Thursday, December 24, 2009

Let Us Praise - Teachers

In a town where classical composers were called 'those long hairs' and where high school graduation was considered the ultimate academic achievement, Elizabeth 'Betty' Jerles ignored circumstance and possibly common sense and taught music. She taught my Uncle Collins music. She taught my mother music. She taught my brother music. She taught me music. And she was still teaching music when I returned to stand for a class picture as a teacher on the same steps and practically in the same position I stood as a first grader. Mrs. Jerles cowed her students and the school administrators and possibly the entire little Arizona town of Wickenburg into believing that a bunch of seemingly hick kids could not only attend and endure symphonies but could, with patience and frequent stern looks, appreciate pieces they would never in their wildest imaginings hear in their own homes. Through out her long career she never lost energy or focus or passion.
For example -- She provided free of charge after school private piano lessons. I studied with her even though my family had no piano. No piano? That seemed a trivial blip on the radar scope of her enthusiasm. She gave me a card board mock up of a piano keyboard and told me to sing the notes as I practiced. She then invited me to come to her home any time to practice on her piano. I became the best cardboard piano player in Arizona. I know because she told me and even though I had little competition in that particular niche, I felt accomplished and excited and special.
For example -- Each Halloween she and her elderly mother (with whom she lived during my childhood) asked every trick or treater to sign their guest book. Then both Mrs. Jerles and her mother made much of guessing what student cowered behind each mask even though they probably knew who we were before we even rang the door bell. Both she and her mother knew how to make a fuss.
For example -- Every December she mounted a Christmas production open to the community. The first half of the production was a play. One year I was an angel in Hansel and Gretel. During a final rehearsal Patty Purdy turned to say something to me and instead vomited all over my costume and most of me. After making sure Patty Purdy received appropriate medical attention, Mrs. Jerles turned to me and while wiping whatever meal had just escaped from Patty assured me that shows must always go on. And so that show went on without, for obvious reasons, Patty Purdy. The second half of the presentation was all Christmas music and featured those of us who had just performed in the play. After all, her talent pool was pretty small. Off went the wings and on went the robes. I was convinced that our little rag tag choir produced the richest, fullest music ever heard. I'm pretty sure most of the people who attended thought the same thing. Of course, the evening ended with the Hallelujah Chorus.
The moment Mrs. Jerles stood to direct her choir in that final piece, the entire audience also stood. And there, the tallest, was my father, his hat off and held to his chest and his face almost as stern as that of Mrs. Jerles. We were amazing. As a teacher I stood in the back of the auditorium and listened to a final rehearsal of the Chorus. The choir didn't sound quite as astonishing as I remembered but still and all it sounded pretty impressive.
And a final example -- I really liked Mrs. Jerles. I wanted to give her a gift to show her how much I appreciated all that she did for me. I was in the second grade when I presented her the finest gift I could imagine. We'd just finished round up on my father's ranch and with the gift already planted in my mind, I had saved all the tips of the ear marked calves. My gift to her was a bag full of those retrospectively revolting calf ear tips. I couldn't wait for her to open her gift. When she did her eyes behind her thick glasses did blink a few times and then she just looked at me, smiled, and said, "How thoughtful. Thank you so much."
Let us praise teachers. They don't come into our lives very often.

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