As I write this (in late June), I’m noting much pomp and circumstance around me. Groups of young adults with corsages on lapels and wrists, gathering at a local park. White limos rolling down the streets, shuttling celebrating students to prom night festivities. Facebook feeds filled with proud parents of graduates.
It brings back memories of my own school days, and of those teachers who influenced my path in life. Not surprisingly, because I chose a career in music, it was my high school choir director Mr. Chris who gave me the courage to go forth and … be musical. If I had been equally energized by a history teacher, would I have chosen a different path? Hard to say.
On second thought, maybe it’s not so hard. After all, an influential teacher is someone who is excited about what they teach. Full-stop. Their enthusiasm and purpose are contagious.
I strived to be a good singer in Mr. Chris’ class. Though I was an alto miscast as a soprano (in my opinion), he thought I belonged on the right side of the bleachers singing melody, not harmony. So there I stood. I trusted him. I stretched to hit those high notes … because he thought I could.
He cast me as Sarah Brown in the musical Guys and Dolls —a leading role. I was definitely not the strongest singer in my class, which had me wondering why he chose me instead of Laura, who clearly had a stronger voice, with a masterful vibrato and a good command of pitch. I, on the other hand, found vibrato elusive, eventually convincing myself that some people seem to be simply born with it while others are fated to be eternally searching for it. And pitch? At that point in my life, pitch was a concept I had never even heard of, much less an asset I possessed.
Maybe my audition was simply more convincing than Laura’s. All I know is, as soon as I saw my name on the casting sheet, I felt believed in. It affected me. It spurred me on. Mr. Chris saw something in me that I didn’t see myself. I’ll always be grateful to him for that.
He also chose me for a one-night All-County choir performance for which I rehearsed so fervently that on the night of the show I completely lost my voice. There he was in the audience. Little did he know I was mouthing the words.
An inspiring teacher is a student whisperer. An enabler. An empowerer. They don’t have to come out and tell you in so many words what they think your path is. They may let you know in subtler ways. And if you’re listening, you’ll take their cues.
It was obvious that Mr. Chris loved what he did, and he wanted to pass that love onto his students. He was full of lightness of heart as well. I remember him turning back to us after bowing to the audience at one concert he conducted and wiping a tear from his eye with the tip of his tie — a signal that we had done him proud.
Years after I graduated, I wanted to come back and thank Mr. Chris for that love and belief. Sadly, he passed before we could reconnect. I was too young and perhaps too self-absorbed in high school to realize that there are words worth saying before graduation.
A couple of years ago I became a part-time college professor, teaching songwriting. When I accepted the position, I asked myself two questions: How could I inspire my students to believe in themselves? How could I signal to them they have something unique to offer the world?
I found the answers by trying to follow in Mr. Chris’ footsteps. I make sure to let my students know when their songs move me, and I point out the parts I think are really special. I let them know when I think they’re better than they think they are. They may not see it yet. But hopefully one day they will.
And occasionally I receive an email at the end of a semester from a student telling me how much they appreciated my guidance … that it was the best class they ever took! I’m grateful they thought to tell me before they graduated.
If they have a hit song one day and remember me, that will mean I did my job.