29: The Power of a Promise

29: The Power of a Promise

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

The Power of a Promise

Music is the shorthand of emotion.

~Leo Tolstoy

When I was in fourth grade, my classmates and I took a test to see how well we listened and discriminated between various pitches and chords. Apparently, I passed the test because my parents received a letter saying that I had qualified to play in the school band. My mom went to a parent information meeting and brought home a clarinet, an instrument I had never heard of before. I started attending lessons and band practice with a nice man who told us to call him “Mr. Ed.”

I enjoyed playing my clarinet. I never had to be reminded to practice because I loved new challenges, and I liked being able to play new tunes each time I went to my lessons. When I was in sixth grade, Mr. Ed encouraged me to enter a solo and ensemble festival with seventh and eighth graders. What an eye opener! I learned even more about what I could do if I worked hard enough.

About halfway through my second year of band, Mr. Ed told us he was leaving. He had received a Fulbright Scholarship and would be going to London for a year. I was devastated. But Mr. Ed gave us his address and told us to let him know how we were doing. “If you write to me, I’ll write back,” he promised.

I continued to play clarinet and wrote to tell Mr. Ed about it. As promised, he wrote back and told me about the marvelous places he’d been and the things he’d seen. London sounded like a place I wanted to see for myself. If he was able to do it playing his tuba, then maybe I could travel the world playing my instrument.

We were so happy when Mr. Ed came back, and when I graduated to junior high, Mr. Ed was still my band director. He convinced me to switch from clarinet to oboe and I loved this new adventure. Now we played even more challenging music, and we earned high ratings at district and state festivals. But just after our triumph at the state festival, he informed us he’d be leaving again. This time, he was going to Illinois. And this time, the move was permanent. He’d been named the tuba instructor at Illinois State University. But again, he told us, “I want to hear from you. Write to me, and I’ll write back.”

So once again, I wrote. I told him about my new teachers, about studying and practicing my new instrument, about going to music camp and learning lots of things and playing wonderful music. I even auditioned and won a spot in the American Youth Symphony and traveled to Europe, where I saw some of the sights he’d written about. And he wrote back, encouraging me and telling me about the university and the wonderful people there in central Illinois. I told him I wanted to study music and be a band director like him, and he encouraged me to attend Illinois State University and audition for a scholarship. On one of his visits back to Michigan, he took the time to visit my parents and assure them that he would personally look out for me if I went to ISU. Although I auditioned at several colleges, ISU offered the best scholarship so I packed my bags and traveled south.

My time at Illinois State was magical. I made many new friends and became certified to teach music, but I missed my home and family. At the end of four years, I made the wrenching decision to return, knowing I’d miss my friends and the support I had at ISU. But once again, Mr. Ed reassured me by saying, “Write to me, and I’ll write back.”

For thirty years, we exchanged Christmas cards and other communications. I became a music teacher, then a regular elementary classroom teacher, and then a college professor. I raised a family and watched them marry and have kids of their own. I did a lot of traveling, too, and managed to see more of the places Mr. Ed had written about so long ago. Mr. Ed also married, and we exchanged photos and shared stories about our families.

Three years ago, Mr. Ed passed away. I made the seven-hour trip back to Normal, Illinois, for the memorial service and sat with dear friends from my time at ISU. We listened as others shared their stories of what this great man had done for them. I thought about his legacy as I drove home. Would my years of teaching ever measure up to the influence he’d had?

I realize it’s silly to compare my teaching career to someone else’s. But what I can do is reflect on what he taught me and try to emulate it. From Mr. Ed, I learned the joy of making music. I learned how to share that joy with others. And I learned the power of a promise kept.

~Patricia Gordon

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