Melissa is a new addition at the school where I teach. A Great Wind blew her to us from Mississippi… I couldn’t be more glad of that.
I joined the army when I was a freshman in high school. Back then, we called it choir. Our drill sergeant, also known as Mrs. Edwards, had a profound influence in my life…on my life….to my life…
From the age of twelve, I knew that music would be my life. Notice, I didn’t say would be part of my life. It wasn’t a typo. The first time I walked through the hallowed halls of Joanne Edwards’s choir room, my talent was not my own. She had/has an almost supernatural ability to pull, siphon, rip every drop of ability a student has and transform it into a glorious offering of excellence. When she accomplished this with eighty voices together, the result could only be described as transcendent.
In the beginning, as a starry-eyed freshman, I was just happy to be there. As I matured vocally, I realized that I had something vital to offer the groups I was a part of. Even though I appeared to have loads of confidence, I struggled through three years of insecurity; not knowing if I was one of those unfortunate beings that couldn’t really sing and no one had bothered to tell. Then, Mrs. Edwards would bestow that golden word or phrase of encouragement, and I had the sustenance to carry on. Usually, the word or phrase would arrive on the heel of a very calculated, very public set-down. Deserved or not, the experience was always paralyzing. But, we, the students, were conditioned to be survivors. We were a well oiled, internationally recognized, classics singing, Mozart breathing machine. We were the best…..and we knew it. We held our heads up high every time we entered a concert hall. There was a certain amount of self-assurance we all possessed because of Mrs. Edwards. We knew that if we had been chosen at all to be part of her choir, we were something special. She taught us to set our standards high in everything, not just music.
Rehearsals were our boot-camp. She didn’t have to get in our face and yell. She would tear us down in her quest for perfectionism. (Something that I inherited from her-if such a thing can occur.) One lift of her penciled eyebrows could and did make football players almost lose control of bodily functions. But, we were survivors.
The nature of our choir provided constant opportunities for us to spend time with Mrs. Edwards outside of class. To say that she was a different person outside of class would be a gross understatement. She went from a stiff, Hitler-ish disciplinarian tyrant to a warm, personable, caring, real-live person. She, I see now, used these times to really breathe into our lives the things that let us know that she truly cared. Her dedication to her job was unquestionable.
One event still sticks in my mind. Every year, we sponsored a huge choir contest. Schools from all over the South attended. I will never forget the competition of my junior year. None of the students knew where Mrs. Edwards was. Nobody could find her. The parents from our choir association were in charge, and told us to carry on with our jobs and be in the warm-up room ready to perform at our appointed time. Mrs. Edwards came right before we were to perform. We all were beyond relieved to see her. She conducted the warm-up and then directed us as we performed. Directly after our performance, she left. She had not spoken a word to any of us. We were all shocked at her behavior. Some were offended, and talked the normal trash that students will about a teacher. It wasn’t until that Monday at school that we learned Mrs. Edwards’ husband had suffered a heart attack the night before the contest and was in the hospital. She left her husband in the hospital to come and direct us. We had a student that could have done it. But, she knew that we needed her. Her love for us was unquestionable, too.
One sunny Sunday afternoon, I was rehearsing a solo with Mrs. Edwards in the choir room. I was one of many students there. We were rehearsing for our final show of the year. Only a few of us had been given solos. We were “the chosen ones.” It was a heady sensation.
So, there I stood-a mixed up, jumbled mess of confidence, insecurity, and paralyzing anxiety; opening myself up spiritually and emotionally, as I always do when I sing- fully expecting to be given forty lashes and hung by my fingernails because of my inadequacy.
Suddenly, the music stopped. My heart dropped to the floor, and I was sure the contents of my stomach were headed in the same direction. Obviously, I had done something that was beyond all that was holy, and Mrs. Edwards was so stricken with disgust, her fingers refused to move.
I will never forget that day. If it’s possible for one moment to define who or what we are or who or what we are to become, that particular moment was my defining. Mrs. Edwards sat in her usual place at the piano. But, this time her posture wasn’t ramrod straight. There was a subtle hunch to her shoulders. My mind couldn’t process what my eyes were seeing…she was crying.
Her words that day, in that defining moment, bandaged all the scrapes and bruises that her words, so many times in the past, had caused. The few precious sentiments she shared with me that day are part of who I am now.
There are those who are able to bring the best out in people with love and compassion; a veritable warm and fuzzy, Hallmark commercial kind of thing. Even though Mrs. Edwards didn’t fall into this category all the time, she had her moments. And those moments were even more meaningful because of their rarity. We all feared her and yes, maybe even loved her. More than anything, we respected her. But, no matter how we felt, we always knew that she would bring out the best in us. And, we always knew more than likely, it would be painful, and we would lose any ego or self-importance that had managed to survive her boot camp.
What I learned from Mrs. Edwards can’t be put into words. The teaching mantle I now wear, came from her. I learned what to do and what not to do from her.
People sometimes ask why I became a music teacher. I tell them it was the only thing left to do after I graduated from boot camp.