Today my hometown lost a great lady; so I’d like to tell you more about my choir teacher Beth Jamison – or, as her students lovingly referred to her, Miss J.
I remember the first time I ever sang at a funeral. It was Sarah MacLaughlin’s “I Will Remember You”. It was with a group of classmates, and we were all pretty emotional. Before we went to the service, Miss J gathered us for some instructions.
“It’s going to be hard,” she told us, “It’s going to be different from any time you’ve sung before. And you’re going to surprise yourself. But no matter what happens, you have to remember to give yourself time to breathe.”
Out of the many lessons I learned from Miss J, that’s one that comes to mind today.
Most of us can name a handful of teachers whose positive impact stayed with us, even as adults. If you’re lucky, you can name more than a few. I’m so proud to say that Beth Jamison was one of mine.
I met Miss J when I was eleven years old, and painfully shy, and completely devastated about having moved to a new town. Going to choir was the one part of my day I truly liked. And Miss J must have sensed that, because the next thing I knew I was in more choirs and somehow performing in extra concerts and spending so much time in the music wing that I didn’t feel like the shy new kid anymore.
But that was the magic of Miss J. Because while good music always mattered, good community mattered more. Decades later, I might not remember every song we sang, but I do remember the choir room as a place where I could explore, create, and be my truest self.
When I was seventeen years old, and on my first trip to New York City, Miss J and I both scored rush seats to watch Avenue Q on Broadway. There was just one problem: neither of us had anticipated the more R-rated parts of the show, which made for a rather awkward theatre-going experience for us both. After the show, as we stood on a busy New York street, she said, “Parts of it were a little too much.” I agreed. But then she looked at me, with that twinkle in her eye she got sometimes, and muttered, “Still funny though.”
Ah, Miss J – she knew when to hold tight to her standards, but also when to laugh it off.
When I was twenty-eight years old, Miss J drove across three states to watch me play Mary Poppins. She scooped me into a hug after the show and simply said, “What a role for you.” And I was so moved that her love for me had transcended decades and state lines and my time in her classroom. What a role for me – yes – but the role of her student is a role I will treasure for the rest of my life.
But here’s where I recognize that I’m not special in that regard. There are thousands of us, students in the big choir of her life, who she loved that deeply. She celebrated our milestones and cheered us on from afar, long after our music folders had been turned in. And who among us was not made better by that music and that love in our lives?
Today I’m thinking of the creative life I’ve led, and how much of it was inspired by moments in the choir room where Miss J gently nudged me out of my comfort zone and showed me what I was capable of doing – a gift she gave to so many of us.
Today I’m thinking of how many of my peers went on to become teachers or parents or both and I’m heartened to think that means that Miss J’s legacy of music, community, and love will live on for generations.
Today I am thinking of our beloved Miss J, and how thankful I am for the lessons she shared.
To her family, her friends, her students, or anyone suddenly contemplating life without her – I would like nothing more than to wrap you all up in a hug, but instead I will share the wisdom I think she would give you today:
It’s going to be hard.
It’s going to be different from any time you’ve sung before.
And you’re going to surprise yourself.
But no matter what happens, you have to remember to give yourself time to breathe.
Thank you for the music, Miss J.