Stevens Forest teacher is dynamo behind show EAST COLUMBIA


Barry Palmer is a physical education teacher with a flair for the dramatic.

For the 13th straight year, Mr. Palmer is directing the Stevens Forest Elementary School play, which, over the years, has developed into nothing less than an extravaganza for most of the fourth and fifth grades.

"Of Mice and Mozart" will take its musical show, with a 140-member cast and crew, on the road this week to Oakland Mills High School for 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday and Friday.

Last Thursday, Mr. Palmer scrambled from the gym to the cafeteria giving last-minute instructions and making preparations for the afternoon performance in front of Stevens Forest Elementary students, teachers and parents.

Just before show time, he fixed a broken stage light, demonstrated the shimmy to dancers, assured the performers that the technical crew had mastered the smoke cloud machine and set up the video camera.

Standing backstage watching the performance on closed circuit television, Mr. Palmer clapped enthusiastically as the crew pulled off a transition between scenes that had posed problems before.

"This is the first time it worked. That's terrific," he said to Debbie Gunn, a parent volunteer.

"I see real excitement, and I get as excited as they do," said Mr. Palmer.

Mr. Palmer has no problem working up enthusiasm for directing the play, teaching physical education classes and leading the other programs he has initiated at Stevens Forest, such as the gymnastics club, balancing club, rocketry club, Friday afternoon roller skating sessions and before-school fitness workouts.

"He has more energy than anyone I've ever seen," said Stevens Forest Principal Bill Payne. "He's like a human dynamo -- he keeps going and going and going."

Chris Stetson, an instructional aide and the play's assistant director, describes Mr. Palmer as "a person who can inspire people. Nobody could ever possibly keep up with the man."

Fifth-grader Chad Gibson said he is inspired by the 8:15 a.m. voluntary workouts in which Mr. Palmer leads students through 30 minutes of aerobics, calisthenics and games.

"It gives me more interest in exercising," said Chad. "That's why I come every morning. It helps me get shaped up."

Mr. Payne and Ms. Stetson both say it's a tribute to Mr. Palmer's ability as a teacher and motivator that his former students come back from middle and high school to work with him. Parents also volunteer for Mr. Palmer's projects, even when their children no longer attend Stevens Forest, said Ms. Stetson.

"You don't get the kind of backing he gets without being a special kind of person," she said.

The volunteer assistants are crucial to the programs, said Mr. Palmer.

"I'm kind of the pebble that starts the ripple, and the ripple gets out into the community and touches a lot of people," he said. "Their efforts make it happen."

Mr. Palmer, 46, began teaching at Stevens Forest in 1973 in the middle of the school's first academic year. Before that, he worked in administrative positions at the Towson and Howard County YMCAs, but realized he wanted to work with children.

"First and foremost about Barry is he loves children, and second is he loves what he's doing," said Mr. Payne. "What he does is not for himself, but for the children. He likes to see the children succeed."

Alycia Downs, a fifth-grader who is performing in the play, said Mr. Palmer encourages students to succeed.

"He won't let you say 'can't' in class," she said. "He thinks if you put your mind to it, you can do it.

"He helps you a lot with your lines. He wants you to do the best you can. If you make a mistake, he won't yell. He'll try to help you fix it."

Mr. Palmer, who lives in Catonsville with his wife, Ann, said it's not a "big stretch" for him to double as the school's unofficial drama instructor. He has coached gymnastics at Oakland Mills High School and enjoys coordinating performances. He also said he likes to see young students who don't shine in athletics "have their day in the sun."

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