Remembering Inspiration

I’m terrified.

There, I admitted it.  The day is finally here when I stop talking about wanting to be a teacher and actually become one. And it has me shaking in my boots.

And I’ve kind of been a mess the past few weeks.  I’ve had unexpected moments where I’ve asked myself if I can really do this.  Even after an amazing practicum experience, the nerves had settled in and reached the places I didn’t think they could.

So when I found myself down the road from the cemetary where he is buried a few weeks ago, I knew I had to pay my respects and remind myself of the man who still inspires me to do this.  The last time I visited, it was a cold and crisp winter’s day, light snowflakes floating from the sky.  I took the drive out there after having just met what was to become one of my first classes for student teaching, one of the first groups I was to be responsible for, and I knew I needed to visit to remind myself of why I ever wanted to do this in the first place.

Let me explain…

Dennis Wrenn. Teacher. Musician. Life-changer.  For four years I sat as one of  hundreds to walk through the doors of his band room.  I am far from a gifted musician, but music has breathed inspiration and love into my life, and Mr. Wrenn was a part of that.  Beyond instilling within all of his students a love of music, he also showed what it means to be a teacher.  He never stopped believing in his students, and took the time to get to know them, even when during any given class period there could be over one hundred students in front of him, all with varying levels of interest.  Some were there because they hoped to pursue careers in music one day, others because they were cultivating a hobby, and the last group because their parents wanted them to be in band.  But regardless of why they were there, I don’t think a single student could have left a year of rehearsals with Mr. Wrenn and not feel cared for.

When I was a junior in a high school, I took a pretty big risk for me and volunteered to play second piccolo for one song.  While flute, which I had been playing for six years at that point, and piccolo have the same fingerings, it’s a challenge.  You have to focus the air flow a certain way and it’s hard to create a pure sound. But someone needed to do it, and no one else volunteered, so I figured I would.  In hindsight, it really wasn’t all that terrifying, but to the timid 17-year-old who was full of self-doubt who I was at the time, it was a surprise that I would ever take such a risk. By the time the concert rolled around, I was so nervous.  I didn’t want to mess up (it’s hard to not hear a piccolo after all), and I was afraid I would fall off the stage when I changed seats from the second row of flutes to the first row.  But at each rehearsal, Mr. Wrenn never lost faith in me.  He encouraged me and rejoiced at every improvement, never betraying any sense of doubt or regret that he had let me fill the role.  That faith continued until the night of the concert, and when it was all over, he congratulated me on a job well-done.  I confessed how nervous I had been, but Mr. Wrenn just brushed it off, giving me the impression that he had known I could do it all along and that he had never doubted me.

Mr. Wrenn passed away very unexpectedly while on tour with the high school jazz band in Greece when I was in my freshman year of college.  I will never forget the shock and sense of loss I felt when I heard the news from a friend who called me. I had been walking down a path with a friend and practically collapsed on the ground in horror, unsure of how to react.  Mr. Wrenn wasn’t just a teacher to those who knew him, he was a mentor, a friend, and a father-figure, so his loss was the worst emotional pain I had felt at that point in my life.  A facebook group was created where over two thousand mourners came together to share over two decades worth of stories of a teacher who made a difference in their lives.  Countless people shared stories of how this man had seemed to remember every detail about them that they had ever shared with Mr. Wrenn, even though, as the size of the group proved, he had thousands of acquaintances.  All expressed extreme grief over the loss of a man who in one way or another had changed their lives, inspiring them to take a risk and pursue their dreams.

So when I gazed at his grave a few weeks ago, focusing on my insecruties about teaching, it dawned on me: Mr. Wrenn wouldn’t have let me doubt myself for one instant.  I can almost hear the way he would have brushed off any remnant of self-doubt and how he would have encouraged me to the very end.  And if he would have believed in me, then I have to, too.  And with that realization I experienced a renewed purpose of why I do want to teach.  I want to touch the lives of students like this man did for so many others.  I want to give them the courage to take risks and try something new.  I want to share a passion with those with whom I work, fellow teachers and students alike.  So in the days when I don’t think I can do it anymore, I will remind myself of these goals and do all that I can make Mr. Wrenn proud.

Two of my high school friends and I with Mr. Wrenn at our Senior Year POPS Night, June 2008.

Your Friends Make Your World

Join me for a frappucino at Starbucks sometime; you’ll notice I do something strange with my straw wrappers.  After unwrapping the straw, I tie the crinkly paper wrapper into a knot and pull it until it breaks. Two of my dear friends from home taught me years ago that if the paper breaks perfectly so that the knot comes undone, then someone is thinking about you. If there is a knot in either side, well, then you are out of luck.

One of our yearly summer adventures

Now, I am not a particularly superstitious person, but I always follow this one little gesture through, although its not about whether or not someone is thinking of me (however, I will confess that I sometimes giggle at the broken knot if I’ve been thinking of someone, hoping that they are thinking of me too).  Each time the paper breaks, I feel like I am back with the three friends who always follow this trick, no matter where we are at the present moment.  In pulling that straw wrapper tight, I am transported back to when we were 16 and 17, meeting at Friendly’s for ice cream dates to stress over finals and AP exams, prom dresses and college applications. I can picture Jen’s scrunched up face as she concentrates on thinking of one of us in order to make the knot break (with minimal effectiveness), or remember the random restaurants from our yearly beach trips where all four of us have tied our straw wrappers at the same time to see who the lucky lady would be.

As the years have passed and life has grown all the more complicated,  reunions with these girls become tougher and more difficult to plan, so this single, mechanical action is like a reunion in memory, lasting just a few seconds, but bringing a small smile nonetheless.  One is currently completing an internship hundreds of miles away in Washington DC, another is seriously contemplating a move to New York City to pursue her dream writing career, and the last returned from Alabama last month from Basic Training in the Air Force and will be leaving to begin her study at medical school in less than a week, a step she has been planning go take since the days of those Friendly’s ice cream dates.

At Maura’s graduation from BU this past May.

I miss them all terribly but no matter where life takes us, I know we will always be there for each other to share joy and sorrow. I recently got a job as a teacher, a dream I have consistently pursued since I was about 15 years old.  I wanted nothing more than to call a customary Panera date with these three to tell them all in person. These inspiring and talented young women have encouraged me every step of the way, and emit sincere “awwws” when I tell them a teaching story. I can always count on them to show true interest in my passions, just as I do for them. But we couldn’t all be together to share the big news, so I settled on a phone call ( as this was too big for a simple text!).  Tiff squealed with delight when I called her as she was making her way along the 9 hour trip back home from DC, while I received an ecstatic voicemail from Jen that night after a day of training in return for the one I left her about how I couldn’t wait to tell her the news until we were able to catch each other on the phone.  I’ve known all three of these women since we were in elementary school and after these years of our friendship, I recognized this moment as the step into adulthood.  We’re all college grads now, pursuing our dreams and passions, but I know that no matter where life takes us, we will always have each other.

The next few years are sure to be a bit tumultuous as all of my friends and I settle into careers and post-grad education, but I’ve accepted it. Distance doesn’t mean the friendships are any different, even if we are unable to be there in the way we previously have been for each other through literal physical presence.  But we’re still there.

In the days since graduation, I put a magnet on the large mirror in my bedroom that once found its place on the refrigerator of my senior year apartment.  It reads as follows: “Wherever you are, it is your friends who make your world (William James).”  So whether they are interning in DC, teaching in Kansas City or Connecticut, still living life as an undergrad in Worcester, completing a year of service in New Orleans, starting grad school in Providence or Pittsburgh, laying the foundations of their careers in the Boston area, or following a dream in New York, my world will always consist of my beautiful, supportive, one-of a-kind, gift-from-God friends.