Special Education staffer Jeff Taylor’s out-of-this-world outlet

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Courtesy of Jeff Taylor

Special Education assistant Jeff Taylor shows off his first-place trophy from the 2016 Pyromania fireworks competition. In this nationwide contest known as SkyWars, Taylor arranged fireworks from a provided selection and designed a visual display in four hours. “There was a lot going on. I wasn’t crazy about it during the moment, but the more I did it, the more interested I got in fireworks,” Taylor said.

In October 2020, thousands of people gathered on a hill in Moscow Mills, Mo. buzzing with anticipation. With the first fizz and crackle, everyone held their breath and looked up as the show began. This is Special Education staffer Jeff Taylor’s domain. For the past several years, he has been designing firework shows for public entertainment as a release from the demands of being a paraprofessional.

Taylor is not technically a teacher but a staff member from the Special School District (SSD) that helps students with IEPs take tests in a calm environment. In his testing room, which is adjacent to the library classroom, he helps students translate their thoughts to paper by writing down what they want to say, reading aloud directions or their writing.

“This room is for kids to come if they need a quiet place to test or get help. So often, the kids here suffer from testing anxiety. Some students have to get out of the room because otherwise, they’re comparing themselves to other kids. Many of the kids worry about tests when people finish before them and wonder, ‘well, why am I not done yet,’” Taylor said. “I wish they had this when I was a kid. I would have loved it.”

Taylor has a unique position; his role as a “tester” is not an official title. However, about seven years ago, he was asked to come to West to help students with test-taking and communication skills. Beforehand, he worked at Green Trails Elementary as a paraprofessional supporting autistic children. At Green Trails, Taylor applied his creativity in a classroom setting, making drawings to stimulate engagement.

“I like to be challenged. I like when someone asks me to do something I’ve never done before, so I try it to the best of my ability. That’s really what I enjoy: trying to figure out if I can draw it or not,” Taylor said. “I can’t just draw whenever I want to—I wish I could.”

Taylor outlines his next addition to the shelf in front of students at Green Trails Elementary. First he designed the mural to help encourage donations before eventually adding creative touches. “I’m proud of the role I got to play in that and am glad my art served such a useful purpose,” Taylor said.

After word spread of Taylor’s artistic abilities, he eventually received one of his toughest creative challenges. In 2008, he created a mural in the school library for a fundraiser to renovate the library at Green Trails.

“For every donation, each family got their names painted on a book. The amount of the donation dictated the size of the book,” Taylor said. “The larger the book, the fancier the artwork on it was. It was a huge success: the library was able to get new books, media, shelving and a complete makeover.

Nowadays, Taylor’s recreation of choice is on a much grander scale. He designs firework displays and curates music to accompany them, putting on several shows for local and national competitions. Taylor was first introduced to pyrotechnics by chance several years ago.

“I first got into fireworks because of my sister,” Taylor said. “She called me up, asking me to put on a show for the community she lives in, and I said sure. So, she sent me $500. I went to the fireworks stand, bought fireworks, handled everything, running around, being silly. It was kind of like a backyard show. I figured there’s got to be a better way to do it, so I started looking around online– thank God for the internet.”

I like to be challenged. I like when someone asks me to do something I’ve never done before, so I try it to the best of my ability.”

— Jeff Taylor

Taylor credits various blogs and clubs for teaching him more about pyrotechnics. He cites one group, the Missouri Pyrotechnics Association (MOPyro), which he joined about 10 years ago.

“[MOPyro is] a bunch of people who like fireworks that get together and shoot off fireworks,” Taylor said. “As I started getting more and more into it, I got a group of friends together and started doing blind pyro shoots, which is when you go to a shoot site, people give you fireworks, and you get about three hours to set up a show. I won a few trophies from these, but I wanted to try competitions on a bigger scale.”

Taylor has won three local competitions and one contest on a national level. He credits his team, which has members from various backgrounds, for his accomplishments.

“I have a team that’s been together for about 10 years, though members come and go. I am lucky enough to have a very talented and great crew,” Taylor said. “In our team we have a surgeon, an IT guy, a teacher, two people who are engineers at Boeing, a person who trains people on how to use military flight simulators all over the world, one who works for the railroads, a school bus driver and a retired construction worker.”

Out of everything that goes into designing a fireworks show, Taylor considers picking music as the most challenging part of the process. He pays extra attention to a song’s tone and rhythm to provide an exciting accompaniment to his visual displays.

“I listen to music all the time. The funny thing is, when I listen to music, I visualize it. I like thinking about how certain songs might work in a show,” Taylor said. “When you match the fireworks up with it, sometimes they don’t work. But also, you don’t use the whole song. Usually, you cut it up and go to the next song. So you have to keep hitting different songs and cut out their less exciting parts; it’s a hard process, it really is.” 

Art is my passion, and both these hobbies let me express myself and bring happiness to others. It’s just that now, fireworks are my art in the sky. Plus, nothing will boost your ego like having 10,000 or more people cheer for a show you just put on”

— Jeff Taylor

Another necessity for any good fireworks show, according to Taylor, is a blend of foresight and flexibility as a creator.

“It takes a long time to edit music in a show because you have to make sure the fireworks align with the beat of the music. You have to take into account how long it takes a firework to explode in the air. It’s not a perfect science because fireworks aren’t perfect,” Taylor said. “So, you have to kind of gauge and think ahead. Sometimes, if you have something go off two or three seconds later than planned, it doesn’t make a huge difference. But sometimes, you really need to be on time. For those situations, you would use comets or other things that go up instantly.”

No matter his mode of expression, Taylor loves art and design because of the freedom it allows him. This unique feeling is why art has stuck with him throughout his life.

Art is my passion, and both these hobbies let me express myself and bring happiness to others. It’s just that now, fireworks are my art in the sky. Plus, nothing will boost your ego like having 10,000 or more people cheer for a show you just put on,” Taylor said.

Taylor, pictured second from the right, smiles with his team while setting up for a shoot at Moscow Mills. Teamwork was paramount to the show’s success, as individuals were dedicated to designing the display and coding the firing system to fire pyrotechnics at a specific time, allowing the show to go on as planned. “This was my last show that was exclusively mine. The lead shooter is the one who designs and scripts the show and will take home the trophy if they win. This was one of my favorite shows due to music and the display,” Taylor said.
(Todd Winder)