Monthly Archives: September 2011

Memorial, Part 2: The Attack

The “September Morning” section of Memorial begins in peace and serenity, evoking the beauty of a clear day with no threat of rain in the sky.  The first part of the sectionis easy to sing, with familiar notes, intervals and rests.

Shortly after the G# comes in low bass against the chords in D, and some troubling transitional chords, the chorus sings some figures which Clausen told us “should sound scary and shocked.”  These sounds of fear and shock followed by each section wailing the ancient Hebraic name of God: “Adonai!” It is a calling on God in the face of the unbelievable, the unthinkable and the unimaginable.  More wordless disturbed parts follow, ending in an atonal chord overlaid by a wordless high-pitched scream from the chorus.

The percussion then plays two eighth notes followed by three beats of  silence and then two more eighth notes. This passage indicates the collisions of the aircraft with the Twin Towers. The orchestra moves into a rapid eighth note section which can best be described as agitated.  The choir reenters, singing the syllables of “Adonai” with a pause before the last syllable. The effect is that of someone who is calling on God breathlessly, in great shock at what he or she has witnessed and unable to say anything more. After a short trouble instrumental passage the women sing “Adonai” in  chant-like fashion while the men sing the opening to the 22nd Psalm: “O God, why hast thous forsaken me?” The entire chorus picks up this cry in four parts, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

The next section is eerie and difficult for trained singers to produce. The sounds are not produced on a pitch and rise and fall randomly. Dr. Clausen commented that this sound was not singing: it was the wailing of humans who are fearful, awestruck, and feeling a lack of control with their breath taken away by what they have witnessed. The vocal section goes out on a high-pitched wail of anguish and sorrow, followed by the orchestra playing a descending scale, perhaps representing the fall of the towers. Next, over a low drone comes a searching piano pattern which is overlaid by a single horn playing a theme from the next section, “Prayers.”

Next Week: Memorial, Part 3: Prayers

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Memorial, Part 1: September Morning

At our workshop with René Clausen, he told us that he began work on Memorial in March, 2002 after being asked by the president of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) to do the work as a commissioned piece.

He said he ran into a problem right away. How does one find a structure (a requiem, for example) for something without an established structure, for an entirely unique event. He wrestled with the puzzle of how to begin the work. His wife finally asked a question that broke the impasse. She said, “What kind of day was it?”

That question was a key to starting the piece. His answer was the it was a beautiful day, a splendid day. The sky was what pilots call “severe clear,” a perfectly clear blue. I know you’re not supposed to associate specific images with instrumental classical works, but this section sounds to me like a soundtrack for a film about New York. I can see a pan down from the blue sky to the end of Manhattan Island with the twin towers bright and gleaming in the sun. Then there are shots of people going to work, trucks unloading supplies, crowds of people waiting at lights, the trees and tranquility of Central Park..

The music underneath my movie of the mind is what Clausen called romantic and Debussyean, requiring a “splendid tone” from the singers. The wordless obbligato soars in great smooth arcs through this section, with the parts sometimes in unison, sometimes cascading in four parts.

After several minutes, the beauty of the music of this section is undercut by the orchestra playing a low G# in the key of D, creating a premonitory dissonance. The hijacked aircraft are coming.

Tomorrow: Memorial, Part 2: The Attack

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Memorial: An Overview

(Note: Much of the information for this posting came from a page on the  René  Clausen Music website.) Composer René Clausen describes “Memorial (as) a composition for mixed chorus, orchestra and baritone solo, based on subject material which reflects the horrific events of September 11, 2001, in New York City.”

René Clausen was commissioned in 2002 by the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) to write a piece commemorating the tragedies of Sept. 11, which was performed at the ACDA National Convention in New York City in February, 2003.

Clausen, conductor of The Concordia College Choir, joined the exclusive club of composers commissioned to write the Raymond W. Brock Memorial Commission The Concordia Choir, and the Concordia Orchestra along with a choir made up of Concordia faculty and friends, were asked to perform Clausen’s composition.

This opportunity was, without a doubt, the highest compositional honor of my life...”  noted Clausen.

The text of the solo in the 25-minute piece uses portions of a series of prayers written during the week of 9/11 by Dr. Roy Hammerling of the Concordia religion department.

Presented as one continuous movement, the composition has four sections.The music of the first two sections, subtitled “September Morning” and “The Attack,” develop evocative imagery. “September Morning” attempts to musically paint a picture of a beautiful, sun-lit September morning in New York City. The chorus is used as a section of the orchestra, intoning wordless vocals in a Debussy-like tone poem. As might be expected, the music symbolizing the attack of the World Trade Center towers inspires music that is highly dramatic and employs non-traditional instrumental and vocal techniques that depict the catastrophic chain of events.

“The music is dissonant, rhythmically intense and colorful,” says Clausen. “The only text used in the first two sections is the phrase “O, God, why have you forsaken me?” The world for God is also presented in Hebrew – Adonai. The reason for this minimal text owes to the actual nature of witness responses to the shocking, unfolding drama of the attack.”

The second half of the composition, subtitled “Prayers” and “Petitions,” is a spiritual response to the events. The “Prayers” section is for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra. The final section, “Petitions,” is an introspective musical prayer for mercy, mutual understanding and hope for the future. The primary text is the phrase, “Oh God, shine your light on us, and we shall be saved.” According to Clausen, this phrase is presented first sequentially and then simultaneously in English, Latin, Hebrew and Arabic.

Becky was at the premiere performance of this piece at the ACDA Conference in February 2003 in New York City at Avery Fisher Hall.  She said that it was an emotionally charged work that left most of the audience in tears.

Tomorrow: My comments on Part 1, “September Morning.”  Please note that I meant to post the piece of “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning) last night but forgot to until this morning.  So this post will be the second one today.  Think of one as being for Tuesday and this one for today.

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Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)

Note: I feel I should tell you that the next several days of Biscuit City will be about 9/11 and its aftermath.  If you were saturated by coverage of the tenth anniversary and can’t read or listen to or watch any more about it, I understand.  I can’t do much more with it other than write this because of our experience singing “Memorial” this past Sunday at the Lincoln Center. I’ll be back to the usual random musings next week. Thank you.

I am not an Allen Jackson fan (I think he wrote “Chattahoochee” and the video shows him or someone water skiing on cowboy boots), but one of his songs continues to tear me up. I actually heard it first a few years ago on a three-CD collection entitled Song of America, an historical collection of American songs sung by contemporary singers starting with a “Lakota Dream Song,” continuing through Revolutionary War Songs, pioneer songs, Stephen Foster songs, spirituals, Sousa marches, music of World War I, the ‘twenties, the Depression, World War II, the ‘fifties and sixties, up to the present day. It was sung by Adam and Shannon Wright, about whom I know nothing except that their version of the song brought tears to my eyes the first time I heard it and other times thereafter.

The genesis of the song is interesting. Wikipedia notes,

(Allan) Jackson wanted to write a song expressing his thoughts and emotions, but he found it hard to do so for many weeks. “I didn’t want to write a patriotic song,’ Jackson said. ‘And I didn’t want it to be vengeful, either. But I didn’t want to forget about how I felt and how I knew other people felt that day.’

Finally, on the Sunday morning of October 28, 2001, he woke up at 4 a.m. with the melody, opening lines and chorus going through his mind. He hastily got out of bed, still in his underwear, and sang them into a hand-held recorder so he wouldn’t forget them. Later that morning, when his wife and children had gone to Sunday school, he sat down in his study and completed the lyrics.

Initially, he felt squeamish about recording it, much less releasing it, because he disliked the idea of capitalizing on a tragedy. But after he played it for his wife Denise and for his producer, Keith Stegall, and it met with their approval, Jackson went into the studio to record “Where Were You” that week. On Stegall’s advice, Jackson played the finished track for a group of executives at his record label. “We just kind of looked at one another”, RCA Label Group chairman Joe Galante said later. “Nobody spoke for a full minute.”

Here are the lyrics to the song with some of my comments.

Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning) 

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Were you in the yard with your wife and children
Or working on some stage in L.A.?
Did you stand there in shock at the sight of that black smoke
Risin’ against that blue sky?
Did you shout out in anger, in fear for your neighbor
Or did you just sit down and cry?

I was teaching then, and we had not been back from summer vacation for many days.  It was during a second period junior English class that our principal, Ann Monday came on the P.A.  It was about twenty minutes before class ended which was unusual in and of itself.  Principals tried to hold announcements and make them the first few or the last few minutes of class.

The iconic long distance shot of the buildings with black smoke pouring out of them is indelibly etched in my mind’s eye.

Did you weep for the children who lost their dear loved ones
And pray for the ones who don’t know?
Did you rejoice for the people who walked from the rubble
And sob for the ones left below?
Did you burst out in pride for the red, white and blue
And the heroes who died just doin’ what they do?
Did you look up to heaven for some kind of answer
And look at yourself and what really matters?


The genius of this song is in the way Jackson shows us a wide variety of Americans at different daily tasks brought up short by the horrible news. This verse asks several questions which enumerate possible reactions.  For me, the answers were yes to all of the above.

The interviews with the children of the lost were unbearable to watch. Matt Lauer interviewed a little boy who was so grief-stricken. They showed that again this weekend and that’s when I turned the set off.

[Chorus:]
I’m just a singer of simple songs
I’m not a real political man
I watch CNN but I’m not sure I can tell
you the difference in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love

Jackson characterizes himself as a “singer of simple songs.”  This is not a simple song. And today I would say we all know the difference between Iraq and Iran. He speaks of turning to God and Jesus in this trial. I love the affirmation from Corinthians 13, “Now endure faith, hope and love, these three, but the greatest is love.”

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Were you teaching a class full of innocent children
Or driving down some cold interstate?
Did you feel guilty ’cause you’re a survivor
In a crowded room did you feel alone?
Did you call up your mother and tell her you loved her?
Did you dust off that Bible at home?

I was teaching a class full of children, although how innocent they were is debatable. They were finishing up a class assignment when the announcement came, and they quietly continued. I went to my computer in the back of the room and looked at the news feed. We had been to the top of the Twin Towers exactly three weeks before.  I remember looking down on light aircraft flying along the Hudson River and idly thinking about what would happen if one of them crashed into one of the towers.  I doubted it would do much damage and initially that was my thought. I wondered why Ann had announced that a light aircraft had crashed into the towers. When I saw the news feed I knew it was much, much worse.

The students finished their work and passed it in and asked if we could turn on the television that was in all our classrooms.  I said, “We can watch but you won’t like what you see.”  I turned the set on and a shocked silence descended on the room. When time for the end of class came, they got  up quietly and filed out.

I remember being frustrated that, since it was so near the beginning of school, I didn’t know them well enough to be of any help or comfort to them.

School pretty much dissolved after that.  I didn’t have a class–not that anyone was in class–so I went to the office to help the parents find their way to classrooms to pick up their children, which many of them did.  The students were clustered in the hallways, crying and hugging. Word passed that the Pentagon had been hit.  We had great numbers of students with parents that worked in the Pentagon.  I let one girl use my cell phone to try to make contact with her father who worked there.  The lines were jammed and she couldn’t get through.  As upset as she was, she thanked me through her tears for the use of my phone. I will never forget that stricken tear-stained young face.

Later we found out that one student did lose a parent.  It wasn’t the girl I loaned my phone to.

 Did you open your eyes, hope it never happened
Close your eyes and not go to sleep?
Did you notice the sunset the first time in ages
Or speak to some stranger on the street?
Did you lay down at night and think of tomorrow
Or go out and buy you a gun?
Did you turn off that violent old movie you’re watchin’
And turn on “I Love Lucy” reruns?


My mother called after I got home from school to tell me that my brother, a pilot for Delta Airlines, was safe on the ground in Chicago.  He spent several days there in a motel before he could get home to Atlanta.

I kept thinking it was all a bad dream when I woke up for the next week or so. We didn’t have school the next day.  No one knew if the attacks would continue or not.

Since then I cannot stomach violence on TV or in movies.  I’m about the only person on earth who doesn’t think Lucille Ball is at all funny, so I usually watch Frasier reruns instead of I Love Lucy. Same effect.

Did you go to a church and hold hands with some strangers
Did you stand in line and give your own blood?
Did you just stay home and cling tight to your family
Thank God you had somebody to love?

We had a service at the church for the victims and their families some time that week. I think I wrote a prayer for it.  I never felt so inadequate to a task in all my life.

Amy was working in Fairfax at the time and living in Oakton and Alyssa was in college but at home for some reason.  We had dinner together as a family and talked.  It was warm and comforting to be together. I do thank God every day for my family and friends.

[Repeat Chorus 2x]
And the greatest is love.
And the greatest is love.

Where were you when the world stopped turning that September day?

These ten years I have had to keep reminding myself that love is stronger than hate. The greatest of these is love. 

Allan Jackson said an interview recently, I’m glad we did it (recorded it) because I’ve had nothing but wonderful comments ever since, you know, 10 years ago. People told me how much the song meant to them and affected them. It still does.

He said that, despite the fact that he is blessed with more than enough hits for three shows in a row, people still come just to hear “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).”

People seem like they expect me to do it and they enjoy hearing it all these years later. I’ve seen people even get up and leave after the song’s over, like they’ve been waiting for it the whole show, he said.

Jackson, like most Americans, remembers exactly what he was doing on that morning a decade ago.

I was actually here at home in Nashville, and I was walking outside. We have a big piece of property and I was walking for exercise. It was a beautiful day, just like it was up in New York. Early fall, blue sky. And I came in the house and saw it on the television, just like most people did, he said.

He paused, as if the memory had jarred something in him. His Southern manner of speech slowed even further. He said he often can’t help but notice air traffic, especially in a travel hub like Nashville. He continued: I’m a pilot and I just remember … I remember them shutting down all the air travel. I just remember, that day, it was the first time – ever – that there hadn’t been airplanes in the sky. After that morning, there were none. There were no planes anywhere. The skies were so … quiet. 

We live about 17 miles from Dulles Airport and, depending on the wind, are under one of the landing patterns. For several days there was an eerie quiet as none of the big birds flew over on their way to a landing.

Allan Jackson may or may not be a “singer of simple songs,” but he got this one exactly right.

Tomorrow: My commentary on Part 1 of Memorial, “September Morning.”



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I Want to Be a Part of It

I wrote briefly about our trip to New York City to sing as part of a choir commemorating the tenth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11/2001. I was so disoriented by our long trek to the big city I published the post late Thursday, which is why it appears under Thursday (Really.). Just mentally change Thursday to Friday and you’ll have it.

Singing “Memorial” by Rene Clausen was such an incredibly deep and moving experience I will need to devote several posts about it. Today I will try to give you a context for the experience by writing about what Becky and I did. In other posts I will talk about the piece, “Memorial” itself. There are no links to the piece, but you can buy a CD of it as the Concordia College Choir website at http://www.concordiarecordings.com/category/choral.html. I hope you will. It is a remarkable piece.

I have noted some of these events on Facebook and in emails, but I wanted to draw them all together in one place. The concert was sponsored by Distinguished Concerts International New York or DCINY, the same group that sponsored the concert in honor of the 70th Anniversary of Shawnee Press at Carnegie Hall a couple of years ago that we participated in.  It’s a kind of pay to play system. You pay, you get to be in the choir. The choirs are generally directed by the big names in choral music today: Joseph Martin, Greg Gilpin, Rene Clausen. People from all around the country come to be part of a large choir. We had 22 people from Chorale participate in this event with several spouses also coming.

We arrived Thursday evening about 8 PM after ten and a half hours on the road because of accidents, congestion and roadwork at the Holiday Inn Midtown at West 57th Street. The desk clerk recommended the Puttanesca Restaurant as a good Italian place around the corner on Ninth Avenue. It was good and we enjoyed the meal. That evening news of a serious terrorist threat to New York and Washington came out.  We also heard of flooding in Northern Virginia.

Thursday evening we used a method Becky evolved at conferences of buying breakfast foods at little grocery stores and thus avoiding the high price of breakfast in hotels.

We ate our breakfast the next morning (Friday) and poked round in the morning, noticing the police had all but one lane of the six-lane avenues blocked off and were checking every truck and using explosive sniffing dogs. We ate lunch at a Subway and had our first rehearsal at Calvary Baptist Church on West 57th Street. The group was so large (250 singers) it was necessary to have different rehearsals at different places We couldn’t use the church the next day, for example, because there was a wedding there. Rene Clausen both rehearsed the group and shared with us the process by which the piece came to be written, section by section. We were supposed to go until 5 PM but finished about 4. We began to have a sense that this group of singers was good.

We took the subway to the theater district, got tickets from the TKTS booth for Jersey Boys and ate at Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company in Times Square. I was a fan of the Four Seasons in high school and enjoyed the music and the story although they were more pathetic with their self-made problems than tragic.  And they cussed. A lot.  If you don’t like cussing, see something else.

Saturday morning, another rehearsal, another venue, this time the Ethical Society (I don’t know what it is, either) on West 62nd Street. We made more progress on the song.  Becky and I had lunch at the Cafe Europa (a very good local chain) at West 57th and Seventh Avenue after stopping at the Steinway House and its interesting gift shop. After lunch, we ended up walking down Sixth to the subway at Rockefeller Center because the F Station at Sixth Avenue and 57th Street did not have trains going downtown because of construction.  We made our way to the Tenement Museum. The tour was interesting and engaging and the gift shop filled with unique gifts.

We went back to hotel briefly and then had dinner at the Puttanesca again and went to the Theater District to see How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying with Daniel Radcliffe and John Larouquette. We found out  Harry Potter is short but can really dance and sing and that Larouquette is  a comic genius

The next morning we had a big breakfast at the Europa Restaurant. Since we were leaving that evening we had to check out before dress and left our suitcases in some friends’ room who were staying another night so we could change from our concert attire and put on travel clothes. The  dress went well and soon we were back in the dressing rooms preparing for the performance.  I should add that Avery Fischer Hall is incredibly beautiful. Then it was time for the concert. The orchestra played “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber and then we sang our piece.  I noticed the audience was very still which meant they were listening closely. We were seated in the third tier during intermission.The choir which did the second part of the concert was not well prepared and the music, which used some powerful and beautiful words from poetry and other important sources, was dreadful–repetitious and less than tuneful. Some of the college kids in our choir fell asleep and were snoring until they were startled awake by an all too frequent slamdown on the timpani.  By the time the torture ended we realized we would not be able to make the reception and make our train.  We changed back at the hotel and took a taxi to Penn Station. We had some pizza for dinner and found the waiting room filled with Giant fans who were on their way to a game in the Meadowlands. They stayed on the train until the Secaucus stop where they all got off.  We changed trains at Newark Station and barely made the one bound for Somerville. We retrieved the car, took the interstates back and ran into some heavy rains on the way.  We used the interstate route rather than one recommended as most direct by Google Maps or GPS. Our total time back was about seven hours. Quite a difference.

We were back at the church to allow our riders to retrieve their rides by 1:30 and then home and to bed by 2.

Tomorrow, some insights into “Memorial.”

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Travel Is a Curse

That’s what my brother Ron, a commercial airline pilot, says about travel.  And he should know.  He has traveled a lot.
We generally have fairly smooth trips.  Driving, Becky drives and I navigate and that works out well because she is a good driver and likes to drive; I don’t like to drive and I do like maps and GPS’s. (Plural?) I’m a pretty good navigator except when I get us lost. Which has happened a few times.  Some. You get the idea.

We are in New York City tonight to be a part of “A Concert of Commemoration, Honoring the 10th Anniversary of 9/11” to be held in Avery Fisher Hall of the Lincoln Center on Sunday at 1:30 PM. We and some others from the Manassas Chorale will be part of a chorus that sings “Memorial,” a piece depicting chorally the attacks on 9/11 and responses to them.  It is a touching, moving and in places disturbing piece.

To get here we do what we usually do when we come to New York City: we drive to an obliging church’s lot in New Jersey and take the New Jersey Transit train into Penn Station. Normally it takes about 5 1/2 hours.  Today it took 10 1/2. There was a tractor-trailer in the trees on the Beltway, and about half a mile from our destination in New Jersey, the road went from three to one lanes because of road construction.  It took us an hour to go half a mile. We had good company but it was a long hard trip.  Becky drove all the way.  I looked at my maps and GPS.

Oh, and I forgot my New Jersey Transit Senior Pass which would have given me half off my ticket. And that’s why travel is a curse.

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Remembering to Forget

If some of you, at least, are like me, you suffer from what some call “C.R. S. Syndrome.”  C. R. S. stands for “Can’t Remember…Stuff), and I have it bad.  I think I always had. I remember several teachers in elementary school that I would make a fine absent-minded professor but for the fact I was in fourth grade. I just couldn’t help it.

As I think about my life, I realize that much of what I do during a typical day is devoted to helping me make sure I remember what I need to remember.  In pressure situations I have checklists and lists of checklists… which I then lose. I put things that have to go someplace by the front door.  Sometimes I put them in the car so I’ll know they will go where I am going, and maybe end up at their destination. Sometimes I put them on the car roof and, forgetting they’re there, drive off with papers or sticks of wood or a plastic pitcher flying away.  I console myself with the thought that I never (as did one absent-minded parent) put a baby in a safety  seat on the roof of a car and drove off.  People driving along beside him tried in every way they think of to tell him that he had a baby in a carrier on his car roof and did not succeed for several miles. Luckily, the baby was not harmed.

Like many people, I misplace certain important household objects, like the TV/ VCR (anyone still have one of those like me?)/DVD/cable box remote. If you’re like me, you’ll spend more time looking for the remote than walking over and turning the whatever on manually.  Then there are misplaced eyeglasses and thereby hangs a tale. I misplace mine with alarming frequency (sometimes on top of my head) but am not too hard on myself: they are clear and made of glass (duh) and hard to see.

I know some people who buy 6 or 8 pairs of drug store reading glasses and leave pair in each room.  Nice idea, but if I tried it, they’d all end up in the same room.

Recently I misplaced my year-old bifocals. And I mean misplaced them. I looked everywhere I could think of for two weeks and no bifocals. It was as if they had disappeared off the face of the earth. I distinctly remembered having them on while I talked on the phone but past that, no clue. Now, my vision insurance covers (partially) lenses every year and frames every two years.  I don’t know why there is a difference; I just know that I sit on my glasses and bend the frames ( all too frequently) far more often than I break the lenses (never).

So, I decided it was time to replace my lost glasses and took myself to Prince William Eye Associates, a great practice right there on Centreville Road not far from my house. The nice people there measured me for new frames and new lenses based on my prescription on file. I put the order in, paid (they gave me discounts equivalent to my vision insurance), got in my car and pulled out on Centreville Road on my way to Bloom.  As sometimes happens around here, someone decided to pull out in front of me leaving so little space I had to cram on the brakes of the big Impala with all the strength I had. As the car rapidly decelerated, something the size of  pair of eyeglasses slid out from under the driver’s seat.  It was my missing glasses.  That was where they had been all that time. I was happy to see them (and to see through them) and didn’t cancel the order for the new specs since they had progressive lenses which are useful for computer work.

So, I unconsciously put my glasses somewhere and just as unconsciously found them. That has a symmetry that I like.  And I didn’t make a spectacle out of myself doing it.

Some more additions to the Honor Roll of teachers:

The late Margaret Hunt, piano teacher and natural force for music in this area.  I described her memorial service in the August 15th blog, “A Series of Fortunate Events.”

The music teachers at the Manassas Baptist Church School of Music do a wonderful job of teaching people of all ages instruments ranging from French horn to guitar.

And there’s Sheila Lamb, teacher, librarian, former park ranger, and writer who just published her first book, Once a Goddess, now available in a Kindle edition on Amazon.com but soon to be published in a traditional format.

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Honor Roll Updated

Since I wrote about incredible teachers that I know or have known in yesterday’s blog, I have heard from some whose names I omitted.  I am chagrined by my omissions. People who contacted me were complimentary about the blog and seemed to bear me no ill will about leaving out their names. I want to try to rectify that in this post, disregarding one of our minister’s rules for public recognition, “Recognize everyone or recognize no one.” Those of you I failed to mention, my thanks for your grace and good humor.  Those qualities alone show you are a great teacher.

I also wrote the post very early and put it out there early. I think more names might have occurred to me if I had waited.  That said, here are some more phenomenal teachers.

Judith Johnson Smith, whom I know through the Manassas Chorale, wrote, “I had a hand in training lots of teachers while I was working in Fairfax and then teaching in the Troops to Teachers program after retirement. I have always been passionate about TEACHERS – they are the key!”

Mary McElveen, a denizen of Sub-School 5 at Robinson back in the day, was a chemistry teacher who could have taught any subject.  She is (still, Mary?) the Poet Laureate of the City of Alexandria.

Hannah and Allan Nixon are two special friends who retired from educational positions but continue to be involved in helping upcoming teachers.  Hannah was a music teacher; Allan was an elementary principal.  They are indeed the salt of the earth.

I met special needs teacher Sandra Pritchard at a local grocery store recently with her group of students.  She introduced me as a local writer.  I was impressed by the kind way she related to her charges.

We had a remarkable group of teachers in Sub-School 5 at Robinson High School. Sandy Keim taught calculus with effortless grace and was one of the funniest people I have ever met.  Her husband George Keim was a principal who sometimes visited Robinson occasionally. We had a 20-minute break in the middle of the morning, which George liked to call “recess.” “I never saw a high school with recess,” he said. He later acted as interim principal at Osbourn High School. I told Alyssa, then a student there, to ask him if they could have recess. He looked at her and said, “You must be a Verner.” Other Robinsonites I remember fondly as great teachers include Diane Lethcoe, Marcia Gibson, Lois Page, Scott Ludlow, Mary Moriarty and Mary Kay Montgomery. Shirley Whiteman was our department chair for years and beloved by her students and fellow teachers.

I think all teachers have a special place in their hearts for students who go on to become teachers.  For me, these include Lisa Hope Lucia Vierra-Moore and Jill Grissom.  They were extraordinary students so I am certain they are incredible teachers.


I sometimes see local retired principal Bob Thomas around town. He was an excellent administrator who helped generations of students and teachers. Then there is former Northern Virginia Writing Project Director Don Gallehr who inspired so many writing teachers and by extension their students.


I probably still don’t have everyone, but you know who you are. Thank you for the important work you do.


Note: Terri Wiseman, a retired teacher, wrote me that Suzie Shaw is in the hospital. Thoughts and prayers with you, Suzie.

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Tribute to Teachers

In the past several years since I retired (in 2003), a new custom has played itself out early on the first day of school (today).  After hearing me go on about how nice it was not to have to get up early and go to school and face hordes of students every day, many of whom would rather have been anywhere else, my friends Wanda Boley and Martha Cannon, chorus and math teacher extraordinaire respectively, call me when they are up that day, usually shortly after 5 A.M.  I pretend I am awake and share the joy they feel going off for the first day. It’s a great example of teacher humor and cameraderie (and also a reminder that I need to keep my mouth closed when tempted to share my good fortune and happy state).

Ms. Boley and Ms. Cannon are representatives of the people I know who are teachers. I did not come from a family of teachers, although I learned a lot from my parents and aunts and uncles and cousins, but we know a number of people involved in education. Obviously, I continue to be an advocate for teachers, believing it to be “the toughest job you’ll ever love” (a slogan used by the Peace Corps, many of whom are teachers). I continue to keep my hand in teaching, working with a young adult Sunday School class and teaching an ESOL class also at our church.  I believe each of us is or has the potential to be a teacher, whether we are showing a child how to tie a shoelace or leading a class in calculus at the college level.

I know there are some who do not share my enthusiasm for teachers and for public education. I am sorry you don’t, but unless you were educated by your parents at home (and there are those people), you are where you are today partly because of teachers. (The idea was so well articulated by education advocate Frosty Troy, former editor of the Oklahoma Observer, to which he continues to contribute as well as continues to peak to numerous groups.”)

That said, there are some bad teachers. There are some rotten teachers.  They should not be teaching.  And worst of all, there are those few who ignore the sacred trust placed in them and abuse children in their care. I try to be kind and forgiving, but in this case I would gladly help torture anyone convicted of such crimes.  Sorry about the baldness of that statement, but it shows how strongly I feel about the relationship between teacher and student. Jesus also had a few words to say on the subject: “And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck.” Couldn’t agree more. Bring it on.

But I’m here to talk about the teachers we know, to salute them and thank them for what they do.  Some are retired, some  are still active, but all contributed mightly to the development and well-being of children. Starting close to home, there’s my wife Becky, who has taught music to generations of children whom she calls “her music babies.” It’s an incredible to watch her work with a roomful of children and show them how to create beautiful music together.  Then there is our daughter Amy, starting her twelfth year, a natural teacher if I ever saw one. Add to that her fourth grade teaching team at Signal Hill Elementary School and the amazing staff and faculty there.

I’ve already mentioned Wanda Boley (chorus) and Martha Cannon (math), so beloved by their students. Then, in no particular order, there is Debbie Schlecte (choral director at Parkside) whose groups produce some of the most incredible choral music anyone has ever heard; Susan Briscoe (kindergarten) who takes on the tough kids and makes a difference in their lives; Jane Cole, an enthusiastic and talented elementary music teacher; Mark Dodge, a physics teacher who engages students with unique lessons and who came into teaching from a career at IBM; Jan Cersale, a phenomenal teacher who teaches with Amy at Signal Hill; her daughter Katie, a new mother; Carol Bryant, a former Marine D.I. who teaches Sunday School with me and who has a deep understanding of young people and more ideas than anyone I’ve ever known; my friends at Robinson, Mike Karpicus, Lisa Green and Tara McCord; former student,  Facebook friend and present English teacher Mary Gallagher Gray; former (and now retired) Robinson head librarian, car pool buddy friend and neighbor Mike Bartlett; his wife Pat, tamer of middle school kids; newly retired Rachel Myers (enjoy!); baseball coach Larry Crowder (coaches are teachers, in essence); retired English teacher Suzie Shaw, who taught both our girls; retired elementary teacher Mary Staggs (and possible cousin with the maiden name of Varner); Nanacy Slusher, who taught at my elemetay school in Fairfax, Westmore; and there are many others I know I have missed (my apologies).

Have a great school year, teachers, students, staff, parents all!  As tiny Tim famously said in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, “God bless us, everyone!”

To close, please consider this portion of a piece by former Oklahoma editor and advocate for public schools and teachers Frosty Troy entitled “A Salute to Teachers”:


You want heroes?

Last year the average public school teacher spent $468 of their own money for student necessities — work books, pencils — supplies kids had to have but could not afford. That’s a lot of money from the pockets of the most poorly paid teachers in the industrial world. Public schools don’t teach values? The critics are dead wrong. Public education provides more Sunday school teachers than any other profession. The average teacher works more hours in nine months than the average 40-hour employee does in a year.

You want heroes?

For millions of kids, the hug they get from a teacher is the only hug they will get that day because the nation is living through the worst parenting in history. Many have never been taken to church or synagogue in their lives.

A Michigan principal moved me to tears with the story of her attempt to rescue a badly abused little boy who doted on a stuffed animal on her desk — one that said, “I love you!” He said he’d never been told that at home.

This is a constant in today’s society — two million unwanted, unloved, abused children in the public schools, the only institution that takes them all in.

You want heroes?

Visit any special education class and watch the miracle of personal interaction; a job so difficult that fellow teachers are awed by the dedication they witness. There is a sentence from an unnamed source which says, “We have been so anxious to give our children what we didn’t have that we have neglected to give them what we did What is it that our kids really need? What do they really want? Math, science, history and social studies are important, but children need love, confidence, encouragement, someone to talk to, someone to listen, standards to live by. Teachers provide upright examples, the faith and assurance of responsible people. Kids need to be accountable to caring parents who send well disciplined children to school. These human values are essential in a democracy — anything that threatens them makes our whole society a little less free, our nation a little less strong. These values can be neither created nor preserved without continuous effort, and that effort must come from more than teachers who have students only six hours of the day.

Despite the problems, public school teachers laugh often and much. They have the respect of intelligent people and the affection of students who care.

Teachers strive to find the best in their students, even where some see little hope. No other American bestows a finer gift than teaching — reaching out to the brilliant and the retarded, the gifted and the average.

Teachers leave the world a little bit better than they found it, knowing if they have redeemed just one life, they have done God’s work. They are America’s unsung heroes.

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A Salute to Laborers on Labor Day

(Warning–this is a long post, so get yourself something to drink, sit down and enjoy!)

Labor Day is one of those holidays that has lost some of its original meaning.  Originally established to honor those who labor, it had strong ties to the union movement in this country. I would venture to say that unions are controversial these days. Some see them as an important factor in establishing decent working conditions, benefits  and pay for workers. Others blame them for closing businesses and industries with their demands and contracts. In any case, the holiday has become a transition from summer to fall, from vacation to school, marked by picnics and special sales.For my part, I’d like to add a word or two in praise of those who labored to build this country and who work to keep it going today.

Canadian Gordon Lightfoot, my favorite singer/songwriter (much to the chagrin of my daughters, who consider him hopelessly old school) has had a remarkable career. He began singing publically as a child, and  moved into the folk/songwriter area around 1960. Marty Robbins’ hit “Ribbon of Darkness” is a Lightfoot tune. Lightfoot broke into a wider audience when Ian and Sylvia recorded his “Early Morning Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me.”  Peter, Paul and Mary later covered both songs. I first became aware of him around 1965 when he released his first solo album, “Lightfoot!” and have followed his career since then. He is still performing 62 concerts a year all over North America.  His voice isn’t what it used to be, but he has one of the tightest bands around, with some members 30 year veterans.  The band lost extraordinary guitar player Terry Clements to a stroke a few months back.

Some of Lightfoot’s more popular songs were “If You Could Read My Mind” (1970– to my way of thinking the best pop song every written about failed love), “Sundown” (1973), and  “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (1976–an over six minute recording about the loss of the ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald that sank in a Lake Superior storm in November, 1975. It had considerable radio airplay in spite of its length and subject matter). His catalog includes over 237 recorded songs.  Not too shabby.

Early in his career, Lightfoot celebrated workers who built Canada, and workers in general. He wrote about go-go dancers (“Go-Go Round”), truck drivers (“Long Thin Dawn,”), textile mill workers (“Cotton Jenny”), laborers (“Early Morning Rain” and “Steel Rail Blues”), bush pilots (“Flying Blind”), singers (“Hangdog Hotel Room”), miners (“Boss Man” and “Mother of a Miner’s Child,”), and numerous songs about ships and sailors (“Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Triangle,” “Ghosts of Cape Horn,” “Ballad of Yarmouth Castle,” “Marie Christine”).

In two songs, Lightfoot sings specifically about the contribution of workers to building up the country. “Crossroads” is first-person account of a young man who worked all kinds of jobs.

When first I did appear upon this native soil
All up and down this country at labor I did toil
I slumbered in the  moonlight and I rose with the sun
I rambled through the canyons where the cold rivers run…

So I swung an axe as a timberjack
And I worked the Quebec mines
And on the golden prairie I rode the big combines
I sailed the maritime waters of many a seaport town
Built the highways and the byways to the western salmon grounds…

Lightfoot’s magnum opus is “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” a song which honors and recognizes those workers, mostly Scotch-Irish in Canada (and Irish and Chinese in this country) who built, almost entirely by hand, the Canadian transcontinental railroad. In first two movements, Lightfoot comments on the building of the railroad.
There was a time in  this fair land when the  railroad did not run
When the  wild majestic mountains
Stood alone against the sun
 Long before the  white man and long before the wheel
When the green dark  forest was too  silent to be real
 
But time has no beginnings and history has no bounds
As to this verdant country they came from all around
They sailed upon her waterways and they walked the forests tall
And they built the mines, the mills and the factories for the good of us all
 
And when the young man’s fancy was turning to the spring
The railroad men grew restless for to hear the hammers ring
Their minds were overflowing with the visions of their day
And many a fortune lost and won and many a debt to pay
 
For they looked in the future and  what did they see
They saw an  iron road running from the  sea to the sea
 Bringing the goods to a  young growing land
All up from the seaports and  into their hands
 
Look away said they across this mighty  land
From the eastern shore to the western strand
 
Bring in the workers and bring up the rails
We gotta lay down the tracks and tear up the trails
Open her heart let the life blood flow
Gotta get on our way ’cause we’re moving too slow
In the third movement, he gives a voice to those who constructed it, mile by mile:
We are the navvies who work upon the  railway
 Swinging our  hammers in the  bright blazing sun
 Living on  stew and  drinking bad  whiskey
 Bending our  backs til the long days are  done
 
We are the navvies who work upon the railway
Swinging our hammers in the bright blazing sun
Laying down track and building the bridges
Bending our backs til the railroad is done  
Oh the song of the future has been sung
All the battles have been won
On the mountain tops we stand
All the world at our command
We have) opened up the soil
With our teardrops and our toil 
Our nephew, Jonathan Pankey, like the workers in Lightfoot’s song, is a symbol of all the hardworking men and women out there who keep the country moving. Jonathan is about the hardest working person I have ever known.  He has had his own lawn care business since he was fifteen.  His mother had to drive him to his jobs until he got his license.
Jonathan had his start with mowing and machines and growing things under the tutelage of his late grandfather and my father-in-law, Oscar Detwiler. Oscar could grow or fix just about anything, and Jonathan learned from a master.
When he got his driver’s permit at 16, he began to acquire the trucks and lawn equipment he needed to do a professional job.  He presently has a Ford-350, a trailer that must be thirty feet long and dozens of pieces of equipment.  He serves dozens of customer and, with a helper, works from first light to total dark. He does a wonderful job with our lawn, which is a typically-sized suburban patch of grass, in thirty minutes.

Jonathan is a delightful young fellow.  As I have said, he is hard-working.  He is also honest, sincere, polite and possesed of a great sense of humor.  He is one of the good ones.
And so, here’s to Jonathan and to all the people who work hard for a living and make a difference for us all–the crossing guards, the steel-mill workers, the miners, the truck drivers, the school bus drivers, the toll takers, the mechanics, the locomotive engineers, the cowboys, the administrative assistants, the C.N.A.’s, the dry cleaners, the medical techs, the stone masons, the plumbers, the carpenters, and all the rest too numerous to list here (there are tens of thousands of occupations such as these). To the people who built this country and all these who keep it running, thank you for all you do, and God bless you all.

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