Jessica Deeb sits in her seventh grade classroom at Saranac Lake Middle School while children mill in and out as the end of day school bell rings. A student approaches her about a project, while others wait in her room for the middle school play practice to begin. She is the director of the middle school spring play and has performed the job for years.
"I play clarinet, saxophone, guitar, recorder, but mostly I'm a singer," Deeb said. "I was going to be a vocal teacher." She draws similarities between her career in math and her passion of music.
"I always thought I was going to be a teacher, since before I could walk," Jessica laughed. "At first I was going to be a music teacher. I thought music or math, music or math." She flips her hands back and forth, indicating it was a 50-50 choice.
Jessica Deeb in her classroom at Saranac Lake Middle School
(Photo —Diane Chase)
"When I was a senior in the early '70s, music programs were being cut from schools and the math and science programs were being pushed." She continues by saying it is common for people with strengths in both math and music to choose a career in either direction.
Jessica grew up near Syracuse, in Oneida.
"I went from kindergarten through high school there," she said. "My father was a middle school science teacher." She credits him with her initial interest in teaching.
Jessica points out student artwork of Pythagoras (Samos, 582 - 500 BC), commonly known for the Pythagorean Theorem of right triangles. It is said that Pythagoras believed everything was related to math and that everything could be predicted in rhythmic patterns, as in music. He and his disciples linked mathematics with music, finding the timing between notes can be expressed in numerical terms.
"I will do anything to get the kids to remember math, even if it's coloring a picture," she said.
Jessica attended SUNY Plattsburgh and was hired right out of school into the Saranac Lake Central School District.
"I didn't know anyone in this area at the time, so I spent every weekend in Plattsburgh that first year," she said. "I was 22 years old, no dogs, no kids and no husband, so I spent my time there. I took voice lessons there, sang in the choir and was part of a folk group at my church in Plattsburgh, the Newman Center."
She slowly started adjusting to the Saranac Lake community. Theater became a way to practice her love of music and then evolved into its own passion. "The first time I tried out for a show I was cut, but I didn't give up and kept trying," she said. "I had never tried theatre before I came here."
She also joined St. Bernard's Catholic Church and became connected there.
"I slowly made friends in the area and got involved in the community," she said. "I'm still very involved in my church. I sing in the choir and play the guitar if the organist is away. It is nice for a little change.
"I was the cheerleading coach for a while at the high school, for about 10 years. That allowed me to get to know the parents. At that time, cheerleading was quite popular and quite a few people were trying out. And then, of course, theater.
"I had directed a couple of plays at the high school as a fundraiser for the honor society, but other than that I really started directing in the middle of the '90s when I was elected president of the Community Theatre Players, a group that performs at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts.
"I had taken office in January, and at that point, we didn't have a director lined up for the spring show, which is the big production for the group. I had to either find a director or direct the show myself. So I decided to do it myself."
Thus began her foray into directing.
"That show was a big success, financially with great people performing it, but it was a huge learning curve. I have it on video, and I look back and see all the changes I would make now. I have come a long way since then."
To date, Deeb has directed about 30 plays; 20 of them were children's plays at LPCA. She said she has acted in another 20 to 30.
Acting and directing are just a few of the facets in Deeb's life. She is a math tutor, and currently helps five high-school students, two middle-school students and one college student. She is in charge of the scholarship committee as a member of the Elks Club and has been on the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Committee, in charge of the young children performing as pages.
"I have choreographed and worked with the pages that are part of the Royal Court," she said.
Music has always been her lodestone. In 2003, one of her original songs was chosen as part of the Adirondack Carousel's "Songs for the Carousel" CD. She and the other 11 songwriters were recorded and featured in a live performance.
In 2005 and 2006, Jessica was recruited to write and perform her own song series, "Bear Affairs" and "Loons, Raccoons and Other Toons," at area campgrounds as part of an educational wildlife conservation series.
"I like to keep busy," she laughs. "My husband Jeff and I have four large dogs now in the house; two are mine. I love dogs. I love to garden. When spring comes, I can't wait to play in the dirt. I read and sometimes I look for ideas that will work in the plays that we do."
Through GEM*Boy Productions, Deeb also acts in the murder mystery plays.
"We have so much fun in the mystery genre," she said. "No one is forced to interact. The audience goes out and questions the various characters trying to determine the murderer. At first, I must have looked like a deer in the headlights. Now, eight years later, I can handle the questions. We usually perform during Winter Carnival and then sometimes other performances will get picked up at local venues or restaurants."
Two years ago, Deeb was asked to serve on the board at Pendragon Theatre.
"Pendragon was coming into the school and working to expand their Arts and Education Program, and I've been supportive in that area," she said. "I've worked with them during the seventh-grade program. Pendragon has been doing it for many years now. They mostly work with the English teachers. The students write their own plays. Sometimes it is based on books the students have read or sometimes based on an essay or antidote. Then they write the dialogue and stage it.
"It was a multi-disciplined project for awhile, and I would do scale drawings for set design and that kind of stuff, and the science teacher would work on lamps, electricity and lighting. They try to get all the various groups involved, and with my friendship with Pendragon, I agreed to help in projection and the staging part. Pendragon is still doing that, and I am willing to help."
Deeb was also responsible for getting GEM*Boy involved in the children's fall musical at the LPCA.
"I do auditions just before Labor Day weekend so the kids go into school knowing what is happening," Deeb said. "The ages of the players are 4 to 14."
She explains that the tradition of working with a children's show is multilevel.
"I really like working with the kids," she said. "I'm a teacher. Kids are much more willing to understand direction. They trust what I tell them will make them better."
She is passionate about the experience and wants to share it with those she feels appreciate it. Deeb plays to her strengths. She comments how she is lucky to get to know the kids in different ways.
"Once one of the kids is in one of my plays, I have him or her hooked in math class," she said. "They see me in a different light. Again, it's the trust thing. They trust that I will do what is right and best for them. I have never had any trouble with any of the kids from any of my shows."
Even if the children haven't participated in the performances, odds are in her favor that a good portion of the student population have attended them. She is able to present herself beyond the walls of teaching and in a different light. She doesn't feel that the students or children treat her any differently outside the school setting.
"For the most part, they, the kids, are very excited to see a teacher in a different setting," she said. "They are respectful in and out of the classroom."
She has been teaching for nearly 32 years and has now even taught some of her former students' children. She nurtures that same circle when those children then join the cast of her plays.
"Quite a few of the kids have gone and developed a love for theater and the arts through the plays," shes said.
As she finishes up school math assessments and directing the middle-school play, she squeezes in an audition of her own for the Community Theatre Players production of "Fiddler on the Roof."
"I have a full life," she said with a smile.