Inspired by His Students, High School Physics Teacher Writes Musical
A musical about a pair of high school sweethearts and the bustling daily lives of high school students came to life from one teacher's coffee mug of quotes.
Jim Centorino, a physics teacher at Louisville High School, an all-girls Catholic college prepatory school in Woodland Hills, Calif., spoke with Education Week Teacher about how the countless number of students he taught over the last 40 years at several different schools inspired him to write and compose "Senior Prom: The Musical."
Centorino's daily interactions with students shaped the reality of high school that he sought to re-create in his musical, which was performed by his students in November. The memorable remarks from students, that he still recalls to this day, make the musical sentimental, but also charming and amusing.
"I wanted every scene to be funny and to reflect what my students have actually said or done—either something odd, interesting, intellectual, or just plain goofy," Centorino said. "I have been saving memorable quotes from my students for many years, often in a coffee mug on my desk."
The quote collection began early in his career at Natick High School in Massachusetts. "I encountered students who would either ask off-the-wall questions or do interesting things," said Centorino. "So I started writing down their quotes and escapades."
The coffee mug became a centerpiece of the classroom and a small keepsake of moments meaningful to him as a teacher.
"It's actually been upgraded. For Christmas, one of my students presented me with a glass jar with my name engraved on it," he said. The jar reads: "Mr. Centorino's Words of Wisdom."
A 'Timeless' Musical
In the musical, there's a school dean on a power trip, a rebellious yet witty antagonist, and a shy couple with blooming feelings for one another—all mixed up in the drama and fervor of senior year.
Moments in Centorino's many classrooms were reenacted in the musical, from a student experiencing a shock of an experiment in his pocket to an unforgettable senior prank.
"A student of mine, he was the quietest boy in physics class," Centorino said. "In the middle of class he jumps up, screams, and runs out. A few minutes later he [returned]. Everybody stares at him and I said, 'Should I ask? What's going on?' He said, 'Yeah I learned a very important lesson today, you should never put 9-volt batteries in the same pocket with a lot of loose change.'"
In another somewhat fond memory, one year at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, Calif., the class of seniors decided to release hundreds of crickets into the school. "For years, we heard crickets in the hallways, in the elevator shafts, in the stairway, in the closets. ... Things like that, you never forget," Centorino said.
The musical's lead characters, Toni and Tommy, were inspired by former students Jamie and Jason Rosiak, who were in his physics class back in 1988.
The premiere of the musical in November of 2016 was an emotional high school reunion for the couple and Centorino, as well as other former teachers who attended.
And his current students enjoyed the musical. "Students would come into my classroom still singing the songs from 'Senior Prom,'" said Centorino. The exchanges between the characters are timeless, he said.
The score consists of songs that Centorino wrote: a mix of genres including calypso, tango, classical, country, rap, and pop. His ability to compose the entire score comes from his musical background, which includes two degrees in music composition from the Boston Conservatory. "Music was always my passion," Centorino said.
When asked why he didn't also pursue a career in music education, he replied, "I'd rather do music than teach it, and I would rather teach physics than do it, ... .There's no magical formula for music."
Two performing arts teachers choreographed the musical and designed the set, wardrobe, and props. Those teachers also performed in the musical as the study hall monitor and the school dean.
Songs like "If I Fail," sung by the antagonist Corrine and played by student Ariana George, echo the stress of senior year that Centorino saw in his students. "If I fail this class, if I fail to pass, will it be the end or beginning? But it's do or die, so what choice do I have? It's my life. It's on me."
"Seniors are a different breed," Centorino said. "They are concerned with every grade, but are now under more stress and anxiety related to [college applications]."
To engage students, Centorino encourages teachers to get to know their students on a more personal level. "Have them write down the things they find interesting or amusing—that pulls them right in," he said. "It gets their attention and makes them know they are a part of the educational system and that we teachers really do listen."
The musical captures the ups and downs of high school, decision-making, social expectations, friendships, hardships—the works.
"It's a slice of high school life," Centorino said. "Everything in the musical actually happened."
"The entire musical is dedicated to the thousands of students I have had the honor of having come through my classroom doors, and I thank them all for teaching me," he said.
Photo of Centorino by student Sophie Nelson. Photos of the musical by Elizabeth Dupuy.