Sunday, January 9, 2011

Like you Mean it

Dear Delilah,

School is still several years away for you, but your father and I started discussing your education before you were even born. Would we send you to public school? What about Waldorf education? What is Montessori all about? We haven't made the final call yet, but one thing is certain, your future will be filled with teachers. Some of those teachers will be in a school setting, some will be in extra- or co-curricular activities, and still others will be friends, family members, and other trusted individuals. Some of these teachers you'll love, and some you'll detest. Some will challenge you while others annoy you. You'll remember some by name, some by the subject they taught, and some by random details like the scent they wore or that weird string of drool they always had in the corner of their mouth.

I've had a plethora of instructors in my day, and every one of them left a lasting impact on me in one way or another. I remember the way my kindergarten teacher pronounced the word "gums" as "gooms", and that she was very thorough in her lesson teaching us how to check for lice. I recall that even at 6 years old, it struck me as nonsensical that my 1st grade teacher sent me to the library to re-do the math problems I'd gotten wrong, 10 times over for each of the 10 problems I'd made errors on. It seemed to me it would be more logical to remain with the class and avoid multiplying my confusion about arithmetic. Maybe that's why I lack confidence in my ability to excel in math courses to this day!

There was the 2nd grade teacher who loved ladybugs, and the 5th grade teacher who lived in a house with giant solar panels on it in the next neighborhood over. This was long before "going green" was the hip thing to do, and it fascinated me that the sun helped to power his house. I remember the 6th grade art teacher who brought his snake to school, and the middle school choir teacher with the sweaty armpits. I could go on for days about memories of my numerous high school teachers, but there's one that stands out in the crowd.

Growing up, I wasn't the best student. I thought homework was mostly a waste of time and that most of the subjects required in high school would have no practical application in real life. Since I was a wise and capable teenager who knew everything I'd ever need to know, I didn't try very hard in school. I always dreaded the day my report card arrived in the mail, filled with comments about how I didn't work up to my potential, how I was smart but not motivated, and how I could easily bring my 'C's and 'D's up to 'A's if only I'd apply myself. Also, I talked too much and listened too little. Some things never change.

There was but one beacon in a sea of "You're not trying hard enough." Mr. Esser. He directed the Robed Choir and Show Choir I sang in. He gave no reports that I was giving any less than 100%, because he accepted no less than 110%. At times, pulling my best out of me was like, well, pulling teeth, but he never backed away from the challenge.

In my weekly voice lessons, he drove me crazy. Always stopping and making me start over again. "What do those two p's mean?" he'd ask. "Pianissimo." "And what does Pianissimo mean you're supposed to do?" He prodded further. "Sing very quietly!" (phew, I knew that one!") "So why are you singing so loud? Start over." "Where?" "The beginning."

Mr. Esser did not tolerate excuses. I remember in one voice lesson, working on Puccini's 'O Mio Babbino Caro', when he stopped me after I'd barely gotten the first phrase out. "Start over. Sing it like you mean it." I started over. Again, the piano fell silent. "Why are you smiling? Do you have any idea what this song is about?" I thought that was a pretty stupid question. Of course I didn't know what it was about. It was in Italian. I don't speak Italian. He dismissed me from my lesson and sent me to the library to translate the song. I was to return the following week with the translation written out, in my own handwriting, and sing it like I meant it. I learned that meant to sing it like a woman who was willing to die if her father wouldn't permit her to have her love, not with a phony smile plastered on my face.

His starting and stopping and his disdain for excuses was not reserved for private lessons. If a cheerleader's throat hurt because she'd been shouting her cheers at the game last night, he'd tell her to go on voice rest in choir practice, and in cheerleading practice, too. If her fellow cheerleaders weren't expected to pick up her slack, nor should her fellow altos or sopranos be.

He had no qualms about holding the whole choir up if one section wasn't holding their own. In show choir rehearsal, he'd stop the whole show if one person's arm was being sloppily thrown about instead of hitting the precise angles expected. Of course, he was nothing if not fair, and he'd also stop the show if something went exactly the way he wanted it to, to make us do it again just like that.

I'll never forget the night when his frustration was coming to a head. The stopping and starting was unbearable. We weren't performing to his expectations. There wasn't enough "show" in show choir. Stop. From the top. Again. From the top. I didn't like the song we were working on. I was in the back row, and I was certain that no one could see me back there, so I didn't bother upping the energy the first few times he stopped us. Finally, I got so fed up that I started sarcastically over-exaggerating every move, every smile, and every jazz hand. He stopped us again. All I could think was "WHAT NOW?" and what came out of his mouth next was the last thing I expected:

"Joella, that is the best I've ever seen you perform, and I don't ever want to see less effort than that from you again."

These days, I usually maintain the notion that anything worth doing is worth giving my all. I don't do things half-way. If I'm going to write a paper, it's going to be an 'A' paper. If I'm going to bake cookies, they will be from scratch, and they will be delicious. And if I'm going to sing a song, I'm going to find out what it's truly about, and I'm going to sing it like I mean it.

Mr. Esser played a part in the determined, tenacious, driven, potential-living-up-to woman I am today. He made me bonkers, but he made a difference. He was not content to let me slide by, doing the bare minimum, all the while complaining that I wasn't living up to my potential. He set the bar high, and when I was just about to hit it, he raised it. He had faith in me. He saw what I was capable of, and he accepted nothing less.

You'll have many teachers in your lifetime. I have no doubt that you'll learn something from each of them, whether it is their intended lesson or not. I hope that you'll have a Mr. Esser to drive you as crazy as mine drove me, and to challenge you to not only reach but surpass your 'potential'. Just in case you don't have a Mr. Esser to call your own, I'll do my best to impart to you the most important lesson he taught me. Whatever you do in this life, do it all the way. Do it with passion. Find your song in this world. Sing it like you mean it.



-- This letter to Delilah was written in concert with Teaching Ain't for Heroes' Best Teacher Blogshare. To join in, simply post an entry dedicated to the best teacher you've had by January 12th and link to it in the comments of her blogshare entry. If you don't have a blog but would like to participate, you can share your story right in the comments!

 If you like this blog, and haven't already done so, please vote for 'Dear Delilah, Fine and Fair' on Babble's" Top 50 Mom Blogs. Thanks for your support!


  1. Joella-
    Wow. What an amazing read and how it took me back! I'm a music teacher, and I've always referenced Mr. Esser as the reason I became one. It was special to read what I always knew...but had somehow forgotten the details of. I knew he made a difference in my life but could never put my finger on "how". When I hit hard times with my students and am asking myself "What would Mr. Esser do," I somehow can never reach the potential I want in myself or for my students. My students always complain that "nothings' ever good enough for you"...perhaps I'm more like him than I thought! THank you for sharing with the world what we've known since high school - we wouldn't be us without him! Thank you for re-inspiring me as a teacher too...sometimes we need to remember the impact we are making!
    - Katie Wanek Rathe

  2. I think you should look Mr. Esser up and send this entry to him. I really think he'd appreciate it :)


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