I hope this letter finds you well. I was having a bit of trouble trying to find the right words to say as I wrote it. It’s not every day you try to put into words just how much an old high school teacher means to you. Yeah, I know, it’s been more than thirty-five years since I was a student walking those hallowed halls but believe it or not, you’re still the first person who comes to mind whenever I think about my high school experience.
Back then, you had a saying you liked to use whenever someone was having a problem. Whether it was something as simple as a homework assignment, peer pressure, or even trouble at home, whenever someone was having an issue, you’d pull that person aside and say, “Talk to me.” Those three words became your mantra, and I guess in a way that’s what I’m doing now, talking to you.
I never told you this before, but you played a huge role during the most fragile and formative years of my young life. Like so many other teenagers trying to find their place in the world, I didn’t fit in well in high school, but your choir class was the one place I could go where I felt like I completely belonged. You taught me how to sing and how to release the song from inside my soul. Most of all, you made me feel valued.
I remember the awkward feeling I had walking into your music room every morning and seeing you surrounded by a gaggle of students. All of them eagerly asking you questions about last night’s music theory assignment or trying to get your opinion on a selected piece of music they chose for their district chorus audition. You seemed like a celebrity and the class was your fanbase. Sometimes I had questions of my own to ask but was too shy to do so. It wouldn’t be until after class had ended that I’d pull you side and tell you about my interest in majoring in music at the same state college as you.
I hadn’t seen you since the night of my graduation in 1987. If I’m being honest, I also hadn’t given you much thought at all, that is until almost two decades later when someone told me about the adult choir you were directing once a week in a chapel on the far side of town. This was shortly after you’d retired from teaching, and long after I’d given up on my own dream of becoming a professional musician.
Call it nostalgia but I had an urge, a tickle in my stomach of wanting to be part of something special. By then, I’d already had a family of my own and was long established in a busy career in information technology. Something like the prospect of singing in a choir with you seemed too good to be true, but regardless of any scheduling concerns, I needed to make time, if only for myself.
I still remember the familiar feeling of awkwardness when I walked into church that night for that first rehearsal. As usual, you were already in conversation with a few people and didn’t see me approaching. I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach. Part of me wanted to turn and run, not because I wasn’t sure of what to say, but because I’d already started second guessing myself again. It had been years since I’d sung in a choir. Would I even know what to do?
I also wondered if you’d even remember me. I was one of thousands of students you had taught over your thirty-three-year teaching career. It had been decades and the skinny, introverted, long-haired student who once sat before you in the corner of the room was now a full-blown middle-aged man. Less hair on his head and, sadly, a bit thicker in the middle. Somehow, I was able to muster up the courage and nervously tapped my hand on your shoulder.
“Hello, M” I said, meekly. “Do you remember me?”
I will never forget the look of joy on your face when you turned around and saw me standing there. It was as if the Prodigal Son, who had been through the confusion of life and adult responsibility, had suddenly found his way back home. Here I was, once again the fragile student now stuck in an adult body, and there you were, still carrying the age and wisdom of years just like me, but with the same wit and energy I loved while sitting in your music theory classes.
“Oh my gosh!” you exclaimed as you shook my hand, firmly. “It’s been a long time.”
You told me to call you “Ed” that night because your name was Ed Milisits and we were now both adults. I did but truthfully didn’t want to. That bond of teacher-student was still very strong. For me, and I think for most everyone who ever had the pleasure of being one of your students, you were known as a single letter of the alphabet:
I spent the next ten years spending Tuesday nights in the choir under your direction. One year, I mustered up the courage to suggest a piece of music to do that we performed my senior year of high school. You were excited about the possibility but let me know that it was a bit of a long-shot because approval was needed by the music committee. It took a few more years but one morning, ironically thirty years after last performing the piece in high school, I received an email from you:
“Thought you’d be interested to know that ‘Os Justi’ is on the Winter program list! We WIN!”
When the pandemic hit in 2020 and the world shut down, the choir went on hiatus. It was also a time when I was going through a lot of personal issues and you were facing your own challenges as well. Ones that made mine look small in comparison. Although I did email quite a few times to see how you were, I always respected your need for privacy.
It’s hard to believe that today makes a full a year that you’ve been gone. Sometimes I’ll see a post pop up in my Facebook memories and read your comments about it. That will, inevitably, get me to thinking about you and our conversations in the high school choir room or the adult choir rehearsal hall. It puts a smile on my face but I wish there was a chance to have one more conversation with you. Until then, I suppose this one-sided letter will have to do. Someday, God-willing, I’ll have the honor of sitting in your choir again.
M, just know that you are missed dearly, not just by me but by the generations of people who had the pleasure of sitting in one of your classrooms or choirs. You taught us to believe in ourselves, to laugh and, most importantly, to raise our voices in song.
James Wood (Class of 1987)