Sunday, September 4, 2016

Jimmy...A lesson in what really matters.

People say that teachers have an indelible impact on the lives of the students they teach.

Well...So often during my 25 year career in public school choral music education, it has been the other way around.

...Like the time one of my most talented boys opted to leave the school where I teach to attend the district Arts school.  I said to him, "I can't believe I am losing you!  What am I going to do?"  He replied, "There will be another student next year who you will be excited about, and you will enjoy developing their special talents."

It hadn't even occurred to me.  12 years of wisdom compared to my fifty-....(um...I can't write it...but I've lived a really long time), and he was able to awaken me to a new perspective.

Change is definite, and we have to look for the silver lining.  That's what he taught me that day.

But Jimmy...he's another story.  ...One of the most epic stories of my 25 years of teaching public school choral music.


That's Jimmy.  I taught him10 years ago.  

Shortly after Jimmy was born as healthy as could be, he became ill. The illness impacted his body in such a way that he cannot control his movement much at all.  

...And Jimmy absolutely adored singing.  

Logistically, he wasn't able to enunciate very well at all.  I usually was not able to understand him when he spoke, but the students who'd grown up with Jimmy helped me.  Getting a lot of air into his lungs was quite difficult, but he did his best.  Most of the time, when Jimmy sang, he was able to produce pitch.  Most of the time, it was in tune.  

When he sang with the choir, the light in his eyes was truly from heaven.  

He wasn't able to hold the music, so the students helped him.  The students were always aware of his needs even though he had a hard time making others aware of them.  They simply sensed it.  His presence brought out the best in my middle school students.  With my class sizes as large as 84, I wasn't always as aware as I should have been.    Seeing middle school children be so tuned into Jimmy was inspiring. 

Jimmy's parents were amazing.  They gently made me aware of the needs of their son, and we worked together to help give him the best experience he could have.

Fast forward to the state spring choral music adjudication...

Each year, I take all 300+ students each year.  I separate them into 4 groups, and we attend over 2 days.   I ordered the special bus for Jimmy and his para-professional to ride to the church.  His mother and I triple checked to make sure all was set, and the county office assured us that it was. 

The day arrives for the 6th grade choir to attend the adjudication.

Of course, I'm a total wreck...an open nerve...flitting around like a bat.  Taking 150 plus students off campus to get adjudicated, for most of whom it is the first time, is always stressful.  Each year, I plan this event to the "minute".  Traffic is rough in Atlanta, and if you miss your time, you mess up the schedule for all of the other choirs.   In the days before the event, I've given tons of instructions and created lots of structure to ensure we have the best opportunity to have a good experience.


By 8:45 AM, all of my students had reported to their chaperone, and all of the the buses had arrived.

...except Jimmy's.  

We were supposed to warm up at 9:30 AM, so time was tight.

I called the front office who, in turn, called transportation.  

They had messed up the order and took responsibility and said "We'll get someone there asap."

So, I left with 149 students, and left Jimmy at school with his Para-professional.

I arrive at the church with my students.  I complete registration. 

No Jimmy and no update.  No one is answering their phones.

"Time to go into the warm up room Mr. Duncan."  

Up walks Jimmy's father.  

I turn to the organizer, and I say, "We are missing a student who is on his way.  Can you move our time back and let someone else go in our slot?"  

Surrounded by other nervous choir directors, none of whom wants to go early, she graciously says, "OK...but you'll have to go in the 10 AM slot.  That school isn't here yet, and I'll figure out what to do once they arrive."

I take my 150 students, and we sit and watch other groups.  Many of my parents had gotten off work to see their children sing at 9:30, and they needed to return to their jobs.

The pressure is building.

The para-professional calls my cell and says, "Still no bus", and there is still no update on when the bus will arrive for Jimmy from the transportation department.

Time ticks by.  My students are getting restless.  The parents who've come to watch are getting irritated.  "What time will you sing?  I thought it was at 9:30?"  

I answer, "We are waiting on a student."

I'm sure they are thinking..."Just one?  Was he late for school?  You have 150 children in this choir.  Why does his voice matter?"

The organizer comes back and says, "You'll be going to the warm up room in 5 minutes."

Jimmy's father has been watching my struggle.

He walks over to me again, but this time, he speaks.  He says, "Mr. Duncan...Do you know what time Jimmy woke up this morning?"  

I answered, "No.  What time?"

He said, "3:30 AM.  He was so excited to be a part of this event today.  He loves singing more than anything in the world."

I felt my tears welling up.

I said, "Thank you."

I went to the organizer and said, "I have no idea when we will get to sing today.  We are still waiting on my student."  

"Where is he?  Is he a soloist?  Why can't you go forward without him?"

"I can't.  I won't.  So, do what you have to do with the schedule.  If we don't get to sing for the judges today, we will stay all day, wait for everyone to be done and stand up there and sing once everyone is gone."

My phone rings.  They are on there way!  Hallelujah!

15 minutes tick by, and they arrive.  Jimmy wheels in with his para and all of the other teachers and organizers see.  

It all made sense for them in that moment...or maybe it didn't.  

I don't care.   I know I did what was right in that moment.

I had to trust my heart, let things happen and let go of what I couldn't control.  

Jimmy needed to sing with us.  I needed to see him sing with us. His parents needed to see him sing with us.  The kids needed him to sing with us.

...Not because he is the star tenor...not because he is singular reason we do or do not get a superior rating...but because he loves to sing.

That's all.

...and watching the joy on Jimmy's face as he sang that day is etched in my mind.

Here is Jimmy on the day he graduated high school:




I often tell the students that for me, making beautiful choral music together is one of the most spiritual experiences I have as a human being.   That day was one of the most difficult and magical ones of my career.

He impacted me far more than I could ever had impacted him.




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