As Numerous as the Stars

"I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and will give to your offspring all these lands; and all the nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves through your offspring." (Genesis 26:4)

The promise to Abraham appears throughout both testaments, reworded by each writer to mean whatever will support the point being made. At times Israel is seen as a blessing; at others times as a conquering horde; but always, there is the assumption, whether explicit or implicit, that all this came out of one patriarch who had only two children, and abandoned one in the desert, then nearly killed the other to prove a point.

But I digress. This essay is not about that rabbit hole of scripturally-sanctioned child abuse. Or maybe it is; we'll just have to say whether that point gets revisited at its conclusion.

What I'm writing about here is the ripple effect. Last night after the Comedy Sportz show, Scott Simon, who performed our wedding, asked us how happy we were and how many children we were planning to have. This was a joke. "Millions!" I replied. "Our children shall number as the stars in the sky!" This was not a joke--at least, not completely. Amy immediately caught my meaning, relating it to the hundreds--actually, by now, thousands--of children I have taught music to.

I've often thought there was a cruel irony to God's promise to Abraham. He was elderly before he fathered his two sons, and would not live to see either of them father children--a moot point with Ishmael, who was cast off in the wilderness as a child and might as well have been dead to Abraham. Isaac, the one son who was to be the channel for God's promise, had but two sons and, like Abraham, only bequeathed the promise to one, Jacob. Only in the fourth generation did the legacy begin to multiply--though if one traces the neglected story lines of Ishmael and Esau, one can imagine many more offspring.

But this is taking the principle far too literally. If we let it be simply about numbers and heritage, the Jewish people, those most directly descended from Abraham, have been a relatively small fraction of the peoples of the earth. But if we consider influence, the entire history of Christianity has to be taken into account; and now we're starting to get that "stars of the sky" effect. And, yes, we must also acknowledge that Muslims, too, consider themselves children of Abraham.

This brings me back to the exchange with Scott that occasioned this essay. As I move among the children of Scott School, the 200 a day I teach music to, the dozens more I interact with on duty, I am keenly aware of how what I do will impact them. Specifically, it is my charge to make music so rich, so enjoyable, so much fun that, if they see me in a supermarket years from now, they'll tell me they're still musicians, playing in a band, singing in a choir, doing karaoake at their favorite bar, making Youtube covers of their favorite songs (that's for you, Sarah), or just humming along in the car. It's also up to me to be an adult male presence in their lives that is gentle, patient, compassionate, and consistently firm, because I know this, too, will be a part of their school experience that will stay with them well into adulthood.

How do I know this? Because of the teachers who stay with me. I could write another column about other authority figures in my life--pastors, Scout leaders, older adults who befriended me--but when I think through my list of patriarchs and matriarchs, the top ten consist almost entirely of teachers.

In most cases, that's a good thing. There's Mrs. Reeder, the first grade teacher who creatively found a way to channel my literary precocity in an era before there was any concept of differentiated instruction. Then there was Mrs. Westendorf, the fifth grade teacher who created projects for me and affectionately called me her walking encyclopedia. Leaping forward to high school, there were many teachers who helped make me who I am, but the one whose presence looms largest was Dan Ogren, the band director who taught me to love music.

I had always liked music. I started piano lessons at five, took up the trumpet at 11, and the summer before Mr. Ogren came to take the place of his disgraced (and ultimately acquitted) predecessor, I was on course to becoming the scratch pianist (definition to follow in a subsequent blog post) I am today. So music was important to me, but I had not yet decided to make it my life. As a performer, I was timid (never a good thing for a trumpet player); as a creator of music, I had yet to even begin to grasp the inner workings of harmony; and as a consumer of music, my tastes were those of a 60-year-old. Mr. Ogren burst into the music room loving music, loving teaching, and thrilled to be working at his twin passions in the sleepy logging town of Philomath. Over the course of the next two years, I absorbed both those passions, and took them with me to Willamette University, where I majored in music education and met the final pioneer and perfecter of my youth, Martin Behnke.

Like Mr. Ogren, Dr. Behnke was young: just 33 when he became director of bands at WU. His approach to music education was, like Mr. Ogren's, simultaneously relaxed and enthusiastic. He exposed his band to a wealth of great music, much of it contemporary. At first I found these pieces with their complex rhythms and dissonant harmonies hard to play, harder to appreciate, and wondered why the composers and arrangers had made so many choices challenging to the ear, but over time, Dr. Behnke's patient promotion of this music expanded my tastes to the point that I graduated from Willamette, my narrow focus on romanticism had blown up to include all periods of music history, and the stage had been set for me to open my mind to popular music, as well.

In the years that followed, I left music teaching for a sixteen year adventure in the ministry, finally coming back in 2001. Reentering the profession, I had encounters with both Ogren and Behnke, each on the verge of retirement. Seeing them at both the beginnings and ends of their careers, I had a chance to reflect not just on how significant they had been to me, but to thousands of other young people. In particular, one day in 2002 I was able to observe Dan Ogren teaching sixth grade band, and was astonished at how connected all those children were with him. After Philomath, I learned, he had left high school teaching for good, spending the rest of his career teaching elementary and middle school music. He talked with me about why he had made this choice, the way in which the "coach culture" at Philomath had turned him off to high school teaching, and how at the beginning level he could focus on education rather than competition. I heard much the same from Martin Behnke at his retirement dinner two years later, as he spoke with pride about how he had finally managed to eliminate the awarding of prizes from the Willamette University Jazz Festival because, as he said, music should never be a competitive sport.

A year after that dinner, I met Doug Goodkin, Orff teacher extraordinaire, and had my approach to teaching music turned on its head, as I learned the essential importance of play in the music classroom. I've written a lot about Doug, a teacher of teachers who continues to inspire me. He, too, has taught countless children to love music.

What all these teachers have in common is the breadth of their influence. Anyone who teachers for any length of time impacts huge numbers of children in ways that reverberate for the rest of their lives. These are the descendants who number as the stars in the sky. I'm beginning to have a sense that I, too, may have such an influence on my students.

The sobering part of this metaphor, and the part that brings me back to Abraham, is what happens when generations of children pass through the classroom of a teacher who is incompetent. I've had my share of teachers whose lackadaisical approach to classroom management permitted bullying to take place almost under their noses; whose poor grasp of subject matter, pedagogy, or both kept me and my peers from learning nearly as much as we should have; and who took out their own pain on their students. Some of those teachers have left scars on my psyche.

They've also left me committed to avoiding the mistakes they made--a commitment I have not, I must admit, always succeeded at fulfilling. At times, my frustration at classes who did not take to my lesson plan has been directed at them, rather than myself. At other times, high flyers with an ax to grind have managed to get under my skin far enough to see my eyes flash with anger, to hear my authoritative teacher voice shift to my angry disrespected AARP member voice. I worry that these students, and the classes that were present when I lost my cool, will carry with them for years the memory of the time Mr. Anderson blew up; that some of the stars in my collective student sky will be darker because of that one time when I lost it.

Getting back to Abraham: the patriarch of three world religions had no education in ethics or leadership. He stumbled often, broke promises to God, cheated on contracts, exiled one son to the wilderness and nearly put a knife in the heart of the other. Perhaps that's why it was only with the generation of his great-grandchildren that the promise of a multitude of descendants finally began to be realized.

Saint or rogue, the legacy of Abraham is awe-inspiring in its depth and breadth; as is that of every teacher I know. Someday, perhaps, I will be able to point to a few stars I had some small part in elevating to the musical sky. For now, I am simply humbled, sobered, and blessed to have the vocation of teaching children to find life in music.


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