I was eleven years old when I met you.
It was sixth grade, and I spent six weeks in your music class. Your legendary knowledge of music, extraordinary teaching abilities, and, most of all, your voluminous capacity for kindness preceded you. I anxiously awaited experiencing your class.
Everyone remembers middle school.
They are the most awkward years of life, smack dab in the middle of kid and young adult. Every day is an internal struggle within your gut, full to bursting with fervor. Your heart, pumping emotions through your veins to the tips of your toes. Your head, your intellect, telling you to shut it all off, creating a leaky faucet.
Put a whole herd of these kids together in the institution that we call school, and it makes for humiliation and torture every day.
The quad is the battlefield. You don’t know who your allies or enemies are, because everyone is constantly changing sides. The deadliest weapons are the words spat at you like venom, augmenting your internal battle. The confusion is palpable, and you just want to hide under your covers in the safety of your bed until the hormones abate.
I was thought of as easy prey, because my desire to stay out of the chaos surrounded me like a cloud. This seemed to draw the others towards me. I was taken down and fed on every day by my peers, and I’d lie awake at night, every muscle tensed with the dread of facing the next day.
Your class provided the lantern in this dark, dismal tunnel.
In sixth grade, our first year, we did a rotation of extra curricular classes. This allowed us to choose the class that we wanted to take for the seventh and eighth grades. Each class was a six week period, and then we would switch over to the next.
I arrived at your six-week class. Entry into either band or choir for the next two years was by invitation-only from you, awarded to us at the end of the six weeks. When the time came, you called me into your office alone and proudly extended to me an invitation to join choir. I felt so accomplished, and I accepted the invitation. I later figured out that you privately invited everyone into either band or choir, leaving nobody out.
You made every, single, little, tiny, mixed-up, eleven-year-old kid feel special.
So, for both seventh and eighth grades, I got to head to the sanctuary of your classroom first thing every morning and sing. I felt safe in your class. I was happy, getting to be expressive with my body, with my vocal cords, with music. You insisted to the principal every year that choir be first period because you wanted us to start the day off with music. You would always say,
Think about all of the other kids who have to start their day in math class, or writing an essay. You get to start your day singing.
You have made permanent pathways in my brain with what you taught us. I will never forget the “kee-kaw” vocal exercise that you did with us every day, nor “shoulders back, hands at your sides, feet planted firmly on the ground, toes pointed forward.” You would have us make eye contact with you at all times while we were singing, which made many people uncomfortable. But, your willingness to connect with us and treat us like equals, which was rare with most adults, was what made you so special. Your empathy and gentleness towards your students proved your ability to teach beyond music. The life lessons you wove into each class helped me feel braver in the world that I viewed as so treacherous. Plus, you had an unrivaled sense of humor.
Your humbleness also set you apart. I did not find out until much later about your skill on the trumpet. All you wanted to do was bestow the gift of music on all of us. If you ever had a bad day, you did not show it. It was never about you, and always about us.
The relationship that you and I shared was especially great. You seemed to see something in me, and made it a point to nurture whatever it was you saw. You were generous with your time with me, calling me into your office every morning. When you would ask me “how are you?”, you meant it; you genuinely wanted to know. We’d talk about music and life. Then, you gave me my first-ever solo, and always made it a point to tell me how much I was improving. Your encouragement helped me find belief in myself. But, the thing that I appreciated most was when you said that I was “a kind and good person in a time of life when most kids are not.” You would tell me this often. It helped me fine-tune my moral compass, and know that doing the right thing takes priority.
You made your retirement announcement a year after I graduated, signifying the end of a career teaching music spanning over 35 years.
You asked me to sing at your retirement concert, which was special for me. The band was entirely composed of your past students, young and old. Many of your students have gone on to be incredibly successful in the professional world of music, playing their various instruments in well-known TV shows and films. Perhaps, the most profound element was that every, single seat in the 1,800 seat theater was filled.
That’s at least how many lives you touched.
I’ve only seen you a handful of times since then, but I hope that you are enjoying a much-deserved retirement. Mr. Leff, you are one of those rare people in life who leaves a trail of magic wherever you go, whatever you touch. You made an irreversible impact on my life. I will always remember you.
My name is Andrea and I live in Los Angeles, California. By day, I am in actor and by night I am working towards a degree in nutritional science.