In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, I offer up a post about the best teacher I ever had. I had a lot of shitty teachers, too, and I still plan to write about those. If you don’t like the serious posts, I promise I’ll be back next week with a snarky listicle.
Thank a teacher this week, OK? And if you are one, know that you’re someone’s Miss S.
Miss Schubert was my middle school chorus teacher. She had the perfect name for a music teacher, like the composer Franz. My seventh grade year was her first year teaching, but she showed nothing of the rookie. She was firm but fair. We immediately got a list of rules, one of which was that she expected 99.9% of our effort every day. The 1/10 of a percent, she explained, was for when we had something bothering us, like when we had a fight with our best friend. Talk about knowing the learner. Friendship was the only thing that mattered to me then, except music.
Her approach to teaching was totally different from anything we had seen. The first thing she taught us was proper breathing, then proper posture. To improve our sight-singing, we learned solfège—hand signals for each note of the scale—which we practiced every day during warm-up. When it came to our technique, she demanded perfection. She insisted on good diction. When we didn’t enunciate the “d” at the end of “friend” strongly enough, she referred to the “d” sound on the last “Stand” of the R.E.M. song, and on the next try, we nailed it. We all felt like professionals. We had never had anyone care enough to make us perform to a certain standard. Chorus concerts before Miss Schubert were mostly anemic mumbling and half-hearted swaying, all in different directions. She, however, expected the best from us, and pushed us until she got it. She didn’t just want us to sing; she wanted us to be singers. The night of our first concert, we all buzzed in the chorus room, the boys horsing around and the girls perfecting their makeup and hair. There was a certain energy. We wanted to perform well.
That first concert, in December, opened up a world for me. Miss Schubert gave me my first solo, and I’ll never forget hearing my own voice through the microphone in front of an audience. “Born in a manger” was my first line, the “b” a tiny explosion, letting out my high, pure voice. In the audience, my mom looked at my dad and asked, “Did you know she could sing?”
Miss Schubert honored our talents. She knew I studied piano and asked me if I would accompany the chorus on two songs. I got to start the concert by playing our opener, “The Christ Child is Born.” C’s on the bass line in an eighth-note pattern, accented chords with the right hand, ascending and descending. My left hand pumped away for dear life, maintaining the energy of the song. It was a risk she took, trusting an 11-year-old. I could have cracked and plunked all the wrong keys, or gotten lost, ruining the number. Because she trusted me, she made me feel important.
After the winter concert, the jazz band director asked if I would sing two numbers in the spring. Being alone in front of the microphone, singing a whole song as a crowd stared, would be new for me. Miss Schubert helped me prepare. A few times, during what must have been her planning periods, she rehearsed with me in the auditorium. The week I was to solo with the jazz band, the chorus presented me with a huge card signed by everyone. I may have known then that she initiated the making of the card, but now, as a teacher, I know for sure that she did. Regardless, as someone whose one fervent wish was to be accepted by her peers, the card bolstered me. I’m sure I was smiling when I saw all those signatures, along with the rock star version of myself that Jimmy A. had drawn on the front. On the day of the performance, Miss Schubert called my mother at home and told her to make sure to feed me pasta for dinner, to give me energy. I also remember her giving me a present for good luck—a figurine of a little lamb standing on a heart. The heart said, “Ewe are special.”
The following year, when Miss Schubert was still my chorus teacher, my best friend and I started to write songs together. Miss S stayed after school with us on Wednesdays and gave us voice lessons. She let us sing our songs and perform our stupid dances and gave us feedback on how we could improve. She even gave us an opportunity to sing an original song at that year’s winter concert.
Even though I didn’t become a professional musician, Miss Schubert was my mentor. She saw my strengths and talents, and she went far beyond her contractual duties to bring them out in me. What I cared about, she cared about. What she taught me about music was far less important than the confidence she gave me.
My fourth year as a teacher, I was going through my belongings and came upon the “Ewe are special” figurine. I immediately thought of one of my students, Stephanie, who loved sheep and wanted to be an elementary school teacher. As soon as I saw the little lamb again, I knew I wanted to give it to her. I explained to her that it was not new; I told her the story of where it came from, and I asked her to pass it on to one of her students when she became a teacher.
It wasn’t until after I gave the figurine away that I realized something about the little lamb. I had always wondered how Miss S knew that I was fond of sheep. As a teacher myself, it was obvious to me what had happened all those years ago. She had taken the time to call my mother and ask about my favorite things. Then she had driven to the mall, found the little lamb in the Hallmark store, and chosen it for me, just as I would do many times for students on special occasions. It took me almost twenty years to fully appreciate the gesture.
It also took me years to fully appreciate the gift’s message. I used to think I was “special” to Miss S because I was a stellar music student. In fact, for much of my life I imagined she would be disappointed to learn that I’d never become a “star.” But now that I’m a teacher myself, I realize that’s not how it works. Teachers love their students for who they are, not for their accomplishments. Miss S, I suspect, saw qualities and gifts in me that had nothing to do with music. When I’d contacted her during my first year teaching, she’d said, “I am not at all surprised that you’re a teacher.” I wasn’t sure what she meant then, but now I know.
As a self-doubting, angsty almost-40-year-old who still feels that nothing she does is ever good enough, my favorite teacher’s affirmation of my worth means even more to me now than it did in middle school.
Thank you for that gift, Miss S.