Wednesday, February 9, 2011

To My High-School Music Teacher, On the Occasion Of His 60th Birthday (And My 37th)

Last week, I was contacted by my high-school choir director's wife and asked to write a letter to her husband as part of a birthday surprise in honor of his 60th birthday. She wanted to get a large number of his friends and former students to bombard him with good old-fashioned snail mail on that landmark occasion.

My first thought: holy crap. I remember when we decorated the band room/chorus room with black balloons and streamers in honor of his 40th birthday, and it seems like yesterday. No way was that 20 years ago.

My second thought: of course I will do this. After all, this teacher and I first bonded over the discovery of our shared February 12 birthday way back when I was in 6th grade. I'd be honored to write an actual pen-and-paper letter for this momentous event.

The following is the text of a letter I am mailing today to the best teacher I ever had and the single most important educational influence of my life.

Dear Mr. Durham,

Sometimes Jason and I sit around and wonder how on earth we got where we are. We grew up in families that were sometimes unstable, to say the least. Based on our socioeconomics, the odds were not in our favor for a high level of educational success. How did we grow into the two well-educated, well-adjusted people I like to think we are?

Well, our friends, for one thing. They exerted positive peer pressure, making it cool to be smart; they also made sure we had rides home from whatever after-school activity they roped us into joining. We became a team with that special little group of classmates, and we helped each other clean up the messes when we screwed up. (Those messes included, but were not limited to, the broken shards of a large glass trophy case that once lived in the band room.)

We also had some great teachers. Jason and I had adults standing behind us and encouraging us those times when our parents could not. They told us that we were smart and talented and capable and had such high expectations for us that we dared not disappoint them. They didn't tell us we could go to college; they told us that we would go to college, and do well there. When you come from parents who are not college-educated and struggle sometimes just to put food on the table, that's an important difference.

Then there's a person who was (and remains) both friend and teacher.

Every day from 6th grade through 12th grade, I spent an hour a day with him (Jason spent slightly less time in his company after defecting to the Beechwood Singing Tigers.) I learned a lot about music in those hours. For instance, I know enough to be able to say with authority that my favorite symphony is Tchaikovsky's 6th and can tell you in great detail why the 4th movement's struggle and failure to climb out of the depths of despair is so cathartic for me. I also know that there's nothing more beautiful than being one of twelve voices singing "Ave Verum Corpus" quietly and in tune; it makes every hair on your head stand up.

I learned a lot about myself and the world outside my front door. I was not a talented singer, but I became a very talented listener. It doesn't matter that my parents couldn't afford and were not remotely interested in taking me to Music Hall or a touring Broadway musical; I grew to love good music and good theater and had the pleasure of hearing something beautiful every day for seven years.

Some of the most important lessons came after the bell rang at 2:30. This person could not only teach music, he could also turn a fundamentally shy girl into Bonnie the Moll and The Artful Dodger on stage (and encourage her not-shy partner in crime to commit to a really convincing chair fall that to this day is the stuff of high-school theater legend.) He taught us that singing on our band-room stage for a room full of applauding people was thrilling, but singing Christmas carols at a nursing home was a whole different kind of rewarding. He was knowledgeable about things other than the performings arts; one cold winter night, dropping us off after Honors Chorus, he pointed out the Pleiades, and taught me the trick of averting my eyes when looking at a celestial object as it appears brighter that way. That little cluster of stars amazed me. How had I never noticed that before? It's amazing what wonderful things you can see when you stop looking so hard.

And once, he even taught me that my best response to an infuriating practical joke (which he may have been a party to) is to simply stick out my tongue and flounce out of the room. That'll show 'em.

A lot more years than I care to think about have passed since those days. This person is no longer technically my teacher, but remains a friend. Last year, we caught up over a favorite symphony (not Tchaikovsky's 6th, but his 4th, which isn't too shabby) and a favorite beverage and talked about music and spirituality and beer and old times and new times. This year, we went out caroling with other former chamber choir students and found that singing "Silent Night" for a handful of homesick truckers is as hair-standing-inducing as "Ave Verum" ever was. As he told the altos and tenors to sing out more, I saw that I still have a lot I can learn from him.

In my current school, we are told by our administrators to address each other as "Mr." or "Mrs." or "Ms." in front of students; that title, they say, is a sign of professional respect and a good model for our young people. Because of this, this special teacher and friend will always be "Mr. Durham."

I cannot call you by your given name. You have more than earned my respect. (Though I must say, when we get together with our other chamber choir friends, we still sometimes call you "Daddy Ron."  Which is still respectful, in its own way.)

On February 12, 1986, you heard from my 6th-grade girlfriends that it was my birthday; you told me it was yours, too. You said something like, "Great people were born on February 12."

You've no idea.

I wish you a very happy 60th birthday, and very many more. Here's hoping someday we can go to Tchaikovsky's 6th together (and have a Unibroue afterwards.)

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