When I was in the 5th grade, my music teacher mentioned one afternoon that there was this summer honors choir thing that she thought I might enjoy. She took me into her classroom, ran me through some audition exercises, and signed me up; so I went to the summer choir, and that’s where I met Mr. T.
Not that Mr. T–not the one with the gold chains and pitying the foo’. My Mr. T–Mr. T the choir director–was this perfectly average-lookin’ guy with a no-nonsense attitude, a work ethic that defied comprehension, an absolute lack of concern for where you came from or how much money your family had (as the child of a lower-middle-class blue-collar family who was frequently shamed by my peers for being “too poor”, this meant a lot to me), and a collection of quips and sayings (“close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades” leaps to mind, as does “We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then, is not an act but a habit”, which he stole from Aristotle and had on a poster in his classroom) that…well, you’ll hear more about those as we go. For now we’ll leave it at “I liked Mr. T, his pithy sayings notwithstanding”, and I ended up singing for him every summer between the 5th and 8th grades.
So of course, when I got to high school–he happened to teach at the high school I attended–I auditioned for him, and I sang for him in an all-female ensemble my freshman year and then again in the school’s “top” 16-voice show choir my senior year.
And lemme tell ya, Mr. T. did not kid around. He was unrelenting in his quest for perfection: if we missed a note, we practiced that note–just that note–until we got it exactly right (“close doesn’t count except in horseshoes and hand grenades”). Then we practiced it in context with the two or three notes around it. Then we practiced the full phrase until we got the phrase right, and then we practiced singing the phrase correctly until it was wedged permanently in our brains (“excellence is not an act, but a habit”). To this day there are snippets of songs to which I can still, with about 98% certainty, sing the alto line–even if I don’t remember the entire song, or even what it was called anymore (“We are what we repeatedly do”). He was not interested in your excuses, he was not interested in your b.s., and he was not interested in coddling anyone. You were there to sing, and sing well, and by god that’s exactly what you were going to do.
In other words, he was tough…and I loved it.
Here’s the thing: by my senior year of high school, I had pretty well established myself as a Person Who Could Accomplish a Lot of Things With Very Little Effort. Schoolwork was easy for me, and I had a boatload of extracurricular activities that bolstered my ego–and my college applications–so that I was generally able to coast through most of my day.
But choir was the great and shining exception to that rule. Mr. T had made it abundantly clear that we would never–could never–achieve perfection, so there was always, always something to refine (“close doesn’t count…”). There was always something to practice, and practice some more (“we are what we repeatedly do…”). If we worked hard and approached brilliance, complacency was unacceptable because that would inevitably lead to backsliding (“excellence, then, is not an act…”). And since those moments happened periodically, when everyone hit the note exactly right and it felt like the heavens themselves were singing along, we worked our tails off for him–because we knew what it was like to get it just right, and we knew that he knew how to get us there. He was a pain in the tuckus, he drove us bonkers, and as far as we could tell, he had no pity, remorse, or soul, or at least those were the accusations we made when we grumbled about him after particularly grueling rehearsals…and as it turned out, all those experts who say that kids crave structure and boundaries and that they respond well to teachers who push them hard and refuse to adjust their expectations so the kid feels less challenged…yeah, all those people are completely, totally right.
As evidence, I offer you this little tidbit: choir was the one and only class for which I ever voluntarily, with no pressure or assignment or suggestion from the teacher, did more work than was required. I met with other choir members to rehearse outside of class; I practiced my part in the car on my way to and from school; I went to the public library and found recordings (when possible) of the songs we were working on and sang along with them in my bedroom. I worked on refining my ear. I did vocal warm-ups in the shower. I never once recited algebra formulas under my breath while I did my chores around the house, but I practiced my enunciation there all the time.
So when Mr. T posted a link on his Facebook page today, taking me to an article about the Tough Teacher Who Changed Our Lives, I followed it and read the article and laughed and laughed, because it was just so deliciously entertaining to me that the fellow who had posted the link was the first person the article made me think of.
Now, if this was a movie, this is where I’d tell you that our choir went on to … I dunno, get a lucrative recording deal or sing for the Pope or something. We did not–we just, y’know, finished high school and went on with our lives (though some of his students did end up in music, and I know of at least two offhand who went on to become music teachers themselves). Or I’d talk about how he’d inspired me to bring the gift of music to underprivileged youth, or how the lessons he taught me completely revolutionized my life and made me the saint you see before you now. But I respect him too much to blame myself on him, bless his fuzzy bearded heart.
No, the truth is that I’m just a random former student of his, sitting at my desk in Kansas, thinking about a teacher who was tough as nails but we loved him anyway. He did have some impact on my life–for instance, each year the show choir had “their song”, the song that became their kinda-sorta anthem for the year, and my father loved my year’s song so much that we ended up playing it at his funeral, so, y’know, that’s kinda neat.
But mostly Mr. T taught me that setting high expectations is not a ridiculous approach to life; and he taught me that some things don’t come easy but they’re worth trying for nonetheless. He taught me that working hard might not lead you to perfection and a throne made of gold, but it can get you the satisfaction of knowing you gave it all you had, and that’s pretty cool.
And he taught me that close doesn’t count except in horseshoes and hand grenades.
He taught me that we are what we repeatedly do.
He taught me that excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
…Oh, and he taught me that if you say something often enough, it will drill its way into your students’ brains and live there for the rest of eternity whether they want it to or not, so they end up quoting you to their friends and their spouses and their pets and themselves for the rest of their natural lives. Maybe one of these days he can teach me how to forgive him for that. /grin