Teachers Make A Difference

Greetings Good People!

In this time of challenge and change, with lots of time to think about a world that is now on the edge and wandering toward an uncertain future. I see, as others have stated, a great opportunity to think carefully and expansively about the choices that are before us and my place in this astounding time.

As we forge ahead, trying to find ways to engage each other in that changing paradigm, I can’t help but to be grateful for the fire and inspiration that the teachers in my past helped me to locate and ignite. Looking back, I can see very clearly how some of my teachers were able to spark the passion for questioning, learning and exploring that led me to use my curiosity and gifts to help me become the person I am now. It’s often the things that seem so small in the moment, that later, in hindsight, turn out to be monumental turning points that send your life in one direction or another, Such is certainly the case wth my journey to this present moment.

My thoughts range all the way back to 2nd grade at Grover Cleveland Elementary School where Miss Charlotte Churn, my 2nd great teacher, used Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land is Your Land” to open up a world of folk music and a wider world of discovery. It spoke of redwood trees, poverty and dust storms, storied rivers, states and people who were thousands of miles from my inner city home in Philadelphia. That song shifted my point of view in ways that would not take true shape until I would have the chance later in life, to travel and see them for myself. But Miss Churn did her job as a teacher, expanding my mind by using a musical and cultural touchstone that validates arts education practices now in use. And it happened on a day that she would not even remember when we met, by chance, almost 3o years later.  She, like millions of others, was trying to help her students find that space beyond the realms that our eyes could see and our locally focused brains could imagine.

And in 8th grade, it happened again. My home room and history teacher, Mr Nicholas, asked my mother if he could make a recommendation for me to go to a school that was not in my neighborhood because, as he said “Reginald is a very eclectic boy.” (My mother would later mis-interpret his use of that word by remarking “He says that you talk too much!) He continued, “I think Reginald would do much better at the school that most of these other students will attend after finishing here.” My mom warily asked the coded question, “So it’s a better school?” (meaning “So white kids go there?) He said “Yes!” And that conversation and his subsequent efforts connected me to a school where wider perspectives and a more diverse education would be my ticket to creating dream options and accomplishments that my neighborhood school would likely not have afforded.

It was there that I would encounter a number of teachers, Ms Hausler, (home room in 9th grade) Mrs Baker (english in 8th grade) Mr Gerson (who saved me from the indignity of failing 12th grade physics) and the person who might be the single most important teacher in my finding a career in music, my choral director, Mr Theodore Nitsche.

The signature event happened in my 3rd week of 9th grade at Olney High School in Philly. I was sitting with hundreds of other students in the auditorium awaiting an address from the principal when the Olney High School accapella choir walked in, gathered in two groups, (front and rear) and sang ONE SONG. Just one! But in that crystal clear moment, I thought to myself, “I need to be in that choir!” The song was magical and it spoke to something in me that would not be denied.

Later that very day, I went up to the 5th floor to see Mr Theodore Nitsche, the music teacher who had been teaching there since the day the school opened in 1936. Mr Nitsche had taught every student at the school for at least one year in his music appreciation duties but the choir was his pride and joy. I began by informing him that he needed me in his choir. The news was not good. He told me that I had missed the choir auditions by one week and that the choir roster was set. In an unusually bold move for me, I informed him that he NEEDED me because I was a tenor and he didn’t have enough?  (I had somehow counted 9 tenors in a 100 voice choir.) He stared at me, and said “Really?”  After a brief conversation he took me in a rehearsal room and gave me a quick vocal test. In minutes, I became #10. That moment and my subsequent four years as part of the choir family changed my life in so many ways. That experience  extended both to my time as a student at that school and even more to my journey as a person, an educator and a musician to this day.

Mr Nitsche was an usual man. He was serious about music, personal and community responsibility and about getting the music right while being expressive and precise. He thought of all of us as “his rousters!” (a term already way out of use even by that time!) He was a Quaker, though I wouldn’t learn that until the memorial service at time of his death in 1979.) He was a firm believer in the worth of all individuals though he could be opinionated and sharp when talking about “evil doers” and bad behavior. But his talks always centered on compassion as he constantly lectured us about the need to be good role models in the world. For a kid who was dealing with many issues both at home and at school (facing situations where race, religion and class issues made me feel inferior) he proved on any number of occasions that he “saw” and appreciated me for who I was. And that even carried over to the times when I got on his LAST nerve. It was in his choir that I made the friends who would eventually connect me to future people and places that helped me to discover my voice in new ways, learn the guitar (in a much longer story) and become the musician I am today.

As a teacher, Mr Nitsche and those others made me feel smart,  safe, challenged and more confident as they lit a fire in me for striving, observing carefully, listening with purpose,  sharing my opinions and for singing Bach choral preludes and the counterpoint that exists in my head every time I harmonize. Teachers can make a world wider than the oceans are deep. And in my case, thanks to their efforts, I have been swimming with joy and abandon for years!

In the spirit of joy,