East Lake High School chorus teacher Robert Knabel leads one of his chorus classes in vocal warm-ups. In June, he will take 32 of his students, compiled from three chorus classes, to Normandy to perform in the 70th anniversary commemoration of D-Day.
TARPON SPRINGS – Robert Knabel has a lot of faith in teenagers. It’s a faith in their ability to rise above the pressure to perform.
It’s a faith in their desire to do more than play video games and watch TV. It’s a faith that, in his 34 years teaching in Pinellas County and 18 years at East Lake High School, has taught the chorus teacher how to find the best in his students.
“They’re not just mindless drones playing with their phones,” Knabel said. “They’re capable of amazing things.”
Under his guidance over the years, the chorus students at East Lake High School have performed at Carnegie Hall, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and annually at Disney World for the Candlelight Processional at Epcot. And now, they’ll join the ranks of thousands with a performance in Normandy, France, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Thirty-two students, a combination of three chorus classes, will travel to France in June, shepherded by 20 chaperones, where they will spend eight days living a teenager’s dream: exploring Europe before summer school.
The students will have time to explore Paris, Knabel said, including visiting the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum, but one day will be devoted entirely to the anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. In the morning, the students – the only high school representatives from Florida invited to the commemoration – will perform a 25-minute concert at the Notre Dame Cathedral, where voices echo for seven seconds. In the afternoon, they’ll perform at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, which overlooks Omaha Beach. After, students can either walk around the cemetery or go down to the beach where the invasion began.
One of his students, Knabel said, wants to find her great-grandfather’s grave where he’s buried in the cemetery.
But more than the excitement of European extravaganza, more than the honor of singing for World War II survivors, Knabel said the history of the commemoration is the most significant aspect of the trip.
“We’re taking 21st-century teenagers 70 years back in time,” Knabel said. “They’re going to encounter a United States with rationing, everything people had to sacrifice for the war effort.”
Thirty-two teenagers who grew up on Facebook and YouTube, who have never paid less than $3 for a gallon of gas, who learned about Mussolini and Hitler as a chapter in a history textbook, will stand on the same sand where thousands of American soldiers were killed in search of freedom.
In an effort to prepare the students for the immensity of their performance, Knabel has been working with East Lake AP History teacher Alan Kay to provide in-depth lessons on D-Day and the United States during the 1940s.
Freshman Megan Goodell had never heard of the Normandy invasions before signing up to go on the trip. Now, thanks to Kay’s lessons, she can rattle off dates, from battles to Hitler’s suicide.
“We want them to go armed with the tools to appreciate what they’re doing historically,” Knabel said.
Senior Clarisse Fres said she’s looking at the trip as a graduation trip before she begins studying biomedical sciences at the University of South Florida in the fall.
“It’s one thing to go to France,” she said, “but it’s totally different to sing at these incredible places.”
Europe isn’t cheap, though, and the trip is expected to cost about $150,000 – each student will have to pay $3,200 without taking home any souvenirs. Until payments are due in the middle of May, the students are working on fundraising through car washes, candy sales, and donation booths at the Oldsmar Flea Market. They’ll take any help they can get, Knabel said, from a community that has never disappointed him.
To donate to the Normandy fund, checks can be sent to East Lake High School chorus, attention Robert Knabel, 1300 Silver Eagle Drive, Tarpon Springs, FL 34688.
“We’re depending on the goodness of people to get us to Normandy,” Knabel said.