Monday, June 21, 2010

Jonel Cares

I am very big on naming things that are dear to me. For example, cars, laptops, teddy bears.

J.C., or Jonel Cares, is the name of my viola.

I got my viola when I was in 8th grade, since in 8th grade, I made the complete decision that I wanted to be an orchestra teacher. (We all know how that went). My dad was awesome and invested the money into it, though I only ended up actively playing it only two more years after that, neither of them consecutive.

The main reason why I wanted to be an orchestra teacher was because of my orchestra teacher. I had a wonderful teacher. Ms. Slack. Imagine Reese Witherspoon with less of a chin, dark hair, and occasionally wearing a Dave Matthews Band t-shirt. That was Ms. Slack. She came to our orchestra when I was in seventh grade, following on the tail end of Mrs. Edwards long and now retiring career. Mrs. Edwards took her self-written beginners books and teaching methods away with her, and we found ourselves with a completely different way of teaching. It was so foreign to many students that they immediately hated her, but I loved Ms Slack right at the start. She was so jubilant, so full of ideas and vivacity and idealism, like all new teachers are. She encouraged us all, challenged us, let us learn "gig" pieces and wanted to take us on tour and on field trips. And she had originally been a violist, like me, and I thought that was awesome.

At one point during the two years I had her, she decided to have us all write essays for an orchestra magazine none of us had ever heard of, about how music has influenced us. I wrote up something sweet, something I knew the magazine would like, in hopes of winning, and I said I really wanted to be an orchestra teacher. Writing this essay was the first time I remember wanting to. Miss Slack read it, and was absolutely ecstatic about it. I thought it was amazing how much she believed in me, so much that I believed in myself, and I decided, yeah, that's what I wanted to do.

So she took me under her wing.

Despite the fact she was poorly paid and overworked, she offered to private tutor me one day a week after school, as long as I stayed after another day to help her organize the incredible mess of filing cabinets the last teacher left behind. She encouraged me to try out for regionals, even though I didn't think I could do it. I almost didn't, but I ended up trying out last-minute, sight-reading the songs I needed to do, and I got in. She tutored me even during the summer months, and even drove me to the summer arts thing I was a student in (and she was a teacher in) afterward. She once bought me a sandwich from Baggins, a wonderful shop here in town, and I loved it, even though it had weird foods on it.

But it wasn't just all that that was amazing.

8th grade.... was an awful year for me.

After years of being underwhelmed and bored in "normal" education classes, I had finally managed to pass the test and get into the "gifted" classes.... and ended up a total and complete outcast. I wasn't skinny and pretty. I wasn't rich and fashionable. It had taken me until 8th grade to get in, and this meant that I was "stupid" (when in all actuality, I had only taken the test twice before that -- if I'd done it yearly, I probably would've gotten in sooner). Some of my classmates wouldn't even let me cast out ideas or share my papers in our essay groups, because they immediately discounted everything I did or said. We once had to come up with our own bill for congress to pass, and I said I thought it should be required for students to take music classes. They shut me up before I had explained the second bullet point of proof. They chose the marijuana legislation instead...

My best friend left me out of jealousy. She hated that I'd gotten into the GATE program and she hadn't. Anytime I brought it up, she (and her grandmother) thought I was rubbing it in her face. I would ask Aidan if she would be going on the field trip I was going on, because when I had been in part-time like she currently was, I had. It turned out she wasn't going on the field trip, and it apparently sounded like I was being conniving and smug about it. In all reality, I just wanted a friend to sit with.

When Aidan left, she took all of my friends with her.

So I was alone.

I was alone in my classes. I was alone outside my classes.

But I had Miss Slack, and that was pretty awesome.

Honestly, if Miss Slack hadn't done what she did for me, I may not have lived passed my 14th birthday. 8th grade triggered my first serious bout of depression, but it wasn't so bad when she was around, encouraging me and thinking the world of me. I even made a place in my room that I could sit and hide from everyone, with some papers on the wall reminding me of her, and reminding me that at least someone cared.

I just felt the side of my desk where those were. There's still some crispy corners of tape from where it all used to be. I wonder what I did with all that.

Because she had been so wonderful to me, I decided that I would name my viola after her. She helped me pick it out, after all.

Her first name was Jonel, so I named it something that I needed to remember when I felt down -- Jonel Cares.

Why am I talking about all of this now?

I was going through one of my dresser drawers tonight, on the side that had long been considered the "junk" side, where I would always shove anything I couldn't find a spot to while doing the dreaded chore of "cleaning my room." I found a notebook that I could recognize easily as being from either 8th or the beginning of 9th grade, by the angry scratches I had tore in the front cover with a mechanical pencil. I flipped through it, just kinda casually, and saw a spot where I had indented, like a quote. It jumped out at me, and I turned back to it.

"People who have given up are ruled by their darkest mistakes, worst failures, and deepest regrets. If you want to be successful, then be governed by your finest thoughts, your highest enthusiasm, your greatest optimism, and your most triumphant experiences. - John C. Maxwell."

My eyes welled up with tears as I read that, and I knew from the first two words why this was in my notebook.

It was a letter Miss Slack had given me, at the very end of 8th grade year, along with a Student of the Month award, only one of two I ever got my whole middle school career, both of them at the end of 8th grade (since in the dumb classes the teachers only ever reward the dumb kids who've suddenly shown promise, and in the smart classes the teachers only reward perfection). I have no idea where the original letter is now, which makes me incredibly sad, but I'm sure it had once graced the side of my desk where the empty tape now stands.

Fortunately, and amazingly, I had rewritten the entire letter, word for word, in my notebook.

I will try not to cry too much as I write it. (Although to be truthfully honest, I've been tearing up this whole time).

Dear Megan,

I want you to know that I am very proud of all your efforts and perseverance.

I also want you to know that I am aware that you have interests and pastimes that many of your peers think strange. Just remember that those interests and pastimes" (okay, I'm already crying) "help to make you the wonderful young woman you are! I know that you will always stay true to yourself, even when others mock, tease or try to harm you. That you have already experienced so much of that and remain true to your essence shows your incredible strength and fortitude." (I'd had to look this word up, because I wrote "strength" in parentheses next to it).

Remember to look for people who support you and like you for who you are. Surround yourself with successful people of integrity, and you will have lots of support.

You are a great example of living as the quote below tells us to live:

People who have given up are ruled by their darkest mistakes, worst failures, and deepest regrets. If you want to be successful, then be governed by your finest thoughts, your highest enthusiasm, your greatest optimism, and your most triumphant experiences. - John C. Maxwell.

I am so honored that you are my student.

Ms. Slack

I'm sitting here now, just a little over 8 years since she initially wrote me this (wow, 8 years...), and I can't believe I let myself forget this wisdom. I remember reading these words over and over again in my miniature sanctuary, remember how I had even posted one of my Lord of the Rings tarot cards beside the letter (I believe it was the Wheel of Fortune card? It mentioned fortitude in the description).

And, to be honest, in high school, like I said, I think I really tried to follow this advice, even if I wasn't consciously aware of it.

I just wish I knew what happened after that.

All I know is, I'm going to retype this letter and post it somewhere where I can look at it all the time.


As a kind of postscript...

Every Monday of the first semester of 9th grade, I went to the middle school to be a tutor to some of Ms. Slack's beginner students. Since high school at that point was more of the same aloneness, even in my new upper-level orchestra, it was an absolute godsend that I was able to spend more time around her, and to teach kids like I thought I would years down the line.

Near the end of the semester, my dad was idling in the parking lot to pick me up, and Ms. Slack came out with me to greet him.

"So... what do you think of me going into pharmacy?" she asked my dad after her hello.

I just stood there completely numb, and I do believe that moment was the end of my dreams of being an orchestra teacher. It crushed me to know that she wanted to leave. To be fair, the job had really not been kind to her -- the administration sucked, and the students had been very cruel to her. But to hear that she did not want to do it anymore.... I felt betrayed. I really did.

The next semester our school changed their Monday schedule, so I was no longer able to tutor. I learned the next year that she had left, and coincidentally, that same year I had left orchestra (though it wasn't my fault - the schedulers put me in steel drums instead. I didn't argue).

Right before I went to NAU, I bumped into her at Barnes and Noble... working at Barnes and Noble. It was neat to see her, but I still felt that pang of sadness and betrayal.

But then... a couple more years later, I bumped into her at my little brother's elementary school.

Working at my little brother's elementary school. As an orchestra teacher.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic! I thought it would have been so cool for my little brother to have her in a couple years. Her named had changed because she'd gotten married, but she was just as wonderful as ever, with a great smile and a spark of equal parts mischief and wisdom in her eyes.

Unfortunately, Arizona has since decided that schools don't deserve as much funding, and the schools have decided that music is not worth their funding. Ms. Slack was cut from her position.

I don't know where she is now. I don't know if she's still teaching orchestra in this music-hating world, or if she had to do something else. I know she is on facebook, but it seems weird to add her after all these years....

All I know is, I am a better person because I knew her.

Never, ever, underestimate the power of a teacher who legitimately cares. They can turn lives around.

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