Friday, July 18, 2008

Portrait of a Teacher

This is Sandra Bouman a year ago. I picked up a liking for calling her "San" from her lifelong friend, Maria Aquilina, who was her college roommate at Penn State and her best friend for fifty-one years. San was the optimistic, idealistic, youthful presence within Sandra. Unless I was joking and called her "Sandy," with the retort, "Mikey," she was pure San all the way.

My dear companion of thirty-two years died last month in one of the more fortunate ways to succumb to breast cancer, without much pain, with full mental and emotional responses all the way to the final sleep, and engaged in a sudden outpouring of affection from lifelong friends, colleagues, and students, most of whom only learned of her deteriorating condition four days before she slipped into the fog.

She had learned that her condition was dire the previous week. She had sensed the dizzying rate of her decline a week before she died, and so she and I had concentrated our 42 years of history, distilled it to the essence, and pledged to continue living until life took leave. There would be no death vigil in our house. Even as she lost her physical abilities from the failure of her liver, she and I invented ways to give texture or dimension to the smaller and smaller number of tasks or actions we could do with each other. In this I sensed a commitment to invest "sacramental energy" in every attentive deed, and I asked the congregation at her memorial service, "if we find the capacity to do this with someone when they're dying, why not try it when they're not?"

We blessed each other, and that is what now carries me forward into an active life.

Among the blessings others bestowed on her were messages of how her teaching had affected them. I'm going to quote a few of those messages. I think they convey a better portrait than any of my vast collection of images of her.

"After we spoke on the phone I felt that I wanted to put these feelings down on paper for you to have. I think you deserve to know what an impact you've had on me, and I know that I am only one of many.

"I'm sorry that I was too young to fully understand the depths of the gifts you were bestowing on me. I've just recently started to get it and I want you to know how grateful I am.

"Even though we haven't been a part of each other's daily lives for some time, it is obvious to me now that whatever I didn't come here with, I owe to you.

"You invested in me in a way that I couldn't understand until recently. Maybe I just needed to grow up a little.

"And somewhere over our years together, you became a part of me. Yours is now the voice I hear in my head. Your dignity and grace surround my voice. And your unfailing drive toward greatness will forever be my motivation.

"So thank you, my teacher, for these precious gifts you have given me so selflessly. I am eternally grateful. And wherever I go, and whatever I do, I will take you with me.

"With love and admiration, your student, (                 )"

The same day, this e-mail arrived from San's former student, Ruth:

"I wanted to take a very important moment to tell you how much you mean to my life. I just moved to England and was in the middle of looking for an apartment when I heard of your condition. My heart and prayers are with you. There is love all around you and your support and love has been a changing force in this world. I can clearly trace my life back to a certain point that brought me here to my PhD program in England and the confident and joy-filled woman I am today. That point was you. How you encouraged me to keep working; how you saw my potential and not the mess of poor technique I was then. You are my "musical mother" just as I said those years ago. That is true for so many young artists you have touched. Your support and motivation allows flowers to bloom.

"I love you very deeply. Ruth"

This one, from Emily, the day before San was mostly in a deepening sleep:

"I must admit that when I started school I was not terribly interested in the voice lesson part--it was just a means to an end for me--another class I had to take. I was also reticent to stretch myself, not really believing that I had any great talent, and that what I did have was good enough for my purposes. You, from the beginning, challenged all of that, and while I resisted at first, and resisted you!, I have to say that your demanding more of me than I was prepared to or wanted to give was probably the best experience of my musical "career." I am so GRATEFUL that I was able to learn from you, even it it was way too short a time. I don't think that there will ever be a time that I sing that I won't think of you, your indomitable spirit, and what you so diligently tried to teach me.

"Okay, so that is enough about me and my experience, now about you: You are quite possibly the strongest woman (or person) I have ever met. Your dedication to your craft and to your students has been inspirational. I cannot imagine how difficult it was to maintain your secrecy regarding your illness, and come to class day after day and give what you gave. I cannot express to you how much I respect you, and how grateful I am that you did fight so hard. I am glad to have had as much time with you as I did.

"Be assured that your legacy will live on in all of us that you have touched. I will take you with me in my singing and in my teaching, as will all of the rest of those that you have mentored. I have the tape of our lessons, which I will keep. I will try my best!! to keep my jaw out of my singing, to not say "n" before I start a phrase, and to breathe correctly.

"God bless you. Emily"

I have a file full of touching notes. In some cases, San had no idea about the capacity for fellow-feeling in the sender, and so she was all the more moved when they revealed that side of themselves to her. I, too, had no idea of the self-knowledge and the potential for eloquence in her students. I knew them mostly by name, mostly as people with performance or study habits that San was trying to transform into something more promising.

It was her nature, as it is mine, to see potential and try to bring it out. We fed off each other up to the last moment of consciousness, and that is some kind of blessing, I'll tell you!

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