Until we meet again, Mr. P.
Last week, I got the sad news that my beloved high school choir teacher passed away.
Now you may not think that this news could (or should) rattle someone who’s been out of high school for more than 20 years. But it has. And that’s because Mr. P was one of those teachers that changed lives.
He definitely changed mine.
Over the past week, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on this incredible man. Not only did he have an immense impact on me, but he influenced the lives of so many students. We were all lucky to be taught by him.
In fact, you could say he was my very first “best boss ever.” Although I was not a paid singer in his choir, I think the leadership role he played was more complex—one in which he was leading… gulp… teenagers. If that doesn’t deserve a lifetime leadership award, I don’t know what does.
He was a fiery and hot-headed Italian man, with an incredible temper. In rehearsal, we’d often make mistakes (as all humans do, but especially teenagers) and his response to those mistakes was totally dependent on his mood.
It wasn’t uncommon for him to shout to cut off the song, slam his baton on the music stand while his face filled with rage. He knew how to give a look to kill.
Mr. P had very high standards. I mean, we were just high school students. But he treated us as if we were headed to Carnegie Hall! There was no mistake that was passable. There was no standard that should be adjusted to offset our adolescence.
My favorite memory of Mr. P has to be him delivering one of his famous catchphrases. Whenever we would go out on stage or go into a competition, he expected us to not only perform at our best, but to BE our best. He expected us to dress the part. He expected us to stand tall. He expected us to show up on time. When we often veered off track, he would slam his foot on the ground, and sternly demand that we “show some class!”
Something about Mr. P insinuating that you were not being classy felt deeply offensive. Call me anything, but please don’t say that I lack class.
And before you start thinking that this is one of those horror stories about bad teachers, I have to tell you the most important piece of the Mr. P puzzle: He loved deeply.
Deeper than anyone else I can think of. He loved history, he loved music, he loved performance, he loved art. A blissful look would stretch across his face whenever a perfect song came together or he went off on a tangent explaining the history of an incredible piece of musical art to a bunch of 17-year-olds. His facial expressions showed that this, to him, was like experiencing a slice of heaven.
Mr. P truly loved his students.
He knew that not all of us would go on to become professional performers, but it brought him great joy to witness us growing into respectable adults. It was a source of pride for him.
I believe that he was fully invested in making sure that every teenager who spent time in his classroom became a better human as a result.
About 10 years after my time in Mr. P’s competitive show choir, I was working as a design engineer for Chrysler in one of their large manufacturing plants. It was a tough assignment.
I was a 25-year-old woman in a plant full of (older) men. I was often on the receiving end of uncomfortable stares. One day, I was walking down a lane and a man in a blue jumpsuit was walking towards me. I looked up as he approached, and I noticed his eyes focusing right on my chest.
As I got closer, his eyes stayed locked on my chest. Just as I went to pass him, I felt my face turn red and rage pulse through my veins.
All of the sudden, as if it was simply an instinct, I slammed my steel-toed boot on the ground and screamed, “show some class!”
The man was shocked and horrified; My message was received loud and clear. And the best part? He didn’t ogle me ever again—for that, I say thank you, Mr. P.
So the next time you’re being treated poorly or inappropriately or feel like you want to tell someone where to go, try channeling Mr. P. Take a deep breath and tell them to “show some class.” I promise it works.
Do you have a teacher that made a profound impact on your life? I’d love to hear about them. Join me on LinkedIn and let’s continue the conversation.