Thank a teacher – the musical edition

Confession: I’m a sappy sentimentalist.

Driving by my high school alma mater this morning, I noticed the marching band out in the thick 90-degree Georgia summer air – and the sight brought me to tears.

No matter how old I get, I’ll never forget summer band camp. It’s been 32 years since I led that same band onto the field every Friday night for 10 weeks as one of two drum majors. I was an attention-seeking, narcissistic little teenager who thought he had the world by the jewels, so the role fit me well. The job requirements include a strong sense of rhythm and timing, as well as showmanship and charisma.

A little conceit doesn’t hurt, either – and my shortcomings in the other areas were more than made up for in that one.

One other thing that worked well – and works today in my teaching career – is the willingness to question the status quo. There’s something about someone who’s willing to speak the nonconformance that we all feel that draws us to those people. My bandmates loved it – at least most of them seemed to.

Our music director, not so much.

Our band room was the site of a great battle during my senior year – the kind legends are made of. In fact, somewhere in those quiet moments between sessions today, I’m convinced those teenagers were passing down the story of the Battle of ’85-’86 despite not knowing either of the combatants.

Ms. Joyce King and I wrestled, schemed, and jockeyed for control of that group for nine relentless months. I’m not sure how long she continued to teach after my graduation, but she couldn’t be blamed if she never walked into a classroom again.

The Battle culminated the week after Spring Break in April of 1986. You’ve heard the story, right?

Ms. King had written up two of my best buddies – both underclassmen – for an incident that I was also involved in. She did nothing to me, a choice which I suspected she made in order to drive a wedge between us. Looking back, she probably didn’t even realize I was involved.

My pals – each with sore buttocks from having been disciplined – gave me a severe scolding upon their return from the principal’s office. This wasn’t good; I was losing control. So I did what any good general would do when his troops question his leadership – I charged the hill alone.

I immediately marched into her office and demanded to be written up as a matter of fairness. I was going to take that hill or die trying – even though it meant getting a pretty harsh paddling just 6 weeks shy of graduation.

My friends were beyond elated, and at that point they’d have followed me right over the side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

I’ve seen Ms. King several times since then, and I did eventually apologize to her for my behavior. Having taught high school math for 13 years, I have seen and fought her side of that battle many times. In fact, it’s one of the many reasons I eventually made the move to a technical college.

Today as I turned around and made another lap by that practice field with tears in my eyes, I thought about stopping, going out to that band director, and thanking her for what she was doing. I thought about telling her that whether her little hellions realized it now or not, at some point they’d appreciate the effort she’s expending this week.

I thought about it, but didn’t do it. The fear of being perceived as a creepy old stranger trying to get up close and personal with a bunch of sweaty teenagers overcame the desire to show appreciation.

So I’m saying it here.

I’ve used this spot multiple times to decry the cesspool that our educational system has become, and for good reason. That system shares the blame for many of the ills our society faces today.

But you won’t hear me bash the teachers. That they can even operate within such an oppressive, burdensome bureaucracy and survive little delinquents like me is a testament to their fortitude. That they can ever reach any of those delinquents and make a difference in their lives is nothing short of a miracle.

So today I use this space to thank them for that effort.

Thank you for all that you do. Not just the music teachers – everyone. Public, private, home schooling, wherever and however you’re doing it. The work that you do is invaluable, and the compensation and thanks you receive for it is far from adequate.

And Ms. King, if you ever see this – thank you. Five years of high school music gave me an appreciation for an art and for artists that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, and I can’t imagine how different my life would have been without it.

You were a part of that, and I owe you a great debt for it.

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