This is my 11th year of teaching, and each year always feels the same during the first couple weeks. I call it a “back to school” feeling. It’s a composite of things I remember from my own school days, along with some of the things I experience being on the other side of the desk.
Hearing the marching band in the morning is like an instant transport through time, and I often think back to the days of standing on a football field with the marching band an hour before school began, our shoes getting soaked by the morning dew. Those were the good days. We hated getting up so early, but we also liked the experience of being out on that football field before half the town was up, playing songs we knew by heart, listening to Mr. S as he orchestrated our field performance. When we were done with the field work, we’d head down the streets of our small town, marching up and down the city streets, waking up babies and possibly the dead with our blaring horns and thumping drumline. I wonder now if our band instructor ever got phone calls from angry residents who did not appreciate our special kind of wake-up call. I’m sure he did. Working with the public, I’ve figured out that there’s always someone who gets annoyed. That someone always tends to be the kind of person who lets you (and everyone else) know about their annoyance. The earth was, of course, created for their happiness and nothing else!
Mr. S was one of the best teachers I ever had, and he had such a positive impact on my life. I wish I could tell him that now, but all of us had to realize what a great teacher he was a little sooner than we normally would have realized it, for he died during my senior year. The void he left in all of our lives nearly consumed us.
He was a man who believed so strongly in having a solid block of practice time that he required his band kids to start class ten minutes early. Of course, there was no school policy that could back him up on that one, but we dutifully showed up ten minutes early (if not earlier) every day. None of us enjoyed the look we’d get if we dared to step foot into the band room any later than 8:10. When he wanted us on the football field at 7:15, we were there, half-dazed, but present.
And he was there. Every day. Before school, after school, during Saturday marching competitions, at football games, basketball games, and any other event that needed us. All that time he invested in us paid off, of course, because we were good. Damn good. We could see the evidence on the wall, where the list of each year’s All-State Band members were written on posterboard. While other schools had a handful, our school had 20 kids at a time — a staggering number for a small town. We could pat ourselves on the back all we wanted, but that drive to succeed came from Mr. S. He taught us that hard work would pay off, and we enjoyed the benefits every day.
When he died from a heart attack during Thanksgiving break, it was the first time I had lost someone I felt close to. I had seen this man every morning for 6 years of band practices. I had worked with him one-on-one for years, getting ready for contests or for All-State tryouts. When he was gone, it was like my love for music became a dim little spark, and I lost much of my drive for competing. While I had made All-State Band during my freshman, sophomore, and junior years, I did not end up making it my senior year, and I was first chair clarinet in our band. To say it was an embarrassment would be an understatement, but I really didn’t care. I flubbed that audition and just walked away from it all. Mr. S would have been sorely disappointed, and I could feel that in every bone in my body as I read the results of the tryout. The shame still creeps through me whenever I think back on it.
My clarinet still hides in the hall storage closet, and once in a while I take it out to see if I can still remember how to read the notes of my old music books. I smile every time I see Mr. S’s admonishment of “NO LIPSTICK” on my practice book, andI remember how exasperated he’d get with me in junior high, when my lipstick obsession knew no boundaries. All my reeds were stained pink. This memory bleeds into other ones — of some of the untraditional ways he tried to make the clarinet players understand how to properly play with a reed. If I didn’t use good embouchure, he’d grab my thumb and put the tip of it in his mouth to show the proper way to hold the lips around the reed. Sounds gross, and we’d be horrified by it in junior high, but it worked.
Never underestimate the power of a good teacher. The bad ones usually get all the press, but the good ones are out there, pouring their souls into their work. The biggest compliment a teacher can receive is knowing that he or she made an impact on someone else, so if you have teachers you’d like to thank, do it today, before you lose that chance forever.