Dear Mr. S.,
It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, and I’ve been reflecting on the many great educators who have touched my life over the years. I was very fortunate, from grade school through college, to experience the wisdom and kindness of several amazing teachers and professors. The good far outnumbered the mediocre or bad.
But it always comes back around to you somehow.
You were one of the most demanding teachers I had ever encountered, when I entered your Chorus I class as a timid sophomore in high school. Excellence — you would accept no less, not from the perfectly manicured girls in the front row, and not from the troublemakers in the back.
And…not from the shy girl in the corner, either.
More, you told me over and over. You can do this. You’ve got it. Just sing out! and you’d mark me one down from the score I so craved, almost every single time on part tests — those incredibly scary exams, with just a few of us at a time in front of you and the rest of the choir.
It didn’t matter whose home life was falling apart, or who had money or smarts or whatever else. In that room, we were all family and everyone had to pull their weight — everyone had value, equal value — and together, sometimes after grueling sessions when you were so frustrated that you stopped to give a lecture, we’d get it just right.
That smile…when we nailed a tough passage, your whole face lit up. It wasn’t the self-satisfied smile of someone whose hard work finally paid off. It was the smile of a proud papa, whose children had taken a step past where they’d ever been before.
I always wanted to make you proud of me. I was trembling so violently I could barely stand upright when I auditioned for Concert Choir. You didn’t have to take me; altos were always plentiful. I wondered, when I heard that I’d made it, whether you had accepted me out of pity for the scared, awkward teen who looked like she’d bolt if she heard a harsh word.
I know better now. It was real, and your steady belief in me when I had none in myself would have made you an outstanding teacher all on its own…but there was so much more.
When I won the top academic honor for the junior class, as I went over to the area where faculty were seated to receive my award, seeing my teachers clapping and grinning for me was almost too much to bear. I was so emotionally fragile. Then I saw you standing up. You grabbed me in a bear hug and said, “I’m so proud of you, honey!” and the splintering pieces of me held together, one more time.
I stayed in the concert choir throughout high school. It was my safe haven, my refuge. Choir became my family when my actual family was in complete chaos. For those hours, I could lay aside fears of going home later that day to face an always-angry alcoholic step-parent. I gathered strength on the risers to weather the verbal and physical abuse at home…it was my chance to exhale every day. I dreaded weekends.
Unfortunately, things at home deteriorated further, and at the beginning of my senior year, my younger brother abruptly got his wish to go live with my mom two hours away. (That household had its own issues.) For the first time, I had nobody to protect at home. For the first time, I had to live without my baby brother — and as relieved as I was that he was out of that situation, I now had no ally within those walls. My dad didn’t feel he could do anything about my stepmother (and he didn’t know how bad some of it was), and my stepsister was cruel in her own way.
We also were evicted somewhere in there, so we crammed into my stepmother’s dad’s trailer…in another school district. I was terrified it might mean I couldn’t finish my senior year with my friends. With choir. With you.
I was alone. Or so I thought.
Behind the scenes, wheels were turning. My best friend knew how things were, and her mom tipped off the school. Unbeknownst to me at the time, some of my teachers — you included — held a meeting to see how you could help me, and whether there was any way you could intervene without making things worse. I know that you all must have resolved to be beacons in the dark for me, and to watch for signs that things had become dangerous.
Meanwhile, I was praying to die. I can’t keep living this way. It hurts too much. I’m too tired. Please.
On the morning of my 18th birthday, I walked into choir and prepared for our vocal warm-ups. You sat down at the piano, played a few opening notes, and instead of the usual scales, suddenly sixty-odd voices were singing “Happy Birthday” to me. I stood there and cried. These people were celebrating my continuing existence.
I took a step back from the ledge that day. Never have I approached it since.
Did you know?
The next day, I gathered my courage and two trash bags. My boyfriend had given me a phone for my birthday and I whispered to him as I hastily grabbed clothing and essentials. My stepmother discovered me packing and threw me out, snatching the phone during the altercation. I stood there at the edge of the lot, half-full bags in hand, and tried to get my bearings. Luckily, when he heard what was happening, my boyfriend hung up on my ranting stepmother and dialed my best friend’s mom.
Just as I was about to start walking down the road, resigned to sleeping in a field somewhere that night, a van came screeching to a halt in the grass next to me. My best friend, her big sister, and her mom jumped out and hustled me and my meager belongings into their van. I lived with them for the rest of the school year.
I kept my spot in choir, and I began to rise from the ashes of my old life. You pumped your fist into the air when I told you I won a full scholarship to a university hundreds of miles from home. I went to prom in a secondhand dress with a friend from choir, and you told me I looked lovely. (You laughed when we took over the dance floor to do “Night Fever” with the choreography you taught us.) When I told you at graduation that I loved you, you said it back and we were both crying (I bet you always cried at graduation! So many goodbyes through the years).
I wasn’t your favorite. You loved all of “your kids” like that. You had your own troubles (probably more than I knew in those days), but if a student was willing to give you their best, they always received yours too.
How many lives did you change for the better, I wonder? How many kids did you save?
I wish with all my heart that I could visit you now. I want to show you my thriving children and my full life. I want to tell you again that it was your song (like the Garth Brooks tune), to thank you with tears running down my face.
I can’t. You’re gone. You’ve been gone for a long time now — taken much too soon. The kids still needed you. So many more could have been reached, through music and patience and your insistence that every single person in the room was capable of excellence.
But…I believe your work continues. Not to be completely hokey, but we — the students you reached when they were all but unreachable, and all who were touched by your incredible heart — are your music now. Your song can still be heard.
I don’t really celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week so much as Teacher Appreciation Lifetime.
Thank you. Every single day, I am grateful.
I can do it. I’ve got this. And I am singing out.