musical talent and supported by his family, Divine opted for a career as a jazz musician. He married his high school sweetheart, Susan, whom he — incidentally — met through band, and the two set out on a 32-year musical adventure that is still going strong.
It became a global tour when, at age 33, Divine joined the U.S. Army band. The couple was stationed in Fort Lee, Virginia; Japan; and eventually Fort Carson. It was from the Mountain Post that the sergeant first class discharged in 1996.
Divine served 10 years with the Colorado National Guard, and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Joseph’s College in Maine, a teaching license from Western State College (now Western Colorado University) and a master’s in music education from Southwestern Oklahoma State University. He is a member of the Colorado Music Educator Association, the Colorado Bandmasters Association, The Pikes Peak Jazz and Swing Society, the Colorado String Teachers Association, the American School Band Directors Association and Toastmasters, among others.
When he isn’t in the classroom, Divine is a motivational speaker, blogger, podcaster and the author of two books. He also still breaks out his trusty, if a bit battered, saxophone and plays gigs throughout the region.
In 1998, Divine landed his first teaching gig: a part-time position at the Colorado Springs School. By the 2000-01 academic year, Divine dedicated himself to teaching full time and forged another new path.
“I found my calling by accident. It still gives me chills.” — James Divine, middle school orchestra instructor and professional jazz musician.
Divine spent seven years teaching at the Colorado Springs School before heading to Falcon High School in 2005. He made the jump to Swigert this year.
The schools are a study in contrasts. Colorado Springs School is one of the region’s elite private schools. Falcon High is a rural institution that is part of the comparatively wealthy and high-performing School District 49. Swigert, an urban middle school located in Southeast, is facing the state accountability clock.
And that makes teaching there even more special for Divine, who has shared many experiences with his young charges.
“You get to see the students’ eyes and spirit light up when they catch on to concepts,” Divine said, his own eyes shining with excitement. “You’re really teaching life skills, the skills they gain for that.”
Such as? Dedication, Divine said, responsibility and perseverance.
“The arts are very representative,” he added. “A lot of the (students), this is the thing they look forward to.”
And whether or not any of the young musicians practicing “Conquistador” on that Friday morning make a career of it, Divine knows he is instilling them with something more important.
“I want them to be better today than they were yesterday,” he said. “I want them to be better tomorrow than they are today.”
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In his words
Southeast music teacher, professional musician, author, podcaster and motivational speaker James Divine can be contacted through his website, JamesDivine.net. He is the author of two memoirs, “The Saxophone Diaries: Stories and Tips from My 30-plus Years in Music” and “Forgive: One Man’s Story of Being Molested and God’s Redemption,” and a third book, a compilation of stories about growing up Italian, is due out this year.