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A Bittersweet Goodbye For Long Beach Poly Music Teacher Who Transformed Students' Lives

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Andy Osman taught at Long Beach Polytechnic High School for 36 years. He helped transform the music department into an award-winning program. (Jessica Flores/LAist)

When you think of the people who made an impact in your life in high school, you're lucky if there's that one teacher who comes to mind. Andy Osman was that teacher for generations of students at Long Beach Polytechnic High School.

"Long Beach Poly is known as the place to go if you want to be an instrumental musician, and we attribute that to Mr. Osman," said student Caris White, an orchestral student who just graduated from the music program and will continue her studies at Dartmouth. "We're really going to miss him."

Over the past 36 years, Osman took the Long Beach Poly music program from near collapse to national prominence. Under his leadership, the school twice won the Grammy Signature Schools Award, which honors the best high school music programs in the nation. He is directly responsible for the careers of world-class musicians who started under his tutelage.

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His own career, tragically, has been cut short. Osman retired in April after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. On Sunday, Long Beach Poly honored him by renaming the school's auditorium as the Andrew Osman Performing Arts Center.

"I need a better word than overwhelmed," Osman told hundreds of students, faculty, alumni, family and friends who gathered outside of the auditorium for the ceremony. "It's pretty amazing."

But then, so were his accomplishments.

Osman was hired as a music teacher fresh out of UCLA in 1983 -- a time when the music program at Poly was in deep trouble.

There were fewer students, fewer performances, and instruments were either lost or stolen. With little experience, Osman was asked to reverse years of decline. It was the start of the "Andy Osman era."

"The first year was hard," Osman said about teaching both music and general math classes. "But it's a pretty special place to be, a special group of people."

Groups of alumni performed string, jazz, woodwind and brass ensembles to honor Osman's career and influence at his retirement party. Pictured above is the jazz ensemble Sam Ross (piano), Tom Hughes (drums), Jake Chaffee (bass), Chris Stevens (vibes), Tom Terrell (trumpet), Will Vargas (sax), Brandon Baker (sax) and Bryan Baker (flute). (Jessica Flores/LAist)

He also transformed many students' lives throughout the process, and it wasn't easy. Over the years he had to learn how to communicate with kids and find ways to challenge them to be the best versions of themselves.

"Whether it be a musical thing, an athletic thing, or an art thing, kids want to be involved in something that is good, and if you could feed into that, they will respond," he said.

And many students can attest to this notion -- faculty, too.

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Osman was wearing a black short-sleeved shirt with musical symbols -- like a guitar and trumpet -- embroidered on it. He also wore a big grin on his face as faculty, alumni and Long Beach Unified School District board members gave speeches in honor of his accomplishments.

Long Beach Poly principal Bill Salas said Osman is so treasured as a teacher and mentor that he worried about how the campus community would process the news about Osman's cancer diagnosis.

"It was, what's the effect on your students and how to continue to give them the best music program for the rest of the year," he told the audience. "Andy, what a testament to who you are."

And the testimonials from his former students and current colleagues continued through the afternoon.

Long Beach Poly High School renamed their auditorium to the Andrew Osman Performing Arts Center in honor of its longtime music director. (Jessica Flores/LAist)

Osman, they said, was known for his teaching mantra: always put students first. In many ways, his students became a part of his family and some even kept close ties with him after graduating. Alumna Renée Bhatia is one of them.

She met her husband, Adam Bhatia, 18 years ago when they were studying music with Osman. Today, Renée is a music teacher at another high school in Long Beach, and Adam is a professional trumpet player.

During her senior year at Poly, Bhatia auditioned as a performance major at California State University Long Beach. They told her she wasn't qualified and recommended that she consider music education, a career path that hadn't crossed her mind. She was disappointed until she talked to Osman about it.

"You know what? You would make a pretty good music teacher," Osman told her.

It was a conversation that Bhatia said she would never forget and would eventually change her life.

"He has been my mentor, my leader, encourager and supporter. We will all have to work extremely hard to fill the hole that is left by one person," Bhatia said.

At Osman's retirement party last week, students and alumni lined up to talk to Osman (far left) and snap a photo with him. (Jessica Flores/LAist)

When Osman stood to deliver his own speech, he received a standing ovation from the crowd.

"I can't tell you how much I appreciate the support, thoughts and prayers," he said. "This honor is beyond anything one can imagine.

"In this past two months, I've had the incredible good fortune to hear from many [students]. I can't tell you how meaningful that is to me. Those notes, those letters, emails, from students, both past and current. They mean more to me than I could ever possibly say."

As the ceremony wrapped up, students lined up to snap a photo with Osman. Others performed jazz and string pieces on the quad, where many first learned how to play an instrument. It was a fitting tribute to the life and influence of that teacher.

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