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 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.