We have all had teachers in our lives who profoundly changed who we are or what we become. I will never stop seeking out people who can teach me something; the love of ongoing learning is what keeps us fully alive.
One of my most remarkable teachers was my high school music teacher. I was always a back-row soprano, much too tall for anything but the last row of the risers. I was content with that since I never had the desire to do anything but sing for the pure love of singing. That changed in my junior year of high school.
I missed the first three weeks of school hospitalized for a spinal fusion (scoliosis) and being plastered in to a walking body cast that I would have to wear for the next year. I remember walking into the chorus room and taking a seat in the back, hoping like ANYTHING that no one would notice me, point or gasp at the incredible bulk of plaster that encased my entire upper body. Enter the new music teacher – (then) Miss Blecha. She was a ball of fire with a take-no-prisoners attitude about everyone giving their best and enjoying the music as much as she did. Then it happened. She had me stand up, come down and SIT IN THE FRONT ROW. She told the entire class that in order to sing properly they were all to sit up as nice and straight as I did.
Better a hole in the earth open up and suck me in to the abyss.
No such luck. As it turned out it was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me in my life. Being a front-row soprano was a much different deal. I paid attention for the entire class (imagine that), stayed on task, learned how to breathe and sing properly, and found out I loved singing even more than I thought I did. I went on to sing in small groups, musicals – you get the idea. After high school I paid for my college books by singing at weddings and funerals. I sang at the weddings and ordinations of my dearest friends. The first time I sang Messiah with my college chorus and a live orchestra the experience so overwhelmed me I went back to my dorm room, sat on my bed and cried my eyes out. With joy.
I am fortunate enough to still have her in my life. When my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2000, I flew home for the festivities. I called Jean (now Mrs. McGee) and sent her the music for the mass – all of the same songs my parents had at their wedding. Jean was at the church for rehearsal and we got right down to business, tackling Shubert’s Ave Maria first. It’s a tough, tough piece to sing. When I finished, I turned around to look at her and there was this long pause…… and she said, “Well, are you going to sing it that slow?” WHOMP. I was sixteen again, nervous in front of my teacher. She rocked me through the rest of the music and by the time she was finished with me I was ready for the big day. My parents renewed their wedding vows with their son, my brother Steve, as the presiding priest. My brother Gary did the scripture readings. I sang, as did 3 of their granddaughters. My mother later told me it was the happiest week of her life. She was gone from us one year later.
Jean and Dennis came to Gloucester to visit us on their 25th anniversary and she sat in my living room and played on our rickety piano and made all of us (and our guests)…..sing properly. We had a BALL. It was a howl to watch her teach my husband how to sing in his “head voice.” Years later, he still talks about “head voice” singing like he has a clue. (He was the darling in a boys choir until he hit puberty and so misses having that singing voice.) Pretty cute. Her gifts keep on giving.
So why the Valentine for Teacher? I mentioned in my Christmas letter that I had started writing a blog. Jean wrote back and asked me for the web address so they could read up. I immediately reverted back to that nervous, sixteen year old student. Oh mercy, what would she think of a written “performance”? So, I’ll send her the link to this blog, but the first entry I want her to read is this one. We both have had a lot of love – and loss – in our lives lately. I want to very publicly thank her, and to let her know the gift of what she has taught me continues to feed and sustain me. When I am stressed out on my long commute, I sing in the car – it relaxes me. When I am at dinner with friends, we sing around the table. When I am too angry or grief-stricken to find words to pray, I sing hymns instead. (St. Augustine said, “Those who sing pray twice.”) She has taught me much more, but that is for another time.
So a very Happy Valentines Day to Jean, and to all the great teachers we have had in our lives. May we all realize the obligation of passing that knowledge on, and teach others what we have been blessed with. (And may we also remember to tell them to never rest one hand on the piano when we stand properly and sing. )