A few weeks ago I learned that my favorite teacher had passed away. The news made me sad - she had been dealing with cancer on and off for at least twenty years, and left behind many grieving friends and family - but it also got me thinking about what made her so special among all the gifted teachers I've known.
I met her in 1994. I was a quiet, lanky little freshman, new to my school, and not confident of anything except (maybe) my ability to sing. I came to her office during lunch to audition for her choir - her best choir. I must have looked like a ten year old to her (I looked like a ten year old to everybody) but I will never forget the way she spoke to me and looked me in the eye, as if I was another adult. She handed me some sheet music, told me to look it over for a minute, gave me a pitch and had me sing. At the end of the piece she looked over her glasses and complimented me ("Very nice job, my dear!"), thanked me for coming by, and told me that the choir list would be up in a couple of days. No wasted time, no fanfare, no fluff. Just a few moments of kindness and a fair tryout for a timid girl.
I got into her choir, and for the next few years I had the privilege of spending an hour in her class every day. I loved that hour. Because I got to sing and make beautiful music with my friends, yes, but there were so many other reasons. In the world of immature judgements and social games that is high-school, her classroom was a peaceful oasis. She just wouldn't tolerate meanness or child-like behavior. Everyone was part of the team. Everyone's time was valuable. Everyone's feelings mattered. I only remember her losing her temper twice, and on both occasions one member of the choir had disrespected another.
Her classroom was a place of consistency. Other teachers were funnier or more flamboyant, but her appeal lay in the fact that she was always the same. Fair. Honest. Straight-forward. Kind. Every day we came to choir was the same routine - announcements, warm up, chipping away at learning new pieces of music one section at a time. She expected us to pay attention and work hard every single time. When we slacked off she didn't let it slip. And when we did a good job she told us she was proud. And we ate it up. We, fickle, too-cool-for-school teenagers needed her consistency, the structure of her high standards, and the warmth of her quiet approval. We loved her for it.
On top of it all, she made it her business to open our eyes to life beyond our little town in northern Montana. My teacher chose music that took us all over the world - to France, Italy, the deep South, Israel, Africa, and Broadway. We sang Gershwin, the Beatles, and old spirituals. Latin, Hebrew, French, and German. And we traveled. She loved to have fun and she arranged for us to go on a retreat every fall and a tour every spring. We saw musicals, ate in good restaurants, rode ferries and roller coasters, laughed and joked, and all along the way we performed. I think she must have enjoyed spoiling us on these trips. I like to think that she was proud to show us off, and maybe she felt like we were her kids a little bit. She even pranked us once - the whole choir - by secretly teaching our parents one of the songs we were performing, and then having them run up on stage with us during a concert. We were completely shocked! She got us good.
These are only some of my happy memories from her class, and I am only one of hundreds and hundred of students she touched. So, it was no surprise that after her passing there was a huge outpouring of love and appreciation. If you had asked her she would have said she never did anything outstanding or noteworthy. But my dear teacher lived a quiet life of hard work, love, kindness, and fairness. And one day at a time, one person at a time, she wrote a beautiful story.