Our Tuesday Fox asked, “Who is the person (besides your parents) who had the biggest impact on your life?”
I’ve often acknowledged the many excellent teachers who have shaped my life, from elementary grades through graduate school. There have been a few not-so-phenomenal, but for the most part, I had great instructors. When I saw this week’s prompt, I knew I wanted to write about a teacher, but was hesitant to select one. Choosing only one, I felt, would be rather like choosing a favorite child. And then I remembered one instructor who guided me through two very different times in my life.
When I was in the fourth grade, a man came to my classroom and gave us a listening test. This was back in the days of phonograph records, and he had one that played a series of notes. After each pair of notes, we had to circle whether the two were the same note or different. Then he played pairs of rhythms. Again, we had to tell whether they were the same, or different. The process was repeated with melodies, and then chords. A few weeks later, a letter came in the mail saying that I had passed the test, and was invited to learn to play a band instrument. My mother went to a parents’ meeting and came home with a clarinet, and soon after that, my instruction began with the man who gave us the listening test. He was my first band director, Mr. Edward Livingston, also known as Mr. Ed.
For two years, I learned to play all sorts of fun tunes. I didn’t mind getting up early so that I could play in the band before school. But then at the end of the second year, Mr. Ed told us he was leaving. He’d received something called a Fulbright Scholarship and was going to a faraway place called London to study and play his tuba. We were all sad to see him go, but he gave us his address and told us, “Write to me, and I’ll write back.” So for the next school year, I wrote to him about the new music we were learning, about the mean band director who’d taken his place, and the crummy boys in school. And Mr. Ed wrote back. He told me about Windsor Castle, the Tower of London, and all sorts of wonderful sights. I decided that if he could travel like that by playing his tuba, maybe I could do that playing my clarinet. So I practiced hard.
Mr. Ed came back the year I went to junior high school, and I was thrilled to discover that he’d still be my band director. He talked me into switching from clarinet to oboe, and I loved the change. I loved the challenge of harder music, and he encouraged me to audition for a scholarship to the Interlochen music camp, which I won. And then he told us that he was leaving again, this time for good. He’d accepted a teaching position at Illinois State University as the tuba professor and band director. Again, we were devastated. But again, he gave us his address, and said, “Write to me, and I’ll write back.” So I wrote about the wonderful experiences I had playing at music camp, the local youth orchestra, and then a fabulous trip to Europe with the American Youth Symphony, which gave me the opportunity to see some of the sights Mr. Ed had written about. Mr. Ed wrote back, telling me about the wonderful campus and faculty at Illinois State, and encouraged me to audition for a scholarship there. When the time came, I applied to and auditioned at a handful of universities, but the best opportunity came from ISU, so I packed my bags and went south.
For four more years, I studied under Mr. Ed’s guidance and graduated with a teaching degree. But I missed my family, and made the difficult decision to return to Michigan. And once again, Mr. Ed told me, “Write to me, and I’ll write back.” For over thirty years, we exchanged letters. I told him about my teaching experiences, my time with community orchestras and bands, my marriage, and my children. He wrote back about his family, his work, and then his retirement.
Mr. Ed passed away in 2012, and I attended his memorial service, along with many college friends with whom I’ve been happy to reconnect. He was a very talented musician, and a warm-hearted man, but the greatest lesson I learned from him was the power of keeping one’s word. When he said “I’ll write back” to a young fifth grader and then made good on that promise, he showed integrity, and he gained a follower for life.