Today one of my all-time favorite teachers passed away from a heart attack. I hope my regular readers will excuse this brief interruption in my typical movie/tv related ramblings, but I have thoughts that I need to get out. Boyd Johnston was my middle school band teacher, as well as my advisor. He taught me in band class every day for three years, and was the assistant band teacher for four years of high school. He had an unbridled enthusiasm for music, played a large variety of instruments extremely well, and genuinely cared about both his subject and his students. He was all anyone could possibly want from a teacher and he’ll be sorely missed.
Mr. J, as we called him, wasn’t the one who initially taught me to play the trumpet, but he was the one who gave me an appreciation of the depth of music that a group of musicians working together could create. He was almost infinitely patient with a group of kids who could hardly have behaved any worse, while still striving to make the experience fun and enjoyable. He was always full of encouragement, particularly on the occasions I was able to perform with him, when he would play in a manner that helped me along rather than overshadowing me. Even when he would get angry with us over the class’s behavior, it was always from a place of encouragement. He was angry because he knew how good we could be and wanted us to succeed.
I remember one particular time when we were goofing off so badly that he yelled at us and stormed out. We were all honestly shocked, because he was normally so mild-mannered and sweet. No one knew what to do, but one student suggested we attempt the piece again and try our best in an attempt to bring him back out of his office. We did, and though we weren’t very good he returned and was visibly, genuinely touched that we cared enough to try to bring him back. He immediately jumped right back into the class, trying to help us improve our performance and completely letting go of any anger he might have been feeling. I’d never had a teacher react with such grace before, nor did I at any point afterwards.
Mr. J was there for me at a time in my life when I was at my very lowest. I had a miserable time in school, cripplingly depressed and wishing it would all just end. And while he may not have known what to say or exactly how to help, he always made it perfectly clear to me that he genuinely cared about me. Whether it was an encouraging comment or a pat on the back or a smile, he always strode to lift me up. I was mercilessly bullied but what I didn’t realize was that he understood because he was bullied too. Teenagers can be extremely mean (though adults can be too, of course), but we tend to only focus on how mean they are to each other. Very little thought is spared for how mean they can be to adults. Mr. J took a lot of crap from entitled, selfish kids yet he never redirected it at anyone else. He instead chose to enter that environment again and again every day and did his very best to make the lives of his students better. He always made me feel like he was proud of me.
I have countless memories of him. We went on a variety of trips for performances and competitions, to New Orleans, or New York, or to China, and he was a calming influence in the midst of the chaos that is a school band trip. He played regularly with the national Broadway tours that would come to my hometown of Charlotte, NC, and whenever I would go I’d make a point of visiting him in the orchestra pit during intermission. He also recently became choir director of his church. He was never too busy to help out with a particularly tough musical passage, or to help with your form or technique, and the grin he would get on his face when we performed something well was infectious.
I remember a funny incident from one school assembly where we performed for our classmates. We were playing a piece with several movements, and when we paused between the first and the second about half of the kids in the audience clapped, not realizing that the piece wasn’t over. He visibly struggled with what to do, first looking like he wanted to start the next movement in order to stop the applause and then deciding to wait for the clapping to finish before going on. Finally he dropped his hands, turned around, and gave the audience a lecture on how to tell when the appropriate moment has come to clap. After he straightened them out he added that of course we love hearing applause at any time, completely undoing all of his rules as the kids then sarcastically clapped at random times from then on. But despite that, he turned back to us with an embarrassed smile on his face, and got some encouraging thumbs up from the group. It was the epitome of who he was, enthusiastic about the music, eager to help, and sweetly unconcerned about appearances. And I haven’t even mentioned the time that the baton flew out of his hand and into the audience.
But the moment that most defines Mr. J for me occurred my senior year. My high school band teacher was a jerk, caring little about the students (unless you happened to be one of his few favorites), perpetually angry, and always convinced that his endeavors were infinitely more important than anything else at the school. Mr. J was his assistant, generally there to help with logistics but also to make up for the teacher’s lack of musical skills. (Our teacher was a percussionist, so was great with rhythm but had no understanding whatsoever of wind instruments.) One morning my senior year, one of the freshman trumpet players came in with new braces, having just gotten them put on that morning. In my 8 years playing the trumpet, I knew firsthand how much pain braces can cause for those who play brass instruments, and I knew he wouldn’t be able to play at all that morning. The tiny, quiet freshman went up to our teacher to tell him about his braces, and said, “Mr. O, I got braces on this morning so I won’t be able to play today.” The teacher looked at him and snarled, “It just hurts, right? You can play through the pain,” and walked away. (This was the moment that convinced me that I wanted nothing to do with the trumpet after graduation, and I haven’t played since.) The kid looked like he was about to cry. I was furious, but Mr. J went up to the kid and reassured him that he didn’t have to play, that he should just practice the fingerings until he built up his lip to the point where he could play again.
That was who Mr. J was. He wasn’t confrontational, but he was supportive. My first instinct was to shout at the teacher over what a jerk he had been, but Mr. J’s was to comfort the kid and to be encouraging. I used to chat online with Mr. J for several years after I graduated from high school, checking in with him and generally keeping each other up to date. He was always excited about the next big event, whether it was starting a pep band or a new trip or competition for the group. He always wanted to know what was new with me, and how I was doing, as though he knew how hard my life at school had been and wanted to make sure that things got better for me once I left. We commiserated over the way some people treat others, and he told me about some of the things he had had to deal with. But while I’m sure that he knew exactly how much he meant to us, and he always talked about what a pleasure it was to teach us, I wish that I had made more of an effort to explain the full extent of his impact.
Other than our parents, teachers are the people who make the biggest impact on us when we’re young. And for the most part they’re ignored, underpaid, overworked and undersupported. Some are even outright bullied, by students, parents, other teachers or management. But worst of all, many are simply forgotten, often because it takes many years to realize how much they may have influenced your life. Mr. J was taken away from me before I got to fully explain to him his importance to me. So my advice to you, particularly during this holiday season, is to take some time and thank the teachers who loom large in your spirit. Some of them may be easy to reach, whether on facebook or by email (or in person if you’re still in school), but some may require a bit more work to find. But no matter how hard it may be, it’s worth it to be able to say to them, “Thank you. What you did for me means more than I can express. You helped make me who I am and I’ll forever be grateful.” Say it now, before it’s too late. And for any teachers reading this, thank you for caring. Even if you may not hear it as often as you should, know that you’re appreciated and remembered.