1979 was a pretty good year.
That’s when Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister in the UK, Michael Jackson released his breakthrough album “Off The Wall,” and a little known cable network with an untried all-sports format was born in Bristol, CT called ESPN.
It was also a pivotal year for a 15-year-old kid entering his first year of high school in a village not far from the greater Green Bay area. That’s when I met and began a four-year tutelage under the instruction of a person with whom I would always consider to have the most influential impact on my life.
He was a member of what many consider to be the most noble profession – education. He was a music teacher, to be precise.
I confess that I’ve a soft spot for teachers. My wife is a teacher. So was my Mom. Two of my siblings are Ph.D.’s. Another is a principal at an elementary school in southern Wisconsin, and I teach as an adjunct on the local college circuit here in the Northeast part of the state. Additionally, take a guess what my daughter wants to be when she grows up.
Some of you may see the irony. You can’t possibly guess the number of times we’ve all been asked “is that your real last name? Books? “
You got it. Mr. Books. Seriously. Maybe it’s destiny at work.
My junior high days were great times. Having learned how to work a drum set from my oldest brother since I was six years old, 6th grade was the first opportunity I had to really demonstrate my drumming abilities to my teachers and classmates. The very first time I sat down behind a kit in band practice during warm-ups, my fellow bandmates began to form around the riser where I was perched.
The best part? The girls were watching. Pretty girls. Cute ones who never talked to me or cared if I was in the same room with them ever before.
I was hooked.
There were some drawbacks. I was a red-headed drummer with an unhealthy tendency to be cocky, so I spent a fair amount of time defending myself from other larger athletic boys who objected to my arrogance, freckles and freakishly gingered hair. Getting into fights was a bit of a common occurrence, and the principal knew me a little too well thanks to my occasional visits to his office.
Regardless, life was good. I was popular and had a pretty good posse of friends. I was also ignorant as hell.
When junior high ended and I graduated to the freshman class, conditions changed dramatically. I found myself at the bottom of the food chain looking up at some ungodly talented upperclassmen who had no interest in helping a fellow budding musician who thought he was all that. Hazing was a constant, but at least I was fortunate that no one stuck my head in a toilet or duct-taped me to a gym locker in phys-ed class. Still, it was painfully evident that I wasn’t on the same playing field as these guys.
That’s where the leader of the band made all the difference in the world.
Steve Mereness was a rather unassuming man who had an incredible love for music, and it showed every day in his work. I don’t think there was one of us who didn’t look up to him for his wisdom and his slightly altered sense of humor. It wasn’t until after I finished college that I realized how he influenced my life at such an important time.
Being an individual with different tastes is a good thing. Finding an identity is hard enough when you’re an adult. Locating the door to that pathway can feel overwhelming to an adolescent teenager.
By very nature of his chosen profession, Steve stood out among the crowd as a person who followed the beat of a different drummer. He was a skilled pianist and flutist, and possessed an incredible ability to make those instruments sing in a way you’d never heard done before. Watching him sit down and tickle the ivories was mesmerizing. He was concrete evidence that if you put your mind to it and practiced relentlessly, you could do anything.
One of his greatest accomplishments was working with a student who had a great deal of difficulty fitting in along with the rest of the student body due to his socially awkward skills. Making friends was a difficult task for Johnny due in part to his special needs. Steve took him under his wing when he expressed an interest in learning how to play percussion.
The boy blossomed under his direction. I distinctly remember Johnny’s crowning achievement when he flawlessly nailed a xylophone concerto solo piece during his Senior Exposition concert. While the audience applauded at the conclusion, the entire concert band gave him a standing ovation for his perfect performance.
I’m positive that wouldn’t of been possible without Steve’s teaching, coaching, support and mentoring.
Appreciate all kinds of diversity and culture. Before high school, I only knew one kind of music: rock n’ roll. That’s because I grew up in a house with 5 older siblings who had a particular taste for the rock greats. Their preferences naturally rubbed off on me.
Steve changed the way I look at music by introducing the entire class to jazz. Not today’s fusion or pop jazz…I mean the greats: Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Buddy Rich and Dizzy Gillespie to name a few. He then sprinkled in some Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and a whole host of other musicians and styles that shaped and changed the face of music over the last 200 years.
Sure, he loved the Beatles and Buddy Holly like everyone else did, but he taught us to open our minds and appreciate musical culture from all walks of life. That early lesson in diversity helped set the stage for all sorts of adaptations in our coming lifetimes.
Want an example? Check out this piece of musical genius. You’re a better person than I if you can keep from tapping your fingers and jiving at your desk.
Follow a passion. If it changes, that’s okay. I know….I can see you all rolling your eyes in unison. This is a statement you hear ad nauseum across all of LinkedIn almost every day. Follow your passion…do what you love….blah blah blah. I won’t deny that, because I read the same stuff you do.
Still, it’s an important lesson, especially one that doesn’t sink in with a teenager who can’t decide what he should have for lunch, to say nothing about figuring out what his career path is going to be. I don’t think I took that advice seriously until much later in life, and there are some days I still wonder “what if.”
It’s that very feeling that pushes me to advise my own children to do what they love….and since I know they read my blogs with a fine-tooth comb….I’ll say it again. Follow your passion.
I’ve had many teachers, both high school and college, whom I could easily credit for helping to mold me into the father, husband, leader, and man I am today. The ones who made the largest impact are those who never blatantly told me what I should do, but raised the bar through the silent examples they set. That may not make a lot of sense, but I was a kid who hated to be told “do this.” As you can guess, my path to self-discovery was covered with a lot of mistakes.
Here’s to the teacher, the most honorable profession. They don’t do it for the glory, money or power.
It’s for the opportunity to make a difference. Now THAT’s noble.