The new year began with a funeral, which sounds sad but ended up being so uplifting. Mary Jane had been Olivia’s violin teacher, first in elementary school and later privately. Last summer, the day before Mary Jane was scheduled to have brain surgery for the cancer that was taking her bit by bit, she insisted on giving Olivia a lesson at her home. A week after the surgery, she called to schedule yet another lesson. At first I tried to insist that we hold off, but then I realized that this was exactly where Mary Jane wanted to be, with one of her students, doing what she loved to do.
When Mary Jane died last week, the school district sent out an email inviting her former students to come to St. Thomas the Apostle Church the day of the funeral and play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” 10 minutes before the Mass was to begin. We emailed back immediately, saying that Olivia would be honored to play as long as there were other children there with her.
I loved the fact that one of Mary Jane’s last wishes was to have her students play one of the first songs she ever taught them. Not Beethoven or Bach, but a childhood favorite, probably the simplest song they would ever learn, ensuring that even her youngest students could participate.
The morning of the funeral we arrived 30 minutes early, as requested, only to walk into a sea of orchestra students, hundreds of children ranging in age from middle school through college. I was crying before I even helped Olivia take off her coat. What a testament to the power of a great teacher. We left Olivia with her current instructor to tune up and found our place in a pew.
A few minutes later, the children filed in — more than 50 cello players, at least 100 violins and I don’t know how many violas and basses. They filled the side chapel and stood ringing the entire main church. Then Mary Jane’s sister read the letter she left for her students. More tears. “When you can play Twinkle,” Mary Jane wrote, “you know you’ve made progress.”
The children lifted their bows, played the few short lines of the simple song, and then they filed right back out, but the beauty of what we had witnessed lingered long after the last note had ended.
Any teacher who has ever doubted the power he or she has to shape young lives and our world needs to remember this story. Those children didn’t come out to a funeral to play a few lines on their last day of winter break simply because Mary Jane had been a great teacher but because she had been a great person. She loved her students, really loved them. And she loved teaching them, and that clearly came through to those kids who wanted to be there to pay tribute to her.
Now whenever I hear “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” I’ll think of Mary Jane and of her reminder to her students — and to all of us — that sometimes mastering the simplest thing is a sign that we are making great progress.
Rest in peace, Mary Jane. You will be missed.