The Musical Mr. M
by J. L. Thurston
I can name all my former teachers from K-12. After that, things get foggy as college classes flew by in a half-hungover and completely stressed blur. There was a time when I considered becoming an English teacher, and I only cast the thought aside once I pictured teaching unappreciative students. I’d probably burn out in two months. Thank god for real teachers who make the impact every single day for every single student. Truly, that’s an incredible feat very few teachers have the strength for. Can’t say I blame the ones who don’t, but I feel the urge to write something of a tribute to a teacher whom I’ll never forget. A teacher who was more than a teacher for all the students who passed through his tutelage. It was like the man was made of music, the embodiment of jazz with the soul of an orchestra.
He had a last name most kids couldn’t pronounce, so we called him Mr. M. The high schoolers and over-confident junior highers simply called him M. This was a man who had the skill and talent for greatness, but he chose to teach band to a school of three-hundred students. Three hundred total, kindergarten through twelfth grade. Band began in fourth grade, and that’s when M took our minds and threw them into a higher elevation using music.
I graduated high school twelve years ago and have since lost touch with M, but I can still picture him perfectly. I can even hear his voice as clearly as though he were right here reading over my shoulder and laughing that I’m even spending time writing a short tribute to him, being the humble guy that he was. This man once told me a story about how he dressed up in a monkey costume and went to the store shopping for bananas. As an adult. I’m just saying laughing at himself was not an issue for this guy.
M was a skinny man, not very tall though he seemed tallish to ten year olds. He had black hair that was only just beginning to gray. I assume he started each morning with his hair neatly combed, but by the time he made it to school he’d ran excited hands through it so that his locks pointed in the wrong direction like a mad scientist. He had a walk and a stance that suggested all of his joints were made out of rubber bands. I always thought that if someone could be Motown and still be a white guy with nerdy glasses, that’d be M. He’d stroll down the hallways and hear a shout from a student, “What up M?” to which he’d reply, “You be up!” To any whine or gripe he’d cry out- while failing to suppress a grin- “You weenies!” But anything that went his way by the hand of anyone, be they nine or ninety, he’d call out, “You rock!” M was enthusiasm personified, and everything he ever said or did was always about other people. Selfish just didn’t compute with this guy.
He was in constant motion, standing up on the podium directing a score, all eyes could be found drawn to his hands. M’s fingers were instruments of purpose, and had that strange power only a Maestro could possess. He drove forty-five minutes one way just to get to school every day, and he never left when the bell rang. Concert band, jazz band, marching band, music theory, after school lessons, and maintaining peace and order in the band room was all left to him. I never heard him complain once. He loved it, and his students loved to participate in all tasks M showed interest in.
I, like many students, spent a lot of time with him. I picked up the trumpet in fourth grade and fell in love with music in a way my nine-year old brain could never have done had it not been for band. As I grew, I followed M’s instruction and doors opened up for my musical brain. I remember in junior high, while playing the score from Lord of the Rings, I struggled to finish because of a lump in my throat. The music moved me, music that I was creating with my own breath and hands. It was the most real form of magic I’d ever discovered. I learned in those early days what incredible emotion could be found in music. To a young writer, music became a battery in which I could charge inspiration and draw energy.
My awkwardness loosened away in the sanctuary of jazz band where I was kidnapped by the pleasing insanity that is jazz trumpet. Through concert band I found pride in myself that soothed the rougher edges of my childhood self-esteem. Marching band was taught with much whistle-blowing and shouting from M, but twice as much laughter. Our tiny marching band kicked ass, and blew most big schools out of the water. Thanks to our coach, our captain. Clear as day, I can hear his chant and the echoing answer of the drums as he called, “Band! Horns up!” Excitement always followed that call. We knew we’d play our faces off for him. The town would come to football games just to watch us at halftime shows. We were damn good. And the cadence we marched to is still played by my old school to this day, carrying on the spirit in full liveliness.
Music theory humbled any thoughts I had that I was musically inclined. I took the class with only two other students. I’m pretty sure M didn’t fail me only because he appreciated my efforts. He did help me compose my first and only song. The track slipped during my clumsy editing, and it sounded like a hot bag of shit, but it was good for a laugh.
M was more than a band teacher for my tiny school. He knew us as though he was our favorite uncle in some kooky family. He shared with me a secret that I hope he doesn’t mind me writing about. When M discovered my passion for writing, he confided in me that he, also, was an unpublished writer. We exchanged chapters. I’ve never been so nervous about someone’s opinion as I was of his. I knew the slightest negative comment from him would wound me for far longer than any other critique. M must have known how it felt to bare one’s soul in written form, and gave me high remarks that set me soaring. His writing was, of course, genius and incredible. I hope he doesn’t mind me talking about it now; he swore me to secrecy about it when he let me read it. I heard a rumor from someone that he’s published now, so here’s hoping he doesn’t mind.
He retired from my tiny school my senior year. His last concert was the spring concert in which many of his alumni attended and even played in his honor. I gifted him with a journal that I had ran around trying to get as many people as possible to sign as a farewell gift. It felt weak as a parting gift. How could I thank a man who had molded my mind in such a positive and powerful way? All I can think of after twelve years is this article here. I think it will serve as some sort of kindness to share of him on this platform. To express in some way that there was a teacher who really was more than a teacher every single day of his career. That the spirit of music truly lives in people, regular people, and that M chose to use his spirit in uplifting students in a no-account school in the middle of nowhere. He won’t win any prestigious awards, but that’s because he is the most deserving and, at the same time, the most humble.
So, to the musical Mr. M, wherever you are and whatever you are doing, I have only words of thanks, of the deepest gratitude, for being my band teacher.
“Because we have fun in band!” -M