“Music is a Rainbow!” was a phrase painted on our high school choir room wall below a rainbow music staff, in a key that doesn’t exist. It was the first thing we saw upon entering the room and something we loved to exclaim dramatically for our amusement. The mural was created when Don Barrows was the conductor there.
We lost Mr. Barrows to cancer a little over two weeks ago from the same kind that took his son about two years ago. You know how even thinking about a parent or other close relative dying can make you cry? I felt the same about him. Probably a decade ago, one of my best friends and I talked about how we didn’t know how we could possibly handle not having him here anymore. He was so much more than a teacher to us and as I read his Facebook wall, I could see that countless students felt the same. Reading the many tributes has been a great comfort.
I wish everyone had a teacher in their life that made such an impact. I wish every teacher made this kind of impact on someone – at least one person.
In short, I was with the same piano teacher for seven years and I never felt like he really cared about me. I knew he was an excellent pianist, so I tolerated him for that long, but I was a little hurt that he rarely praised me, blew me off when I wanted to share an accomplishment with him, and seemed to only view me as a paycheck. Looking back, I don’t think it was personal. I think he strongly resented the fact that he had to keep his day job. He wanted to perform and compose. Teaching paid the bills.
In 7th grade, I decided I had had enough of the tension and I continued on my own. Much to my surprise, I progressed and became a much better sight reader. I started choir that year where I was also blessed with a great teacher. I would pick up the sheet music, learn to play it, and sing along. I knew I could carry a tune, but so can my whole family, so it didn’t seem that remarkable. Mary Carter gave me my first boost of confidence and I have tried my darnedest to find her so I can thank her.
On I went to high school. I had heard a lot about Mr. Barrows from my brother, but I had no idea how much I would love him. I think that only took about seven minutes vs. the seven years I spent feeling resented! I’ll never forget his energy and humor that first morning at jazz choir as we opened our sheet music “Taking a Chance on Love”. I can’t recall a moment that he ever looked bored, which is amazing. He announced that he would be “graduating” with us – the class of ’93, but his retirement came a year early when he was burnt out from teaching one of the English classes with students I gathered weren’t so appreciative. We were heartbroken.
I saw him every day at 7am for jazz choir and then again at about 11ish for concert choir. He made every day fun with his humor and then the next minute he would have us in tears as he became emotional, patting his chest as he talked about the background of the sacred music he had chosen. He wasn’t a preachy guy and I couldn’t imagine anyone getting upset for bringing up the forbidden word at school – God. No one ever complained that I know of. We were loyal to him because he was so genuine and caring. I was impressed by how many students’ names he remembered after decades of teaching.
We missed singing with him so much, a friend and I joined the Federal Way Chorale, followed by several other friends. It felt so wonderful to sing with him again! It was a hard decision when I later had to quit. My son became a toddler and I just couldn’t justify the long drive anymore. Whenever I could though, I jumped at the opportunity to watch Mr. Barrows conduct and I was thrilled when a friend organized a choir reunion. I knew deep down it would be my last time singing with him. Last December a group of singers got together and we Christmas caroled at his doorstep. It was a miracle that he even got to be home and will forever be one of my best Christmas memories. It was raining pretty hard, but I hoped that showed him just how determined we were to expess our love. I didn’t care that I looked like a drowned rat. I did care that my music was becoming less legible. 😀
I was able to attend the beautiful funeral for him at the Catholic Church where he directed the choir for about 30 years. I was touched to see the emotion from so many people and hear more about his influence. The priest told us a story about a student who was being abused at home and ended up dropping out of high school. Later when they met with a school counselor, they were asked, “Well, what are you good at?” They said, “I’m good at choir because of one teacher.” It changed their life because they had that one thing to feel good about.
It’s so hard to lose the teacher I always wanted – who saw my potential, made me laugh, encouraged me, and introduced me to music I never would have found on my own. Last month I auditioned for a new professional choir that is just starting and it was bittersweet to learn that I was accepted. I wanted to tell Mr. Barrows more than anyone and thank him again.
I started this post over a week ago, hoping I could somehow communicate just how wonderful he is because I wish everyone could know him. I dedicate this new blog to him and he will continue to be my inspiration as I try to make my own students feel loved. I’m pretty convinced he is the greatest teacher in the world. I’ll be writing some stories about him in the future since I realize I just can’t cram his awesomeness into one post!
I’ll be writing about other subjects too – a rainbow of subjects! ;-D