Note: To celebrate National Teacher’s Month and Filipino-American History Month, I’d like to share this weekend in July with you. This first appeared in Rappler’s Brave New World newsletter, August 9, 2019.
It was a weekend that stirred my soul and reminded me of the details that create our lives: jokes with lifelong friends; an orchestra room where I spent hours practicing – and the stage where we performed; the ties that created the person I have become.
My family left the Philippines in 1973 and settled in Toms River, New Jersey. My parents commuted nearly 4 hours a day to New York City so that their kids could avoid the inner city schools. Toms River’s public school system gave me free music lessons, computer programming classes, advanced placement classes that allowed us to compete in Ivy league schools, a future that promised you can accomplish anything if you work hard enough.
Everyone has a teacher who helped make them who they are. Mine is Donald Spaulding. I cried when I saw the announcement of his death on April 8, 2019 and contacted his family. His kids are now all grown up with kids of their own, and on July 28, the many people whose lives he touched came together back on the stage where we grew up for his memorial concert.
When we arrived in Toms River, I was the short, quiet kid who could barely speak English. Mr. Spaulding nurtured me and others like me: kids looking to belong, looking for our place in the world. I first found that in music, and that became the foundation of student government, basketball, softball, theater, so much more – extra-curricular activities and academics that shaped my world. When I graduated high school, I was voted “Most Likely to Succeed.”
I couldn’t have done all that without Mr. Spaulding. He was not just my violin teacher and orchestra conductor. He helped me learn to play up to 8 different instruments (some not very good). All these experiments in my life – that is because of Don Spaulding, who would pick me up from the other side of town so that I could have a chance to participate in rehearsals and gigs.
Without him, life would have been so different.
But that was only the beginning. He pushed me to be better than I could ever be – as a person and as a musician.
He helped me choose the music for all the auditions he pushed me to do – from the intermediate and high school orchestras in Toms River to the Garden State Youth Orchestra to All State to the Garden State Philharmonic to so many more. Mr. Spaulding heard every soaring note and every mistake, and always pushed me to do better. If you have never auditioned for first violin or concert mistress, you do not know what stress is!
All my after school jobs then were music related: as a music counsellor at Camp Discovery to our T.R. Express: a country-western group of orchestra nerds playing the music we heard on the radio.
During Sunday brunches, we were a string quartet, but at night, we just had the best fun ever – earning more than I would have earned at McDonald’s or Dunkin Donuts. We got together because I wanted him to sing “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” – and when we finished figuring that out, we just kept playing – Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind,” Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer,” so many more. I will never forget playing at the Ground Round with the peanuts on the floor, at our local mall, at Six Flags’ Great Adventure … so many more.
We were a fixture at pop concerts – what fun we had!
So at the memorial for Mr. Spaulding – after more than 3 decades, I picked up my violin and played in an orchestra again.
Our conductor, Sue Viksne Degoey, chose the lineup from what many of us played under Mr. Spaulding’s baton. I stepped into my high school self with Pachelbel’s Canon, and Keith Kalemba composed an original elegy.
We rehearsed for a little over an hour, and there we were, coming together, playing for the memory of a man we all loved.
That weekend reminded me again that no one can accomplish anything meaningful alone.
A day before our concert some of my closest friends decided to meet at sunset at Island Beach State Park, bring food and drinks, and catch up over a bonfire.
It was a perfect day: a cool breeze blowing, just enough for us to sit in front of the fire and reminisce.
Gigi and I lived around the block from each other and biked around the woods behind our houses. It was fun to deliberately get lost and then find our way home. Then we would save our money, and when we had enough, bike an hour to get a coke and French fries. Over the years, she carried so many science projects for me: an exploding volcano (which almost exploded at the bus stop), a solar oven .. and as she reminded me, my violin, guitar or whatever other instrument I was playing that day. I suppose we also gravitated together because we were brown in a predominantly white neighborhood. But it was something we were never conscious of because then the Philippines was a far, dim memory.
The past, present and the future came together, and I realized the person you are was already formed in high school. We fell into our old roles: Lisa, always the organizer who always thinks of everything; Cary, our Greek-American pragmatist; Larry, the boy-scout who built the bonfire; Ruthie, our marinerette; Yvonne, our basketball center … and my kid sister and cousin, who joked they were now part of the big kids’ table.
So what did I learn?
That an orchestra is a perfect metaphor for a working democracy: the music gives you systems and notes, but how you play, how you feel, how you lead, how you follow – well, that’s all up to you. It reminded me how much I loved being in the swirl of music, one part listening and soaring, another part counting the beats, watching the ups and downs of our bows, always part of you focused on the conductor, ready to follow. Excess within control.
That great friendships, despite the distance of time and place, get better with age.
And that teachers, the mentors who point you in the right direction, will always be with you. Mr. Spaulding brought me back across the oceans, to relive, to play, to cry.
Thank you, Mr. Spaulding, for your generosity of spirit, for helping me fit in, and for reminding me that music flows through our lives and connects all of us. – Rappler.com