For me, it was Myra Koehler. And I wondered when I took my older son’s hand in mine for that walk on the first day of first grade—and again, when my younger son and I took that same walk three years later: Who would be their Myra Koehler?
Miss Koehler taught my first- and second-grade classes at Hawthorne Elementary School in Oak Park. She was the teacher for me. The one who left an imprint on my life and my heart.
Why? Maybe it was the flower on her desk. It seemed to always be there.
Maybe it was her determination: Of course, we would learn to read. Reading was a doorway to other lives, other worlds. Some might take longer than others, but that was fine. Failure was not.
She drove us. But it was how and why she drove us. None of us could put it into words back then. But we knew we were loved and respected.
Of course we wouldn’t fail. Why would we when we were such wonderful people?
She believed in words, so I did, too. It’s why I write.
Myra was gracious but never seemed to want to talk much. Nor did she want to hear thank you. There was no point. After all, it was not about her, it was about the children.
And when she looked at you, you were the world.
Throughout my life, I have remembered Myra when I needed someone to believe in me. I have gone back to that classroom in my mind, sat at my desk in the second to the last row from the door, fourth seat in, looked at the tempera paintings curling at the edges on the counter, scanned her desk in front of the class and seen Myra’s lovely face, surrounded by her perfectly coiffed graying hair, smiling at me.
Somehow, remembering her smile made the world right again.
Who, I wondered, would be my sons’ Miss Koehler?
Both my boys were lucky enough to start playing instruments in elementary school. The older boy plays trombone and the younger plays trumpet. Their elementary school music teachers were magical—but because instruction was only once a week, it just never took.
Then, they went to Percy Julian Middle School, where Ellen Holleman teaches music and also heads the school district’s music program. She is an award-winning music teacher. But really she is a force of nature.
When she stands in front of these students, she uses every bit of her diminutive frame to coax music out of them. She believes in the music, and she believes in them.
She has given music to both my boys. For my older boy: He knows music will be his livelihood. But both of them, no matter what they do, will take her passion for music with them their whole lives. Ellen is their Myra.
Ellen is retiring. She doesn’t want to talk about it. It’s not that important. After all, the kids will keep coming next year, and there still will be music.
Some of the older kids wrote letters to Ellen. (I asked my older son if I could quote his. “This is meant for me and Ms. Holleman, Mom,” he told me at first. But later changed his mind.) And my older son wrote: “Had it not been for you, I would never have even considered being a musician. Now, thanks to my experiences with you as my conductor, I want nothing more than to be a professional trombone player. ... Your enthusiasm was so invigorating I hardly even noticed that I sucked, until, more and more, with your help, I didn’t. ...
“But you didn’t stop there. You exposed me to all sorts of new experiences in music. For instance, if you hadn’t locked me in the practice room and forced me to audition for jazz band, I would likely have never played a note of jazz in my life; and what fun it was to play ‘Jungle Boogie’ while watching you dance with that tambourine.”
You can’t touch so many lives and expect them to leave you in peace. So, there was a surprise goodbye for Ellen the other night. After the band concert, Ellen went to the gym for the normal reception, where more than 600 students and parents were waiting for her. Big red signs on the wall read, “Thank you,” “We’ll miss you” and “Ms. Holleman’s Opus.”
The high school band teacher, Scotty Jones, stood ready to conduct more than 70 students who came back to say thank you. More than 50 middle schoolers stood ready, instruments in hand, to join in for the finale.
There was a brief tribute in words, but not many. Because, said Phil Ellman, father of Lucas and Nicholas, “We know the last thing you’d ever want is for anyone to make a fuss over you.” Besides, it wasn’t about words, it was about music. And it wasn’t about the adults, it was about the kids.
So, the thank-you notes shook the gym and Ellen danced, as the young musicians ripped through a lifetime of music.
Including “Jungle Boogie.”
Ellen Holleman, surprised at her concert.
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