Thursday, December 31, 2009

Should I feel guilty?

I found out today that a teacher of mine from high school passed away. Of course, I feel sad, because I always feel sad when someone I know dies. The uncomfortable part is that, well, I didn't really like her all that much. I don't like to speak ill of the dead. It just isn't proper or polite. But, being dead doesn't mean you were always nice, fair, and good. Just because you have passed on, doesn't mean everyone you meet suddenly remembers only the fond things about you and forgets everything else.

I guess I am not proper or polite. I don't wish to offend any of the people who loved her dearly. The following isn't so much about her, but how I saw things back then and how they affect my life today.

High school is a very important part of a person's life. The social dynamics of who's who and the pecking order that falls out of it is something that will always linger with you whether you liked it or not. For the popular, they might use the confidence they gained and become great in their future lives. Or maybe they will trip and fail, wallowing in the disappointment that High School was the best they ever had and ever will have. The Underdog might become a CEO of a major corporation in a fabulous display of "Look What I Did!" They might also choose to live their lives in the shadow of the shame or embarrassment of always being picked last for the team or missing out on Homecoming Queen.

That isn't who I want to be. I am not trying to sound like that crazy old lady that can't get past her school aged days and constantly blames all her problems on "That One Teacher." Ms. Volk was my choir teacher for three out of the four years I was in high school. That meant I saw her more than I saw any other teacher and because of that, she was able to make a pretty big impact on my daily life. Ms. Volk was not the only teacher that influenced me and she wasn't even really the strongest. I'm sure she had good reasons for making the choices she did. I just wish she could have been more up-front about it.

She wasn't an awful person to me or most people. She was an extraordinary teacher. Of that, there is no doubt at all. I just didn't get along with her and I always got the impression that I was a nuisance and a bother to her. I really wanted to sing more than anything back then. I thought I was pretty good at it, even. I loved performing with a choir, too, and reading music, and listening to music. (Mozart's Requiem still gives me goosebumps to this day.) I don't think she ever saw me that way, though. 

She was extremely driven and always had been from what she told us. She wanted us to sound the best that we could and occasionally that meant asking someone to mouth the words during a particular song or maybe just sing very quietly, please. If she had ever asked that of me, I would have known where I stood with her and I would have quietly changed my schedule to Home Ec. or something and been done with it. She never mentioned anything much to me, though. I never knew if I was simply a mediocre singer or if she just didn't care enough to comment.

Ms. Volk took over from another teacher just after the start of my sophomore year. (As would be expected, there was much talk about why he left, but no confirmation so I can't really say why.) Under our previous teacher our choir did "okay" in competition and we always "looked good" on stage. But, when Ms. Volk took over she ran things completely differently. She took  managed to take "okay" and turn it into "outstanding." We got sweepstakes at UIL that year and had more students placed in the State Choir than any other school, from what I remember. There was actually some serious trouble that year when the judges found out that she had written previously some of the sight reading pieces that were used for the competition. None of us had seen any of the pieces before and none of us would have dreamed of actually trying to cheat for the sake of a high score, but the judges thought it was awfully strange that we did so well all of the sudden when we barely made a wave before. Basically, the choir did so much better under her tutelage that no one believed it was possible. All charges were dropped against her and us and we kept our Sweepstakes scores after all, but I think she tried extra hard after that to be both transparent to all the judges and superior as a teacher.

So, there is an amazing amount of evidence that she was fantastic as a choir director. I also know that many of her students have wonderful memories of her and of her work. I am so glad that she made such a positive impact on those students. I know several students completely bloomed under her. I also must state that there was an amazing amount of raw talent present that she inherited from the previous teacher. It is a testament to her skill that she was able to use that talent to such great success.

Unfortunately, I was neither a member who owned the "raw talent" nor did I bloom very much. In fact, by the time I graduated, I was pretty bitter about the whole experience. Part of me wants to get really irate and scream about how mean she was to me. That wouldn't be fair, though. I can't say she was actually mean, just rather indifferent. In a choir filled with lots of drama and social dynamics, I felt like I was just not a part of the whole picture.  I never made it into the advanced level choir, called A Capella. Everyone else that started in the beginner choir was eventually moved up except for me. I can't deny that I was very hurt about that. I guess I took it personally. I had done very well in choir before she became my teacher but apparently I wasn't up to her level of talent. I felt as if I was ignored and passed over for some reason that I could never figure out. Maybe she felt that I didn't work hard enough to warrant being with the more serious and talented singers. Maybe she thought I didn't practice enough, or that I didn't learn fast enough. Maybe it had nothing to do with me? Perhaps she just figured that my last choir teacher didn't advance me for a good reason and left it at that. Did I really suck as a singer? Was there a personal issue I needed to deal with that prevented me from being A Capella material? Whatever reasons she had, she never shared them with me.

After I didn't make it to the advanced choir my third year, I started working extra hard to show her that I was "worthy." Then, she assigned me the office of "Librarian" for the beginning choir. What should have been an honor and a sign that I was both mature and reliable felt more like a slap in the face to me. It was as if I was being told that I was not good enough to be considered a singer, but I didn't have the intelligence to figure it out on my own. Here was this "job" to keep me busy since I couldn't sing, but I was obviously going to persist in being a part of the choir. Maybe that wasn't the idea she was trying to get across. I couldn't say. I was 16 and deeply swayed by my teen aged cynicism. I was heartbroken that I wasn't considered "quality" in the one talent I felt I had.
Hindsight being 20/20, I can see several opportunities that I passed up that would have most likely changed her opinion of me. I missed a few performances, which was simply the worst thing to do in the eyes of your teacher. They weren't my fault, but that really couldn't make a difference. I attended all that I was able to but didn't actually sing at most of them. Every time there was an event, it seemed like I got a cold and a sore throat and then I lost my voice just in time for the actual show. It actually got worse each year. Maybe it was psychosomatic, that I was afraid of actually performing.

My senior year my fellow classmates elected me President of the choir. It was not much of a boost to me. There was only one other senior in our class by then, and usually it was one of the oldest girls who was elected. I just couldn't help taking it personally at that point. As President I can't say I did very much. I don't actually remember having any duties other than when the teacher was out I was supposed to help run everyone through practicing. That really wasn't as important as it sounded. It made me very unpopular when she wasn't around, probably because I didn't have the social finesse to be in charge and get respect at the same time. I suppose it was a "learning" time for me.

 I was going through a tough time at home and in my social life, and I had a flair for the dramatic. It could be that I just annoyed the hell out of her. I was never extremely popular, though, I did have plenty of friends. Maybe she felt I wouldn't be a good fit because of that. All I know is that I felt so isolated and left out. All my classmates were learning real music and I was stuck being the top of the lower heap. I really stopped caring whether she liked me or not. I figured I must not be a very good singer and I was pretty lame for not taking a hint sooner than that.

I felt back then, and I still do, that maybe if I had been given a small chance, an opportunity to succeed, perhaps I would have done much better. If I had been given a small boost of confidence or even a compliment, I think I might have done things much differently.  If I felt that working hard would actually had paid off I would have bent over backwards to do what I need to do. When I did work hard it seemed to have no effect at all. A little support and even constructive criticism would have gone so far. Singing was the only thing I really wanted to do but I couldn't work hard enough to succeed at it. That can be a hard thing to overcome.

I can't say that this has ruined my life. I have a wonderful husband (which would have really surprised her, I think.) I have three beautiful daughters, all of whom are artists in their own way (I have a visual artist, a dancer, and musician.) My life is filled with blessings every day. I have not lost my love for music one bit. I have, however, lost any confidence I once had in singing. Many of my friends from school have gone on to be performers or music teachers or both. Karaoke is apparently great fun, and I should really try it some time. The thought of signing in front of anyone other than my kids makes me kind of want to throw up, though. I once tried to get back into the singers' way of things, but I haven't sung with a choir in several years now. I often sing in the car, but that is as close to a public performance as I get.

I don't blame Ms. Volk for destroying my self esteem. If I didn't cultivate my musical skill it falls on my shoulders and no one else. The decision to let something like this guide my life or to get past it is no one's choice but mine. I have to admit, though, that I still feel a little hurt about the whole choir experience. I'm sure I'm taking this too personally. After all, there were literally hundreds of other students that this teacher had to teach and I was just one, and obviously not the most promising one at that. I can't help but feel shuffled aside though. It makes me sad that I probably will never sing in front of people, like I wanted. But, I refuse to be that person who sings poorly and doesn't know it and no one is confident or rude enough to tell her.

This is a lousy obituary for someone who affected and guided so many students throughout her career. Regardless of my personal opinion, I hope her family will find peace and I am sorry for their loss. May she rest in peace. 

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