Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

Guest blogging today at More To Life Magazine! Where life intersects fiction…People ask me all the time, “Where did the idea for the novel come from?” Well here’s the truth….


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Beth 1/1/18

I’m supposed to be composing fresh material for untitled Book Two of The Daughtry House series, so of course I’m going to spend the last afternoon of 2017 doing something else. My children and grandchildren have vacated the house for their own pursuits, leaving me a little melancholy and reflective. Which, I guess, is how you’re supposed to feel on the last day of the year. To ward off the blues, I’m eating sweet potato fries with ranch dressing, one of my favorite things on the planet (right up there with banana pudding)—one of the many tricks I learned from my daughter this year. She’s handy that way.

Also I’m waiting for my toenail polish to dry so I can put on my socks, and my feet are cold. But, you know, priorities.

This has been a very strange year. Second year of a new teaching job, which basically means the honeymoon is over. Everything is upside down and reality sets in. A classroom in a more than fifty-year-old building has collected its share of peeling paint, resident rodents, arthritic air-conditioning units, and 1970’s-era television sets in the closet. Teenagers act like teenagers, grownups say the wrong thing and refuse to back down, and policy makers create paperwork. Teaching is no different from any job in the universe. It’s just all packed into 10 months of the year.

I have nothing to complain about. In fact, I’m blessed beyond measure to have a front-row seat to watch young artists take leaps and fly. To see the “Oh, I get it” look in an intelligent pair of eyes. To reap the fruit of laughter and camaraderie where hurt feelings and anger had threatened to take root.

Back to the strange part. I wrote A Rebel Heart this year, turning it in in early August (a full year after its original due date). Started over three times, and pretty much hated it until I was in the last chapter, which is not the ideal way to tackle a book. Of course I now love it, and the fact that it was so emotionally draining is a good sign. At least I hope so. The Reconstruction Era in American history was a defining time, a confusing time, a forgotten time. I learned a lot, winced a lot, and found some heroes I never knew existed. I hope my readers will be challenged and uplifted. I hope they’ll identify with my hero and heroine. We’ll see.

Then there’s my journey with personal discipline. I read through most of a Chronological Bible. Mainly I just chugged it every day without trying to contemplate too much. But I did find pieces winding themselves into my everyday walk, often informing and explaining and smoothing the quandaries in which I’d find myself. Or creating mysteries for further contemplation.

And I continued into a second year of daily exercise and balanced nutrition. I found this system in June of 2016 through the examples of my two youngest sisters. I’m a notorious lazy-butt, but the physical energy and general sense of emotional chill that settled on my undisciplined life made a believer out of me. Beachbody.com, if anybody is interested. I started with 21 Day Fix and have moved on from there. Really, habits matter. I lost 25 pounds and 3 dress sizes. I’m 60 years old, and this is the best I’ve ever felt in my life. Yes, it’s a sacrifice to get to bed by 9 PM and get up by 4:30 AM to work out for 30 minutes before work. But the alternative is unthinkable. Seriously. People ask me how I get everything done, so there you go.

Next day…Here we are in 2018! I look at my calendar for the year, already largely planned, and it’s frankly overwhelming. I’ll finish Daughtry House Book Two at the same time I’m launching The Rebel Heart. I’ll assist in producing a high school musical. I’ll take students to All State Chorus, County Honor Choir, Show Choir, State Choral Performance Assessment, and Solo and Ensemble. I’ll keep up with a variety of family and church events and activities and hopefully read a few good books.

Some of that will go smoothly, perhaps even brilliantly, but I always brace myself for the unexpected. The weird. The disastrous. The joyous.

Bring it on!

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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.


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.”


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.


MJ Tribute Publicity Shot – Brady far left in red hat


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.


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


Finally Front Row


“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.


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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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.


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.




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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I wish my teaching experience could be all beaming smiles like those of my beautiful Advanced Chorus ladies in the photo above….

Unfortunately, the knuckleheads have to come to school, too. And they have to have a Fine Arts credit. And they get stuck in my beginning chorus class. And it’s fourth block, the wrap-up to the day. Erg.

So here’s the ridiculous thing that happened yesterday.

There’s this boy and girl in the beginner class, neither of whom possess one iota of interest in singing. Nothing unusual. But not too long after the semester started they decided they couldn’t live without each other, and it became progressively more difficult to keep them from breeding more morons right in the chorus room. And before you start throwing rocks at the teacher, remember I’ve got 12 practice room/studios off the main room, and at least half the locks are broken on the doors. I do what I can, but the CIA I am not.

Three days ago I noticed the two of them actually sitting on opposite sides of the room without being ordered to do so. Hmm. Strange. And then yesterday all heck broke loose. I’d disbanded rehearsal and asked the students to put away their books and folders (normal procedure) while I shut down the electric piano and stowed equipment. I heard a little bit of a ruckus in the back of the room behind the risers, which didn’t disturb me much—it’s a loud, rowdy class.

But the rumble grew to a roar, so I rounded the risers to see what was going on. There were my two lovebirds, Darryl and Shanquita, in a double headlock, with the two biggest boys in choir trying unsuccessfully to pull them apart. Hair pulling, dreadlocks flying, profanity that would singe your scalp. How could a love so right go so wrong?

Needless to say, we called for administrators, the two combatants were suspended, and classtime today was eerily peaceful. Hoo-boy.

Well, I press on.

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