MT. PROSPECT, Illinois — You wouldn't think so by looking at him on "American Idol," but there was a time when Lee DeWyze was a teenage rebel. Though he's shown a quiet, respectful demeanor in his climb into the "Idol" top 3, like many teens, DeWyze struggled with authority in high school and, according to those who knew him at the time, his headstrong determination might be responsible for setting him on a path to potential musical stardom.
"Lee was the first student we had, and maybe the only student, who said, 'I can't do this, I can't do this high school the way it's set up, I need to go somewhere else,' " recalled Dr. Patricia Tedaldi-Monti, dean of students at Prospect High School, where Lee attended from ninth grade until halfway through senior year.
It wasn't that he couldn't hack the academic work, she said, it was just that Lee was struggling to fit into the regimented rules of the school. If anything, she was impressed at the maturity he showed in expressing his frustration with traditional schooling.
"He had music going through his head and ... high schools don't necessarily have courses that tap into that kind of talent, which is unfortunate," she said. "So I kind of say shame on us. You know, we didn't have the 'I Want To Be a Rock Star' course." Tedaldi-Monti said DeWyze was not involved in any of the school's musical programs and she never saw him bring his guitar to school, but it was obvious even then that he was focused on pursing his dream.
"Like many kids that come to our school, [Lee] was full of energy and ideas," said Dan Gentry, a teaching assistant at Forest View Alternative School, the high school DeWyze attended after leaving Prospect High. Gentry said he tried repeatedly to encourage Lee to come up with a fallback career in case music didn't work out. But even at 17, DeWyze resisted, saying he was determined to make it.
"On his first interview with 'Idol,' he said, 'I am music, that's all I really know,' and I thought back to when I talked to him, and I [had] said, 'You know, you need a fallback career,' and he didn't have one," Gentry said. Like Tedaldi-Monti, Gentry had fond memories of Lee tapping out a beat on his desk or leg and always humming or singing a song he was working on.
"He said, 'Then I don't have one. Music is my life.' " Although he worried that Lee was limiting himself, Gentry said he couldn't be more proud now that DeWyze has made it, and he uses his former student's "Idol" run as a way to motivate his current students.
An assistant dean at Forest View Alternative, Dave Winsauer, said he always tries to discourage kids from leaving school before graduation — DeWyze reportedly quit Forest View just shy of graduation — but he could see Lee's determination and hoped for the best. "Lee's kind of an old soul," Winsauer said. "Talking to Lee's not like talking to a kid. Even when he was here ... I mean, he had his moments ... but a lot of times you could have a pretty serious conversation with him. And you knew he was listening and taking it all in and trying to do the best that he could."
There may be no one who knows the ins and outs of DeWyze's progression better than Amy Silverman, the Special Education coordinator at Buffalo Grove High School. Silverman met Lee in the summer of 2003, when she was an instructor on a 10-day Upward Bound trip to Wisconsin and Michigan.
"Lee and I kind of hit it off," Silverman remembered. She has helped coordinate DeWyze's recent homecoming activities, as well as weekly viewing parties and the sales of DeWyze T-shirts for a local charity. "He did bring his guitar with him and he pretty much ended up sitting in the passenger seat ... There were a lot of hours on the road. And he was entertaining us with his guitar at the time." (Silverman's office is a warehouse of classic photos of Lee strumming his guitar.)
DeWyze had only picked up the instrument a year or two earlier, and Silverman said she was impressed with how well he played considering he'd had no formal training. A few months later, while she was teaching at Forest View Alternative, the program's director brought Lee around and he ended up in her classroom for the next year. Silverman and another instructor bought Lee his first microphone a short time later, and Silverman recalled seeing him use it during one of his first public performances in the basement of a diner.
"Him and a couple high school buddies [were] sitting in the meat locker," she said, describing the scene. "There's two teachers and a bunch of high school kids ... smashed potatoes and tomatoes all over the floor. And there's Lee playing, having a good old time."
From banging out a song on the piano at her parents' house to jamming on the drums in her basement with her kids, DeWyze, Silverman said, is constantly surprising her with his musical abilities. Though she couldn't go into specifics, she said, like a lot of teens, Lee went through some "stuff" in high school. "Lee was never mean or nasty," she said of the 24-year-old singer, whom she described as shy and humble. "He was never doing illegal things; he was never being harmful or hurtful. Lee liked to argue, Lee liked to push buttons. He liked to push my buttons. Lee was very smart, so he would challenge the system to make sure his voice was heard."
Holding up one of the handful of Lee-shirts her students are wearing in support of DeWyze, Tedaldi-Monti recalled the day the soft-spoken teenager came into her office before leaving the school and told her, "I'm going to be a rock star.
"And you [and my other teachers] are going to be in the front row, and I'm going to be playing a really big concert." She laughed, recalling that she told him, "Well, stay in touch, because I'd like to see that really big concert." And though she counseled him to keep reaching for his dreams while planning for a backup, Lee's promise is now coming true.
"And so, it is going to happen," she said proudly. "He's a rock star."
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