Once More, With Feeling

by Nancy
Feelings. Emotion. The heart of romance in real life and on the page, right? But they also carry over into so many other endeavors. Acting. Cooking. Music. Mr. Phillips, my high school band director, used to tell us to put some feeling into the music. At 17, not particularly familiar with classical pieces, I found that difficult at first. Then, as we played pieces like “The Marriage of Figaro” again and again, with fewer wrong notes, I did begin to feel it, to have a sense of melody rising and falling, of counter-melody moving through it. So did everyone else, and we got better. Sounded better. And I developed a love of classical music I didn’t have before.
Some of my best high school experiences came from band-related activities–concerts, parades, and trips. Our band was big, so we needed 3 Greyhound-sized buses to go anywhere. One year, on our way back to the school from the big Thanksgiving parade, someone said, “Let’s play our way down the street,” so we hauled out our instruments (except the bass drum and tuba, stored under the bus), stuck ’em out the windows, and started to play. Nutty? Sure. Melodic? Probably depended on where you were standing. Fun. Abso-dadgum-lutely!
I look back on those years now and marvel at Mr. Phillips’ dedication. On a high school teacher’s salary, he taught a disparate group of kids to play complicated musical compositions. He marched beside us in parades, climbed the bleachers with a bullhorn during practice to check halftime show formations, and stood out in the heat with us until we got them right. Mediocre wasn’t good enough, not when we could do better. That’s a life lesson, too.
He arranged opportunities to travel, even if it was only across the state. The University of North Carolina used to host something called Band Day, inviting high school bands from the Carolinas to Chapel Hill for a football game. They sent everyone the same musical pieces to prepare ahead of time and, on game day, roped off the letters “UNC” in the field’s center. Then they filled the entire rest of the field with high school band members, erected stands for the conductors so every musician could see one, and made us the halftime show. Band Day was the first time I heard the phrase at which graduates of other schools scoff, “If God is not a Tar Heel, why is the sky Carolina blue?”
Clearly, Mr. Phillips had a passion for his subject and for his students that showed in everything he did. So did my Latin teacher, Mrs. Brown. Bringing ancient Rome alive takes some doing, but she accomplished that. So much so that when the dh and I first traveled in England, I was desperate to see Hadrian’s Wall, the barrier Emperor Hadrian built across the North to keep out the warring Picts. A fanciful version of the wall (and of the Picts or “Woad”) appears in the recent King Arthur film. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote a wonderful YA historical novel, Eagle of the Ninth, about the massacre of Rome’s Ninth Legion by the Picts north of the wall.
The dh and I had one afternoon to see this marvel of Roman construction, which apparently contributed much of the cut stone for buildings in nearby Hexham. We had to park some distance away, cross a pasture and then climb a hill to get to it. The day was overcast, wind blowing so hard birds couldn’t fly and whipping our jackets around us and our hair into our faces. Rain sprinkled on us.

As we trudged across the pasture, heads down to fight the wind, he said, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

I nodded. “This is the closest I’ve ever been to something the Romans built. You can wait in the car if you want, but I’m going up there.”

“Okay, then. If you’re going, I’m going, too,” he said, in true romance hero fashion.

As we struggled up the hill in the wind, discussing the unpleasantness of being stationed there in the winter, a thunderous, ground-shaking sonic boom roared out of the clouds like the voice of Mars, the Roman god of war. It was way freakin’ cool, a real goose bumps moment, and worth being a little damp. (We later learned there was an RAF base nearby, so we figured a low-flying fighter had added to the ambiance.). If not for Mrs. Brown, I never would’ve bothered to seek out the wall. The dh and I would’ve missed that priceless moment.
Now I’m a teacher, too. The fall semester is starting, and the spring semester evaluations just came back. As usual, most students didn’t have much to say, a few seriously disliked something about my approach, and a few were even enthusiastic. Of course, they occasionally write strange things. For example: (Question) “What is your opinion of the course materials?” (Answer) “Boring, but others might like them.” (My reaction) “So other people might like being bored?” Or: (Question) “What does that instructor do that contributes to or hinders the success of the class for you?” (Answer, not indicating whether this helped or hindered) “She had already read all the books we covered.” (My reaction) “I should hope so!”

The evaluations that mean the most to me, though, are ones that say, “Ms. Northcott has a passion for the subject that gets the class interested” or “She is enthusiastic about teaching this topic.” Along with being told I made a student think of something in a new way, I consider that the highest praise I can receive. The luxury of teaching part-time, the compensation for the pittance I earn, is that I get to teach classes I really care about. I’m glad that comes through to the students and that they respond to it. Looking back, I realize I also responded to my teachers’ enthusiasm, even though I didn’t realize it at the time.

What about you? What teachers do you remember having a passion for their subjects? What subjects or activities are you passionate about?

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