I have never been what you might call a “good” student. I have never been comfortable in classrooms. I’ve never been good at taking notes. I tend to freeze up when called upon. I usually did better when I could do the reading on my own time, and writing papers was always preferable to in-class tests. Seventh grade through senior year of high school was basically a six-year block of frustration, except for a single bright spot that appeared when I was a junior: Choir class.
My high school had an enormous choir program. And by enormous, I mean that our Christmas show was such a big deal that it was featured on Good Morning America. I’d seen it each holiday season and thought that I would love to be a part of something like that one day. It wasn’t until my junior year that I finally got up the nerve to sign up for the class. I’d never sung before. I had no idea if I could sing at all, but that didn’t matter. The program took all comers.
The class was taught by an exuberant, charismatic fellow named Guy “Skip” Frizzell. At some point during the first week of class he had each of us get up one by one and sing scales as high and as low as we could go. I recall being more excited than scared, which was an odd sensation for me at the time. When my turn came I did my best, although I wussed out at the high end – like most of my fellow newbies I was too embarrassed to attempt falsetto. But when I finished, some other kid in the class said, “He sang a lot of notes.” And Mr. Frizzell responded, “Yes, he did.” And suddenly I had a sensation I had not experienced since my family moved to Michigan the summer before seventh grade: I was good at something.
My first year in the choir class turned out to be Mr. Frizzell’s last year at my school, but what an extraordinary year it was. That fall I took my first trip to Stratford, Ontario, with a group chaperoned by Mr. Frizzell and a few other teachers. We saw Kiss Me Kate and The Merchant of Venice. With Mr. Frizzell’s encouragement I tried out for my first, and what would end up being my only, high school play. And of course I got to be in the huge Christmas show. But to top it off, the summer after my junior year I joined the choir on a trip to Europe, and saw Leningrad while it was still called Leningrad. I partied on a boat on the Neva River. I strolled the grounds of the Summer Palace. I ate homemade borscht and drank vodka with local music students and their families. I took a ferry ride across the Baltic Sea, and rode a bus through Finland and Sweden. I performed at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. I celebrated my sixteenth birthday in Berlin on the same day as the economic unification of East and West Germany, and witnessed the mania in the streets when West Germany won the World Cup.
I stuck with the choir during my senior year. The new teacher was lovely. But Mr. Frizzell was still a presence. He took over the choir at my parents’ church, and frequently suggested I should join. I found lame excuses, not having the nerve to tell him that I just really wasn’t a church kinda guy.
We lost touch, like people do. Mr. Frizzell moved on to other opportunities elsewhere, and so did I. I had heard that he was teaching again in Missouri. I was glad to know he was still out there, doing his thing.
Mr. Frizzell passed away last Saturday after a long illness. I learned the news over Facebook, the way I learn most things now about people I knew a long time ago. That’s not a complaint, just an observation. If it weren’t for Facebook I wonder if I’d have heard about it at all. Anyway, I was sorry to hear the news. I wish I’d kept in touch with him. I think he would have liked to know that so many of the choices I’ve made as an adult – a lot of the ones that have made me happiest – were based on things I learned as part of his choir. I wish I could have told him that in job interviews, whenever they ask you to name a teacher or mentor who had a special impact on your life, he’s the guy I’d pick. Mostly I’d just like to say thanks.