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Emily Grossman

Mr. Peterson

January 16, 2008 at 10:16 AM

“If you hurry, you can still make it.” Jacquelyn, my sister-in-law, prompted once more. The words tugged. I really should go. But what if it doesn’t turn out like I imagined it would? Things usually don’t.

They usually don’t. Turn out that way. At least not the way I think about it in the studio, daydreaming, building up the scenario. In this particular scenario, I return to my old high school to see my old high school orchestra teacher, Mr. Peterson. Everyone there is in awe when they see the person that I turned out to be, all famous and well-kept and confident, full of positive energy, heavy-laden with medals of achievement. As I whip out my violin and unfold the first few measures of Bach’s chaccone (or insert whatever dashing violin repertoire you wish), the young aspiring students weep, either because they are so moved by the music, or out of pure jealousy, depending on my mood.

But ever since the day I graduated, I hadn’t set foot in that place. Every time I thought about actually doing it, I shuddered in fear, for the Emily in my imagination turned out to be a pretty hard girl to compete with. I never felt quite like I’d arrived just yet. And what if it didn’t turn out like that? What if he was too busy to stop and chat? What if he didn’t remember me after all, and I had nothing to say, and we stood there looking at the floor?

Maybe next year. Next year, next year, all of them stacking up like dust. Before I knew it, I’d missed the ten-year reunion, and I still wasn’t ready.

The thoughtfulness of Jacquelyn’s phone call prodded me to action. If not now, then when? I'd already concluded that there never would come a time where my status outweighed the standard I’d set. This time, however, it was something else that stirred me to action, an ulterior motive that would not let me rest until I’d seen it through. If it wasn’t for this one thing I really needed to do, I never would have made it out the door that night of the high school orchestra concert.

The parking lot was a little more difficult to find amidst the new structures. The walls inside the building had been re-tiled. They’d added monitors in the lobby to show the events on the stage. Other than that, it still smelled the same. I made it just in time for the last piece on the menu, a John Williams movie-theme arrangement (which I could tell was plagued with flats). As soon as possible, families were up out of their seats, finding their way out to their cars. I swam upstream and tucked myself backstage to wait. Mr. Peterson sat at the edge of the stage, helping his students. As he stood and turned, I stepped out of the shadows. It took a few seconds before he spoke.

“...It isn’t!”
“...It is!”

The scene unfolded from there exactly like it would had it been scripted for a movie. He told me about the school’s growing string program, and of his involvement as a cellist with the newly formed Tulsa Symphony. I told him about my studio of thirty students and how I’d joined the Anchorage symphony. We couldn’t believe he’d been teaching for 27 years, and that I’d been graduated for fourteen.

Finally, I got around to what I came to do. “Mr. Peterson, I just wanted to say thank you. If it hadn’t been for the opportunity that the public school gave me by having a string program, I don’t think I would ever have played the violin at all.”

Can’t even imagine what that would be like.

Thank you, Mr. Peterson.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 16, 2008 at 4:48 PM
How wonderful that you were able to see the teacher who made all the difference! When I think of your experience, I think back to the film "Mr. Holland's Opus." In some ways you are Mr. Peterson's opus.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 16, 2008 at 5:48 PM
Aw geez, I got all teary reading this, Emily!
From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on January 16, 2008 at 10:27 PM
Aw, how wonderful that you were able to reunite with a special teacher like that. Thanks for sharing, Emily. :)
From David Russell
Posted on January 17, 2008 at 2:24 AM
That is really beautiful, Emily. So many times, we think about doing something like that... but how much more it means to actually do them.

I'll bet you made him cry, too!

From Thomas Vu
Posted on January 17, 2008 at 5:43 AM
I am glad Mr. Peterson inspired somebody. He basically took $360 from me and I pretty much lost all interest in the orchestra at Union Public Schools.
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on January 17, 2008 at 6:57 AM
It's wonderful that you finally did that. It must have meant a lot to your former teacher -- and to you, too.

It took me 10 years after graduation from college to write to one of my professors and thank him for the considerable amount of good he had done for me. Since then, we've been writing each other fan letters. I felt much better after writing to him.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on January 17, 2008 at 6:56 AM

Union public schools was where I got my start, for better or for worse. The string program was in no way perfect, but it still has made an opportunity for many people to learn a stringed instrument who would not otherwise have been able to, and that's what my blog was about. If you have an issue with Mr. Peterson, resolve it with him instead of slinging it onto my blog.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on January 17, 2008 at 8:34 AM
I'm so happy that you met up again with one of your earliest teachers! I try to keep in touch with my teachers from years past. The few times that we have been able to hook up again, it was always a joyful occasion.

Keep those connections! They are an integral part of your life!

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 17, 2008 at 12:05 PM
Fifteen years after I graduated from high school I was looking for a string quartet to play at my wedding in my parents' home town. With college, graduate school, and postdoc, I hadn't been back there much except for short visits. When I asked the music director at the church to recommend someone, they said "call Steven Thomas." Steven Thomas was Mr. Thomas, my high school orchestra teacher. He'd gone on to teach at a different high school and to become a popular local freelance violinist.

I wasn't sure, when I called him, if he'd remember me either, but he did, and he and his quartet played at the wedding. The music was so beautiful and it was wonderful to walk down the aisle to music played by him and his quartet.

Like you, without a public school string program, I probably never would have learned to play the violin at all. These teachers are so wonderful and deserve all our thanks!

From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 17, 2008 at 5:04 PM
Interestingly, in Rolling Stone some years ago, there was an article about the decline of middle school music programs. The author interviewed a number of rock stars who all talked about how important those programs had been to them. Go figure.
From Rachel Hodgens
Posted on January 17, 2008 at 6:12 PM
I also had a Mr. Peterson, though he was in South Dakota. I certainly would not have ever played if it wasn't for that program, and if he wasn't the teacher that he was.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on January 17, 2008 at 7:14 PM
Tom, I know I certainly met a few in jr high orchestra who thought they were rock stars!

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