Mr. Brown

I’ve been clearing out.
The recycling bin has been filled three times with detritus from my past.
I’ve saved very little, but there is one piece of paper that is so precious, I had to tuck it back into the file.

In 1975 I was a junior at Stillwater Senior High School near St. Paul, Minnesota.  My choir director, Denis Brown, wrote some comments on the parent/teacher conference form that pulled me up short:  “I know Barb gets discouraged because of her vocal problems.  I would continue to urge her to be patient and apply proper techniques consistently to grow.  Sometimes I have the feeling that Barb gets discouraged and gives up temporarily.  I do not recommend that approach!”

I wish I could tell him that I didn’t give up…that in my early twenties, I started singing solo jazz.  That I can sing before thousands of people with joy and ease.  That I am about to make my seventh CD of original music.  That I am carrying on his legacy of helping people discover their voices.

Denis Brown died in his fifties.  I never had the chance to thank him for his generous teaching.  He was diligent, wise, loving, and demanding.  I think of him every day and pass along many of the lessons I learned from him to my own voice coaching clients.

Two days after I uncovered the piece of paper with Mr. Brown’s encouraging words, I was offering a program to a group of teachers and staff at Phalen Lake Hmong Magnet School in St. Paul.   I told the story of Mr. Brown and told them, “I can’t thank Mr. Brown in person, so I’m thanking you instead for all you do for the children.”

I also wanted to honor the staff member who was newest to education and their “venerable elder.”  I first offered a CD to the fresh-faced young woman who was brand new to teaching.  Then I asked who had been in education the longest.  Everyone pointed to the back of the room to a smiling, white-haired man.

As I made my way to him, someone in the room shouted, “His name is Mr. Brown!”  I stopped in my tracks and burst into tears.

Another Mr. Brown.

This warm, gentle man was kind enough to fold this tall, weeping woman into an embrace.  He also agreed to be part of this blog.IMG_2398

This Mr. Brown has been in education for forty-six years. A former second grade and middle school teacher, he now is a part-time school counselor.  He worked for many years in Inver Grove Heights in the years when it was a primarily Caucasian suburb of St. Paul.  These past years he has been working in the inner city, first at a Native American Magnet School and now at a Hmong Magnet School.  “I’ve learned so much in these past years,” he told me.  “I plan to keep working until someone asks, ‘What’s that old guy still doing around here?’”  Then Mr. Brown threw back his head and laughed.

Thank you to both Mr. Browns.
Thank you to all of the hard-working teachers and para-professionals and custodians and cooks and librarians who manage to bring humanity to an increasingly inhumane system.

You will be remembered and blessed by those whose lives you touched.
And you may never know who they are.IMG_2400

About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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2 Responses to Mr. Brown

  1. vnarula says:

    Love it Barbara! Finally getting to this today when I happened to bump into Tom (again!) at the Dunn Bros in Linden Hills.

    Coincidences are magic…and never really coincidences. Perfect gifts : )

    Here’s to the Mr. Browns and hidden heroes of our lives.

    Hope to see you soon.


    Vikas Narula Co-Founder at Keyhubs


    Blog LinkedIn Twitter Facebook

    Keyhubs 5244 Zenith Ave. South Minneapolis, MN 55410

  2. Barbara, Thank you so much for your gift of voice, song, and community building! Thank you also for your generosity! I received the folder of music and contacts today and had to visit the blog. It was so much fun to read about places I know and love in and near the Cities! I had no idea you lived in Stillwater back in the day. One of my favorite places in MN! Much love to you and keep on doing all that you do!

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