Ten Things My Choir Director Taught Me
1. I need to be more easygoing.
Ms. E knew that, by nature, I am a serious person. I had (and still do sometimes) very definite ideas of when people should have fun and when they should be serious, especially during class. That serious nature was partly what caused me to be so quiet in the early years of choir and isolated me from the other kids in class. Inside, I’ve never wanted to be so serious – I felt like it was holding me back from who I ought to be, which is a fun-loving, happy person. But my desire for control and things being just so overtook that person I wanted to be, and kept me trapped inside this serious shell. Being around Ms. E every day for four years helped me break out of that shell. She has shown me the amazing balancing act between focus and fun, and that it’s more than possible to have both at the same time. Being in her class has taught me it’s okay to get off on tangents and that people don’t like someone who is serious all the time. I study people a lot, especially when it comes to reactions, and will often formulate my reaction around theirs. She has, time and time again, demonstrated the appropriate way to respond to situations, whether it be with frustration or happiness, anger or laughter.
2. I can trust someone.
Growing up, I’ve never liked talking about my feelings. I didn’t even like experiencing them. I’d smother my emotions and refuse to share them with anybody until I exploded, usually in a fit of rage. The number one reason for this was because I hated feeling vulnerable and telling somebody how I felt meant putting myself in a vulnerable position. I was always terribly afraid that whatever I said would change forever how that person looked at me, how they saw me, and that they would judge me harshly. I never trusted anyone enough to let my walls down and be honest, whether it was with my feelings, my opinions, or whatever else it was I kept hidden inside me. I also worried that whatever I revealed about myself would one day be turned and used against me by people who called themselves my friends, but weren’t truly. But I just knew that Ms. E was someone I trust, be real with. Sure, there were times I completely laid my emotions out and I was scared to do so, but I did it because I knew she would never betray my trust. I finally had found someone I knew would never turn on me or use what I said against me, and I knew Ms. E would always be there. Because of this, I started to trust other people. I started letting my walls come down and sharing my ideas, opinions, and feelings. By doing so, I learned that it wasn’t just someone I could trust, it was so many more.
3. I can keep going.
High school was very much a rollercoaster of ups and downs, good times and bad. Sometimes extremely bad times. Starting with the second half of sophomore year until right before my senior year, I struggled immensely with thoughts of suicide. Much of it had to do with life outside of school – certain members of my family constantly emotionally abused me, I was constantly being torn down, and I just could not deal with it. I was also heavily depressed during that time and the thought of not having to endure my life any longer seemed like a relief. But every time I thought about doing it or how I could do it, or even if I wasn’t thinking about suicide and my day had just been plain old rough, I always thought, “Tomorrow,” or “Monday.” All I had to do was wait a couple of hours or a couple of days and I’d be back in the choir room, where people built me up and I was happy.
4. I am never alone.
Being a part of choir helped me learn that I will always have someone by my side. Even during my darkest days. When I was a sophomore, I didn’t have many friends and the girls in Vocal Ensemble made it very clear how much they disliked me. This was part of the reason why sophomore year was the worst year of my life. But even when the girls in VE didn’t like me, I knew that Ms. E was not like them. She was for me when everyone was against me, and constantly encouraged me. When I was told that I was weird for being so quiet, she told me that she liked how quiet I was. The girls who disliked me constantly brought up reasons as to why they treated me the way they did, and Ms. E was always quick to refute those reasons, quick to turn them from negatives to positives. Ms. E never let me stand by myself (figuratively speaking) and slowly, the girls (and eventually guys) in VE never let me stand by myself either.
5. I don’t have to be sad.
It would take more than ten sets of hands to count the bad days that I’ve had in high school. I can think of several times I was reduced to tears at school, or almost wanted to cry. Days where I was just plain old sick and tired of life. On these kinds of days, Ms. E always tried to help in whatever way she could, many times listening to me vent and giving advice. Other times, I either didn’t want to talk, or didn’t have to- my emotions were just that evident. It was during these times that Ms. E simply tried to make us smile. I remember once, I and a couple other choir students were gathered in her office to receive our regionals scores and after seeing my very low score, I was upset almost to the point of tears. I was standing there, silent, angry, as another kid was over-animatedly telling a story of something that happened at regionals. Ms. E cut him off with a, “I know! I was there.” She glanced at me and in that second, we both burst out laughing.
“There’s a smile,” I remember her saying triumphantly.
More than once, when I was upset, Ms. E would just say something that was such a no-brainer that I just had to laugh. Sometimes, when the laughter passed and I was happy, I would chide myself, thinking, ‘No, you’re supposed to be sad. You’re supposed to be upset. So-and-so just hurt you.’ Then, I realized how foolish I was being. Why was I dwelling on my sadness, my hurt feelings, when a simple laugh could do away with all that? I was wrecking my own day by continuing to let the badness have its hold over me. Ms. E taught me that all it takes is a simple sentence or action to let the happiness in. She taught me that I can let the happiness in and that everything will be okay, even if just for a moment.
6. I don’t have to only rely on myself.
As a type-A personality, I tend to be very rigid and inflexible when it comes to ideas and planning. I want to do everything myself because I know it will turn out exactly as it is in my head (and to me, the ideas in my head were always the best). I also learned early in life that if I wanted anything, I could only ever rely on myself to get it. I wanted to be in soccer freshman year and when my mom would not take me, I woke up at 5:30 every morning to walk the almost two miles to school in the dark, then walked back after four long hours of conditioning. I thought that nobody could be trusted because they would fail me in the end. However, being in choir changed that. I was suddenly surrounded by people who had fantastic ideas and wanted to help in any way they could. It took me a while to let these people and their ideas in, which unfortunately cost me, but when I did, I found myself suddenly without the burden of having to do all the planning myself. Ms. E taught me that I didn’t only have to rely on myself when it came to getting what I wanted. She quickly became my mentor and has been an invaluable help when it came to my getting into college. Ms. E helped me plan, plot, and dream. She responded to questions with surefire answers, or promised to find the answer if she couldn’t give it to me herself. Ms. E taught me that I no longer had to rely on myself to figure out how I was going to reach my goals because she was there with me every step of the way.
7. I can do anything I want.
‘Please remember that you can do anything you want.’
‘I know you will become everything you aspire to be.’
My mother never spoke those words to me. Nobody ever spoke those words to me. The words they spoke to me were that I’d never be good enough, I’d never achieve me goals of becoming a choir teacher or a better piano player. And even if I was good? “It doesn’t mean you’re good enough. It just means you’re better than a bunch of kids at Glendale.”
Until now. Until those two sentence were written- one on a Star Card and the other in my yearbook. Until I was told that I was good enough, that I could reach my goals, that I could do whatever I set my mind to.
8. I can’t stay mad at someone who’s given me so much.
When you’re around the same people every day, they’re bound to make you mad, no matter how much you love them. Such is the case with choir. There were days where Ms. E did make me mad. Looking back, I can’t even remember why, just that those days happened. I tend to hold grudges and have even once gone a week without speaking to a friend who made me angry. But not with Ms. E. Every time I was upset or mad, I told myself, “Get over yourself. You know how much she’s done for you. She’s listened to you gripe about your life and given you real, solid solutions. She’s supported you in pretty much everything you can think of and has been proud of you when you accomplished things. She is there for you.” And instantly, my anger was gone, replaced by gratitude. It’s taught me that, when I’m angry at someone, I don’t need to think of why they made me angry, I need to think of why they make me happy, the thing things I love about them. Dissipate anger with love, with gratitude. Anger is a natural feeling, but it’s not a good one, and Ms. E taught me that all it takes is a simple change in thinking.
9. I haven’t learned everything I needed to learn.
I always planned on student teaching for Ms. E, ever since I decided I wanted to be a choir teacher. I thought to myself, “What better place than one I know and love to help me prepare for my own classroom?” I assuaged my fears that I would not be a good teacher or that I would not know everything I needed to know by reminding myself that I would get to spend a year with someone who was and did. I could observe from a different perspective and soak up more than I was able to as a student. I imagined the bond I would form with the students, entertaining them with stories of when I was a student there, and perhaps taking the occasional opportunity to lead them in warm-ups and rehearsals. The difference I would feel, being back at my high school, but not as a student there.
My student teaching for Ms. E came up from time to time in conversations over the next few years and she always seemed like she agreed with me coming back to student teach. But one day, when it came up, she said something she never had before.
“You don’t want to student teach for me.”
“Yeah, I do,” I replied.
“Nooo. Go get outside experience. You’ve already learned everything you can from me.”
That was the end of our conversation, partially because I shut down. I was upset, feeling rejected. Then, I thought back to two nights before when I’d been thinking about student teaching and a thought had suddenly popped into my head, “Maybe I should student teach somewhere else. Get outside experience.”
I don’t believe these two conversations, one with myself and one with Ms. E, were coincidences. Not at all. But I also don’t believe I’ve learned everything I can. Not necessarily having to do with music theory and such, because I know college will teach me that. Having to do with teaching effectively. Reaching my students so they understand what it is that I am trying to teach them- not just how to sing, read music, etc, but to be good people with passion and drive and heart. Letting them know that they can trust me and we can joke around and have fun sometimes. Showing them that the choir room is a place where they can get away from it all. There’s so much I wanted to learn during my year with the Cardinal Choirs again, more than I can accurately put into words.
But now, I’m (semi) okay with the fact of student teaching elsewhere. I think that it will give me perspective and new ideas. However, I do not think it will teach me what I want to learn. I don’t think student teaching anywhere will. I think it’s up to me to figure out exactly how to reach my students. I am not Ms. E, nor are her students like mine will be. I can emulate what I have seen her do in the classroom, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work in mine. I do hope that some of it does, because I’d like to believe that some methods are universal. Teaching, establishing my classroom, making it a haven and a home for my students is something I need to do in my own way, and in a way that is best for my future students. Someone once said, “There is one thing that truly defines love. Giving love to someone THEY want to receive it, not the way YOU want to give it.”
I think that is applicable to all aspects of teaching, learning, creating, laughing, and everything that goes into making my class and classroom a successful one. I have to know my students in order to reach them effectively. I know it’s going to involve trials and errors, successes and failures, but I’ll always keep evolving, improvising, and learning. For I don’t believe anyone ever stops learning or growing. I don’t believe they ever should. It is that constant changing, constant renewing and shifting of the mind that makes each phase of life as equally challenging, exciting, and invigorating as the one before it. Have I learned everything I need to learn? No. But I cannot learn through observation. I have to be taught through experience. And that, I believe is going to be one hell of an amazing experience.
10. God puts two people in each other’s lives right when they need each other most.
I needed to learn all of this. I needed to be surrounded by the people I was to become the person I am. I may not ever know what I taught those around me, but I hope that I left an impact on their life like they made a lesson out of mine. Thank you, Ms. E for teaching me the things you have. Thank you for laying the foundation to my path.
I can take it from here.
I began this blog on June 5th, 2010. More than two years ago. While it hasn't received many views, it served as a sounding board for my thoughts. Its name came from a book by James Jordan, a book I thought would teach me something, but ultimately turned out to be a book that taught me nothing. Now, I am ending this blog. Come August, you can find me over at A Time and Place for Everything (http://timeandplaceforeverything.blogspot.com/). The title comes from a book in the works that has taught me everything.
See you there.
Elizabeth Del Debbio