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TunnelToTower

2012-2013 Show Choir Mobile – Tunnel to Tower Run

There was this kid I met through Show Choir Mobile.

Nearly two years ago, we—the Mobile County high school choral directors—held auditions for a show designed to showcase the music and dance of Michael Jackson. I don’t know how many kids showed up at Theodore High School that day, but I’d guess thirty-five or forty, and as you might suppose, the balance was overwhelmingly female. To put it bluntly, we needed to keep as many boys as possible.

Most of the kids knew the music fairly well, but when Angie Dussouy, the dance instructor from Davidson High School, taught the whole group a rigorous five-minute routine, the sheep separated from the goats. I have a priceless video documenting skinned knees, copious sweat, ruddy faces, and laughter. The urban kids fared the best, but let’s just say the pale-faced country boys from Theodore and Semmes didn’t have quite the groove we were looking for.

MJRehearsal

Early Michael Jackson rehearsal – Brady rocking the back row

But we needed boys. Boys who could sing.

And Brady Hoffman, a tenth-grader from Mary G. Montgomery High School could sing. He was well over six feet tall, with shoulders like a linebacker, size 14 shoes (both apparently left-footed), Nordic blue eyes and blond hair—and a well-trained baritone with massive range.

Meeting after the audition to set the choir roster, we directors all looked at each other. “Maybe we can put Brady on the back row and nobody will notice he can’t dance,” somebody said hopefully. But Angie laughed. “Come on, I can teach anybody to dance.”

Thriller2

Rehearsing Thriller – Brady in turquoise on the back

As it turned out, she apparently can. All twenty-five kids we chose for the choir threw themselves heart and soul into polishing the music and learning those signature liquid, spine-jolting MJ moves. Brady worked harder than anybody, often spending his break times practicing those complex dance combinations, learning to control his big, awkward adolescent body—until by the night of the opening performance he was, if not front-row quality, at least not a major distraction.

Word got around quickly how spectacular the show was, and the choir was invited to perform for several community events. By the end of the 2012-2013 season, Brady blended in seamlessly, and had become an integral part of a truly heart-knit, multicultural group of gifted teenagers. And he had gained enough confidence to become a leader in the 2013-2014 choir.

MJPubShot

MJ Tribute Publicity Shot – Brady far left in red hat

HealTheWorld

Singing “Heal the World” – Brady in red, center front

One of my favorite memories is the day he sheepishly brought me his red silk shirt, one of the costumes for the Michael Jackson show, with the under-arm seam torn apart. When we’d ordered the shirts, the biggest size available was extra-large—still about two sizes too small for Brady’s huge shoulders. So we ordered two shirts for him, and I took them home, cut them up and pieced them back together as one shirt, praying the seams would hold together under the stress of all that energetic choreography. I only had to sew it back together that one time, which is pretty miraculous.

SmokinWeed

Rehearsal for Dance Through the Decades – Brady (in yellow) pretends to smoke weed in a 70’s disco

FrontRow

Finally Front Row

AllTheGold

“All the Gold In California” solo – in 80’s attire

I came to love Brady for his relentless optimism. Like most innately musical kids, he sang twenty-four hours a day—undoubtedly even in his sleep. He hated for anybody around him to be sad or lonely. He would seek out anybody sitting alone and bring them into the group, or just strike up a teasing conversation. For any stressful or potentially negative situation (such as being late for rehearsal), he found an appropriate—or inappropriate, as the case may be—song for the occasion. If he was feeling emotional, he would start praise-and-worship sing-alongs, drawing other kids in and settling nerves. All that over-the-top energy could be exhausting—or even frequently annoying—but you couldn’t be irritated with him for long without laughing at his nonsense and appreciating his sincere devotion to God.

So when all this young, boundless joy and potential is wiped off the earth in the blink of an eye, the natural question is why. If I were God, I would have left him here to have a long, fruitful life. I would have sent an angel to shove aside the car that killed him. I would have allowed one of those miraculous interventions that sometimes happen, so that Brady could walk through life with a powerful testimony of God’s goodness. I would spare his parents the ache of missing an only son and his young friends their bewildered sorrow.

CrackerBarrelAllState

All-State Choral Festival 2013 – Brady thoroughly enjoying Cracker Barrel with his choir-boy (and girl) buddies.

But I am not all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful. I cannot see the fruit that will come from a memorial service where more than fifty individuals committed themselves to Brady’s Savior and Lord. I can’t imagine the impact that short life will have in ten public high schools spread across a sprawling south Alabama county. I can’t predict how the very loss of that beautiful, contagious faith-walk will exponentially multiply in spiritual life, as a seed, dead and planted in the ground, becomes a harvest to feed nations.

Is it possible to hate the action of an unseen God because it hurts me personally, yet acknowledge its ultimate goodness?

I know it is. Because that’s what it means to be made in God’s image. To be human is to experience and relish all kinds of music—the exultant, the comic, the quiet, the angry, the patriotic, the blood-pumping rhythmic. We are made to be filled by God’s Spirit, and when we submit to and fully embrace his Son, as Brady Hoffman did, there is indeed fullness of joy—such that even in death, lives are changed for good.

Brady’s song. A song that celebrates, even in grief. A song that unites and invites. That’s a song worth singing.

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Cook Sisters, circa 1969

John Mayer occasionally writes a good song. I mean, even a broken clock is right twice a day, huh? I love his song “Daughters” because there’s a lot of truth in it.

On behalf of every man

Looking out for every girl,

You are the god and the weight of her world,

So fathers, be good to your daughters,

Daughters will love like you do.

That’s a pretty serious claim and, if it’s true, a serious responsibility for any man who chooses to participate in the act of creating life.

Cook Sisters, 2009

As the eldest of four sisters, I’ve watched the impact of one man on four young women literally change a good chunk of the world. Wayne Cook was a plain country boy from rural South Mississippi, a high school graduate with no college education, Army veteran of the Korean conflict, civil servant by trade, married for nearly fifty years to one woman. Lord knows he wasn’t perfect. He never could break the addiction to cigarettes. He loved a cold beer on a hot day (if you consider that a flaw), and his attendance at church was sporadic at best. Also, if you hurt his feelings, he could sulk for days.

Wayne Edward Cook, age 9

But the values he instilled in my sisters and me form the bedrock of everything I do, and at least once a day I find myself repeating his words—funny, wise, and/or just plain quirky. Of course, some of the values I’m about to discuss come almost as much from my mother as my father…but then, the two of them were flip sides of a coin, grown together as they were.

This is how my daddy loved…

God comes first. I think one reason my dad didn’t hang out at church regularly is because he was shy, uncomfortable with crowds, and wary of false intimacy. The Depression generation considered spiritual matters private. But his faith was part of who he was, and often, when the rest of us were at church on Sunday, he would turn the TV on to Pastor Adrian Rodgers and worship with Bellevue Baptist in Memphis. One time I asked him about his relationship with Christ, and he shared clearly that he trusted Jesus as his Savior and Lord. Anyway, we girls dressed up on Sunday morning and went to church with or without him. Always.

Me, Mom, and Robin, 1960

Family is your highest investment. Daddy loved my mother with an unrelenting devotion that, as far as I know, never included the possibility of divorce. I was aware of hurt feelings between them, arguments, and occasional silences, but even when my friends experienced the hell of broken families, it never occurred to me that divorce could happen to my parents. That security has been a priceless ticket in my pocket, assuring me that it is possible to work through any interpersonal difficulty.

Family Quilting Bee

The Cook family never took expensive vacations. For one thing, we just didn’t have the money for it. But more importantly, my parents chose to spend their precious vacation time making long drives, on pre-interstate highways, from one corner of the state of Mississippi to the other. I was about five when we moved away from my parents’ home grounds in Lucedale, because Daddy’s job at Brookley Airfield shut down and he was transferred to the Defense Depot in Memphis. But I grew up in a close bond with my grandparents and extended family as a result of that commitment to family. That commitment continues to shape every element of my life, providing an anchor of stability when things might otherwise end in shipwreck. My mother, aunts, sisters and first cousins to this day form a daily circle of fellowship, laughter, and prayer support. The theme of family nurture runs like a golden thread through my fiction—because I cannot imagine it any other way. Readers frequently ask if my characters are based on family. The answer is, yes and no. You’d find echoes of my family in Gilly and Laurel’s tight-knit Kincade clan in Off the Record and Tour de Force, and Meg’s protective father in Under Cover of Darkness is an awful lot like mine.

Wayne, front left, stationed in Germany as an army medic

Freedom isnt free. Daddy’s patriotism was implicit in his military service, not to mention his voting record. He would have been so proud to know that his eldest grandson, my son Ryan, has served for six years with distinction in the U. S. Navy. My throat still closes when I think of the servicemen who came to play “Taps” with such solemnity at my father’s gravesite. A tribute well-deserved.

Story is power. Daddy read the newspaper cover-to-cover, every single morning of his life. He invested in a set of encyclopedias for us girls, he subscribed to Readers Digest periodical and to their condensed best seller series. He always had a dog-eared John D. McDonald mystery or Louis L’Amour western on the arm of his easy chair. And he made sure our bicycles had baskets on the handlebars, mainly so we could drag home piles of books from the public library.

Wayne and Gizmo

My dad was a story-teller himself, too. I loved to hear his accounts of running the back roads of rural Mississippi with his brother and sisters and cousins, of his faithful dog Gizmo and the ornery mule Charley. Of tung oil pod wars, playing mumbledy-peg with pocketknives, and hitching a ride to town on Saturday afternoon, where you’d watch movie double-features for a dime and get sick on too much popcorn. Of working in Grandpa Cook’s corner grocery store, where if you asked just right, you might get a free candy bar or a soda pop. And how he never understood why he clashed so violently with his own father—until he butted heads with my sister Robin!

No wonder I’m a writer. I couldn’t help it.

The Roy Cook Family, early 50’s

Music is the food of the soul.My father had an eclectic taste in music. Country-Western was his favorite. We grew up with the Grand Ole Opry, Hee-Haw, and the Porter Wagner Show, among others. Daddy played a mean harmonica, whistled like a bird, and even pounded out “Down Yonder” or “Heart and Soul” on the piano occasionally. He grew up in a family of gospel singers and pianists (specializing in shape-note transcription), so we were indoctrinated at an early age with the likes of the Cathedrals, the Happy Goodmans, and the Florida Boys.

Hannah and I rock the house with “O Holy Night” on toilet-paper-tube kazoos.

I’ll never forget the day he came home with a new stereo system, complete with turntable, tuner/amplifier and giant speakers. He’d also bought a dozen or so LP’s—Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Floyd Cramer, Burl Ives, Flatt and Scruggs, Chet Atkins, and several Elvis Presley albums (Graceland is less than two miles from our house, so we felt a bit of proprietary pride in the King). My sisters and I played those albums so many times we can all sing them from memory. When it became popular to buy 45 records of songs we heard on the radio, I would listen to Bobby Sherman and The Osmonds and the Jackson Five and the Partridge Family on that stereo until surely my parents wanted to take the needle out of it. But they never complained, because music after all is life, right?

Cook Sisters on Christmas Morning

My sisters and I all sing and play musical instruments. I don’t know how my parents paid for all those instruments and lessons—piano, flute, guitar, trumpet, recorder, French horn. But our house was filled with music from sunrise to bedtime, and Daddy’s chief delight in life was to get a cup of coffee and sit on the front porch with the door open, listening to his girls harmonizing on hymns and Broadway tunes and folk songs from the living room. Whenever one of us had a performance at church or school—or anywhere else within driving distance—he would be in the audience, surreptitiously wiping away tears. For a gruff old cuss, he had deep emotions.

Robin and me, both in the band. I’m the drum major, front left.

When I was in high school, he let my mother talk him into driving my neighborhood piano teacher to work every day for about five years—Mrs. Ann could talk the horns off a grown billygoat—in return for free piano lessons. Now that’s love!

Hannah and Larry, just married

Hard work, thriftiness and generosity build financial balance. If there was a job that Daddy could do himself, he did it. More than once my sisters and I wound up on top of the house with him, nailing shingles onto the roof. We washed our own cars, mowed the lawn, weeded the little garden in our suburban back yard. He once tried to teach me to change the oil in my Mustang II, but some forms of stupidity cannot be cured, apparently. Dad taught me to balance my checkbook and to always hold onto a little cash in my wallet for emergencies. Often he’d hand me a ten or a twenty “just in case you get low on gas.” After nearly a year of marriage, my husband discovered that I had a fifty-dollar bill tucked behind my drivers license, given to me by my father on the afternoon after our wedding day, just before we pulled out of the driveway to move to Texas. I made the mistake of telling Scott that daddy said it was “bus money if you ever need to come home.” I’m pretty sure he was joking, though.

Scott, undoubtedly tucking a $50 bill into Hannah’s bridal bouquet

You control your reputation. When I first began to date, my father reminded me (among other things), “You dress and behave like a lady, and you’ll always be treated like a lady.” The implication was that my standard of conduct in every area of my life had better remain at the highest level, whether anybody was looking or not. I get teased for being a first-born overachiever, but I couldn’t stand the idea of disappointing either of my parents, who firmly believed that my sisters and I could achieve anything in the world if we functioned on all-out endeavor, creativity, integrity, and humility.

Hannah, age 6, with her daddy

Hannah, age 6, and her daddy, resting up from a church bike rodeo

Do I, as Mayer put it, love like my father? I sure hope so.

As I bring this little essay to a close, I smile, thinking of what my daughter may write about her father one of these days. She’s “daddy’s girl,” too. It has been fun to watch her absorb and practice some of her grandfather’s qualities passed on through my husband (yes, I chose a man in many ways like my father, though he vehemently denies it). And her young husband seems to be cast from the same mold.

So. Hannah, may you look back on a life rhythmic with music and books and family, may you tell stories that are poignant and funny and true. Most of all, may you impact your world with the love of Jesus. This is the fine legacy of a daddy’s girl.

Hannah, Beth and Wayne—We Love Denim

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Early in the fall semester, I began to pray for God to give me some kids to mentor. I listed off the ones I thought might be leadership and asked for confirmation. You know, seniors…soloists…loudmouths… Then forgot all about it in the busyness of day-to-day teaching.

But God did not forget. Sometime in mid-September, I got an email from a parent of a boy I didn’t even know, Taylor Something, who (his enthusiastic mother claimed) was a budding musical genius. He was in the band at LeFlore and played piano in church, and his mother wondered if I would teach him private piano lessons. I answered politely that I didn’t have time for outside lessons because I needed to focus on my choral students, and I sent her to the Mobile Music Teachers website. “That ought to satisfy her,” I thought, mentally dusting my hands.

Then one day a few weeks later, I was sitting at my desk during lunchtime catching up on email while I swallowed a turkey sandwich. Usually I shoo all the students out and lock the choir room door, because I need that thirty minutes of peace like I need air and water. But pretty soon I realized I was hearing a Beethoven sonata coming from the electric piano just outside my office. Loud, crashing chords, rippling scales in octaves. Dang, I must have left the door ajar and somebody came in and turned on the demo. Happened all the time, and it annoyed the heck out of me.

So I got up and stomped to the door, ready to send the intruder back to the cafeteria where he belonged. Sure enough, one of my advanced chorus kids was perched on my stool, watching another very tall, very lanky boy sitting at the piano with his back to me.

“Jaleel, what are you doing in here?” I said mildly. He asks to stay and practice a couple of times a week, and I usually let him because he knows how to keep it soft and jazzy and soothing.

Jaleel looked guilty. “I’m sorry, Mrs. White, I just wanted Taylor to show me this thing, and your door was open.”

It wasn’t until the music stopped that I realized it wasn’t anything I’d heard on the demo before. This was live music. Maybe it wasn’t even Beethoven.

The tall boy looked over his shoulder with a sheepish grin and cut his eyes at Jaleel. “He said you wouldn’t care.” He had on a band jacket, but I didn’t recognize him.

Wait a minute. Taylor. I started to connect dots. “Are you Taylor Travillion? Is your mother a teacher at Holloway?”

“Yes ma’am.” He gave Jaleel an apprehensive look, and Jaleel shrugged.

“Was that you playing that piece?” I demanded. “How did you learn it?”

“Yes ma’am, it was me. I heard it on a video game.” He got up, clearly ready to slink back to the cafeteria—well, as much as a 6’3” string bean can slink.

“Okay, hang on,” I said, looking him over. Neat haircut. Pants that actually fit, belted at the waist, shirttail tucked in. Wooden-beaded cross at his throat. Shy smile. “Y’all can stay,” I said grudgingly. “But Jaleel, go shut the door so nobody else will wander in.”

I went back to my desk, leaving my office door open. Beethoven and email, I thought, relaxing. It could be worse.

The next two nights I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about a kid who could play Beethoven by ear and couldn’t afford piano lessons. I thought about all the things I needed to do at home after school. And I thought about how I’d asked God for disciples.

Dang.

The next time Taylor slipped into the choir room to “borrow the piano for a few minutes,” I shut my eyes and asked him if he’d found a piano teacher yet.

“No ma’am.”

Dang. I braced myself. “How about Wednesday afternoons after school?”

His face lit up like a Christmas tree. “Okay! That’s my only day I don’t have band sectionals.”

The next day I emailed Taylor’s mother to tell her I’d changed my mind, and you would have thought I’d bought him a BMW. Sheesh. One hour a week.

The first time we met for a lesson, I interviewed Taylor to get a feel for how much he already knew. He’s a trumpet player, so the treble clef was familiar—the bass clef, not so much. Strong rhythmic skills, again thanks to years of band. I discovered he liked to improvise and arrange (no big surprise) so I had him take notes on interval and chord qualities—major, minor, perfect, augmented, diminished—and for me, the teacher, it was like meeting an American-speaking native in a foreign country. Finally, somebody who spoke the language of music, fluently and beautifully. Taylor absorbed everything I said, without an eye-roll or yawn, for a solid hour.

Fast-forward six weeks. I now have four piano boys after school on Wednesdays—Taylor, Jaleel, Donavan and Ricardo—and it’s my favorite day of the week. Varying degrees of musical training, but all exceptionally gifted, one in each of the four grades. We’ve already covered the circle of fifths, chord structure and harmony, scale composition, and sight-reading. I find myself dredging up pedagogical techniques used by my high school piano teacher (who is now conducting ballroom dance and baton twirling lessons in heaven, God rest her soul), and now I see that Mrs. Goodman wasn’t quite as crazy as I used to think.

One of the coolest things about my little “master class” is the way these boys feed off competition. Nobody wants to be the last one to figure out the answer to my leading questions. They all want to be first. The intellectual power in the room, the sheer musical giftedness—not to mention the testosterone—is enough to fuel a nuclear reactor. Don’t ask me why there are no girls there. I don’t really care. If God wants them there, they will come.

Another sweet byproduct is that I’m training choral accompanists for the next three years. And these children of the 21st Century have been teaching me how to use the Finale digital arrangement program that has been sitting in my computer for nearly two years (who has time to read a 900-page instruction manual??). Taylor is already writing marching band arrangements, and I fully expect them all to be writing full orchestrations and original choral pieces by the time they graduate.

So am I congratulating myself on developing this trail-blazing piano class? On sacrificing yet another hour a week without pay?

On the contrary, I go to Wednesday night prayer meetings and cast myself face down at the altar, begging God to help me keep up with my students. I feel like I’m dog-paddling in the deep end of the pool, and my floaties just popped. If you know what a pathetic swimmer I am, you’d know just how terrifying that image is. I am scared spitless and exhilarated beyond measure. And I don’t know why I put this out there for the world to read, except to encourage someone else who may be ready to back out of the insanity that is teaching in a public high school.

You’ve got to find where God is working and go there. Do not settle for mediocrity. Do not settle for safe. There are children out there who need a human face and human hands to lead them. And these children will create and foster beauty and teach others who will do the same.

Please, somebody remind me of this tomorrow when I shut and lock my choir room door.


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One of my students showed up early on the first day of school last year. Lights-barely-on early.

 

“Hey, Mrs. White,” said Walter, “this is my cousin Tyleem. He wants to be in choir.”

 

I peered over Walter’s shoulder and saw a skinny little boy dressed in a Freshman-white shirt, neatly pressed khakis, and a big smile. He looked like he’d barely passed the fourth grade. I couldn’t believe his voice had even changed.

 

“How old are you?” I said suspiciously.

 

“Fourteen. I’m small for my age.”

 

I’ll say, I thought. “Were you in choir in middle school?”

 

“No ma’am, but I was in the band. I play the trumpet. And I sing at church all the time.”

 

“He sings real good,” added Walter. “You should hear him.”

 

“All right,” I said, feeling like Simon Cowell, “let’s find a practice room and give you a listen.”

 

Okay, sometimes I’m wrong. The kid sounded like a little bit Michael Jackson, a little bit Stevie Wonder, with a smooth deep lower register and soaring falsetto, dead-on pitch recognition, and decent sight-reading skills. So I emailed the freshman guidance counselor and asked her to change Tyleem’s schedule.

 

Fast forward to November, with Christmas around the corner. I found a gospel/R & B piece called “Baby King” by singer/songwriter Mark Cohn (who also wrote the blockbuster hit “Walking in Memphis”), and when I played the recording for the choir, they went nuts over it. After class that day, the choir president stuck his head into my office on his way out. “You ought to let Tyleem sing that solo. He was up there just goofin’ off and sounded better than the guy on the CD.”

 

This time I knew better than to argue.

 

By the end of the semester, Tyleem had acquired the nickname “Baby King”. Every time we performed that song, something electric would happen between the choir and the audience. In Memphis they call it “mojo.” My buddy Simon calls it the X Factor. Whatever it is, you know it when you hear it. And I was going to have this kid in my choir for three more years.

 

Score.

 

Then one night in early January, Tyleem and some fraternity brothers were coming home after a meeting and ran out of gas on a dark county road. They pushed the car off to the side and started walking toward the nearest gas station. The next thing Tyleem knew, he woke up face down underneath a running vehicle, screaming in pain from the muffler burning his back, and calling for help. Some time later a passerby finally stopped, called 911, and an ambulance arrived.

 

Tyleem was in the hospital for months, recovering from third degree burns. I went to see him as soon as I heard what happened, and had to wade through a crowd of teenage boys to get to him—marching band members, fraternity brothers, church family. I hugged Tyleem’s grandmother, who was sitting on the couch beside the bed, then turned to find a very small pile of boy lying on his side under white sheets.

 

“Mrs. White,” he whispered, “how am I going to learn the choir music this semester?”

 

My eyes teared up. “I’ll bring you a packet of music and a CD.”

 

Well…he didn’t get back to school in time to perform with us very much that semester, but when I announced info about summer show choir camp, Tyleem was the first to sign up. In fact, he was almost the only one to sign up. And I had to drive twenty miles up the interstate to Whistler, Alabama, to pick him up and take him home every day. We did this for two weeks at the beginning of summer for vocal camp, and again two weeks before school started, for choreography camp. We had some great conversations on those long drives. We talked about church and family and horses and cars. And music, of course.

 

One day we were discussing what it takes to be successful as a performer in the music industry. Tyleem could hardly comprehend that I’d chosen to get married, raise children, and teach music, instead of taking the stage.

 

“Mrs. White,” he said, voice and expression dead serious, “I just want to be famous. I know that’s why the Lord saved me in that accident.”

 

“He’s got a plan for you, for sure,” I agreed and told him I wouldn’t be surprised if he someday was famous. “But remember fame and money don’t necessarily bring happiness.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

I fumbled to say what I meant without getting preachy. “People who get famous because of unusual talent are often used by people wanting a ride along with the money. If your feet aren’t grounded in your family and your church and good friends who will tell you the truth, it’s easy to get dragged into habits—destructive habits—and places you’d be embarrassed to be seen in now.” I looked at him. “You’ll be better off chasing after excellence and good character.”

 

“Huh. I hadn’t thought about that.” He looked like he didn’t particularly want to think about it, either.

 

“Just remember who really loves you, Tyleem.”

 

“Yes, ma’am. I will.” He gave me that bright smile again and changed the subject.

 

And we’ve been up and down since then. He won the closing solo in that show choir production and had girls asking for his autograph and phone number afterwards. Which created something of an ego problem—culminating in his math teacher putting on the screws by refusing to let him attend a choral field trip because he was failing geometry.

 

He was dumbfounded when I concurred. “You’re not gonna make her let me go?”

 

“Nope. You don’t go anywhere with me until you have a B in math.”

 

“A B! But I hate math!”

 

“You have to know how to keep track of your finances if you’re going to be a millionaire.”

 

Miraculously Tyleem had an 85 in math at the end of the quarter.

 

And then there was the time he skipped marching band to make up work he’d missed in English. Band directors being notoriously unsympathetic, Mr. Standifer socked Tyleem into retract—in-school suspension. Baby King turned on the charm and talked the retract manager into calling me to ask if he could come to the choir room for an hour to “work on his songs.”

 

“Absolutely not.” I hung up the phone, wondering if Stevie Wonder’s teachers ever wanted to mash him into a greasy spot on the rug.

 

Some days I think I’d like to go back to writing fiction full-time. Stay home with my dog and my computer. Work in my jammies.

 

But then I remind myself that I was specifically steered toward—nay, shoved into—my career as a teacher at LeFlore High School in Mobile, Alabama. I’ll never be famous. But I might just teach someone who will be one day.

 

If you want a great concert, come out to Bellingrath GardensMagic Christmas in Lights on December 1. Meet Baby King in person. Just don’t tell him I called him that.

 

 

 

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The young people in the cover photo with this blog entry are more dear to me than I can say. Six of them are seniors, and my eyes instantly sting when I think about their upcoming graduation. The ten or so missing from the photo—due to scheduling conflicts, family emergencies, and disciplinary issues—are equally part of my heart. The stories I could tell, the lessons I have learned, would fill up an entire year’s worth of Glee episodes. The old maxim that “the more you put into something, the more you get out of it” has become a cliche for a reason. It’s true.

And, as I noted a few months ago in another blog, the more you invest in another person’s life, the more joy and pride explodes when things go well. And the more it hurts when disappointment or separation ruptures the relationship.

Multiply that by forty.

To the right are four of my brightest and best. We had been invited to sing the National Anthem for the Opening Ceremonies of the Mobile Special Olympics. So last week on a cool, perfect spring morning we loaded my little Honda and drove to the  “prep school” side of town. Of course the students were thrilled to be released from classes. But more than that, I saw a blossoming of generosity and humility as they understood they were giving to students less physically and mentally blessed than themselves. I wish I’d had my camera ready to capture the expressions of awe when the four of them looked up as the Coast Guard planes zoomed overhead while they sang “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Truly a grand moment.

A few days later, I arranged to take twenty or so students to a matinee production of Puccini’s Tosca, performed by Mobile Opera at the Civic Center Theater. Gorgeous sets, full live orchestra, $60 seats for $5 (it was the “dress rehearsal,” but I didn’t see a single glitch). Can’t beat a deal like that.

That was the first time I’d seen Tosca, though I was familiar with many of the arias from my undergrad studies at Mississippi State and graduate work at Southwestern Seminary. I missed a lot of the performance, though, because I kept watching my students’ faces as these wonderful professional musicians brought 19th century Italian and French history to life in glorious color, sound and language. During the scene where Tosca lies prostrate, singing her grief and love—from a position in which most of us have difficulty breathing, much less effortlessly zinging out high C’s—I was afraid a couple of my girls might leap onto their chairs and whoop. They managed to maintain dignity, but it was a near thing. Beautiful.

So I would like to take this opportunity to thank a few friends who have invested monetarily in my work with the music students of LeFlore High School this year. You’ll never know until you get to heaven what a difference you’ve made in the lives of young people who will, in turn, make a difference in the lives of others to come after them. Besides the two events mentioned here, I have been able to take students to choral conferences, college scholarship auditions, and arts festivals. I’ve purchased music, CD’s, and small equipment which has put items in their musical toolboxes. I’ve wrestled in prayer over every nickel I spent, because I wanted to make the highest possible impact for good.

I don’t know how else to express my gratitude except to say thank you and God bless you.

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