NORTH PARK — In retrospect, Anand Sukumaran should have known something was up when administrators at Peterson Elementary asked the band director to lead his students in an impromptu concert Thursday morning in the school's auditorium.
Sukumaran was standing atop a step ladder, conductor's baton in mid-swoop, when he was interrupted by NBC5 reporter Carol Marin, who announced to the 30-year-old that he had been named one of 10 Chicago-area recipients of the prestigious Golden Apple award for educators.
To the cheers of an auditorium full of students, a flustered Sukumaran stepped down from his perch to accept the prize.
"It is such a joy for me to do what I do every day," he said.
One of 32 finalists named in April, Sukumaran said he had "stored away" thoughts of winning.
"I guess I had a suspicion but I didn't want to be let down," he said. "Everything I do is not predicated on an award."
Still, the Golden Apple award, founded by Mike and Pat Koldyke in 1986 to honor teachers for "their contributions to building a stronger, better-educated citizenry," comes with a $3,000 cash prize as well as a tuition-free spring quarter sabbatical to study at Northwestern University.
Among those on hand Thursday at the school at 5510 N. Christina Ave.for the celebration: Carmen Rodriguez, a Peterson parent and member of the Local School Council who nominated Sukumaran for the Golden Apple.
Rodriguez said Sukumaran met the definition of "excellence" in every way.
"It means to go above and beyond, to stand out, to be unusual — and he is," she said.
"It's one thing to teach a child to play a note. It's another to require self-discipline, to teach them to own their mistakes, to work toward a long-term goal," Rodriguez said. "To expose children to a piece of culture, to jazz and classical music and beauty — it's priceless."
Principal Adam Parrott-Sheffer, who recently announced he's leaving Peterson at the end of the school year, was in Washington, D.C., for a conference but recorded a congratulatory message for Sukumaran, which was played during the celebration.
"Music can change the world because it can change people," said Parrott-Sheffer. "There are students who have discovered a gift [because of you.] Thank you for doing the impossible each and every day."
One of the legions of youngsters forced into piano lessons by his parents, Sukumaran discovered his own passion for music when he picked up the french horn.
That "lit the fuse," he said, and he went on to become proficient on all the wind instruments. Well, not all, he concedes.
"I don't play the bagpipes. Yet," he said.
Initially intent on a career as a performing musician, Sukumaran, a native of Malaysia, came to the United States in 2001 to attend Michigan State University, where he gradually found himself drawn to teaching.
"I realized how isolating performing was," he said. "I started to see myself more as an educator."
He joined the Peterson staff in 2006 and immediately set about reviving the school's defunct band program.
"We started with 10 kids and now we have 56," said Sukumaran, who lives in Edgewater. "We built the program up from blood, sweat and tears."
The Golden Apple, Sukumaran said, was as much a recognition of his students as himself.
"This is a reflection of the hard work they've put in."
He also credited the youngsters with helping him to adapt to his adopted home.
"One of my passions is to understand different cultures," Sukumaran said. "There's no better way to do that than to work with kids."
If Sukumaran is reluctant to toot his own horn, parents are more than willing to give the teacher his due.
"Have you ever heard kids play a recorder?" asked Brooks Herning. Peterson students "actually sound like music. It's how they're taught."
Band practice takes place before school at 7:30 a.m., she noted, with "kids dragging their parents out the door" so they can arrive early.
"He's fun, but at the same time he motivates us to work hard," said student Amira Ljevakovic.
Herning and Rodriguez both credited Sukumaran for building confidence among his students and instilling a sense of presence.
Rodriguez, watching her normally shy teen — trumpet-playing eighth-grader Sara — interview for high school, "I saw her put on her 'band' persona," she said. "That's not my training, that's his training."
It's typical of Sukumaran to deflect praise, said Kevin Bruursema, a friend of the teacher's who was on hand for the Golden Apple celebration.
"He's very understated," said Bruuersema, who called Sukumaran "as faithful and steady a person as I've ever met."
Though Sukumaran's parents, who still live in Malaysia, weren't able to attend Thursday's award ceremony, his father dialed into the proceedings via Skype.
"So now the pressure's on because my dad's watching," Sukumaran joked as his students picked up their instruments for a pitch-perfect rendition of "Flight of the Phoenix."
"I'm so thankful my parents pushed me," Sukumaran said of those early piano lessons. "I wasn't allowed to quit."