Dear Miss Marshall
Dear Miss Marshall,
I still dream about the band room at Paul Revere Junior High, even though more than sixty years have elapsed. I can see you now, sitting at the cluttered desk in your little office. The new school had just opened and my mother insisted I join the band, even though I had been playing the clarinet only a few months. I was thirteen and in the eighth grade, a porky, insecure, introverted kid. I needed someone who would take an interest in me and it turned out to be you.
When I walked into the first period band class on the opening day of the fall semester, I was surprised at how young you looked. Your long, dark hair was tied up in a bouncy pony tail, your eyes twinkling, your smile revealing what I later learned was a deliciously trenchant sense of humor.
I don’t remember the auditions but I ended up in second chair in a large clarinet section. Every morning you stood on the conductor’s podium, within a few feet of where I sat. You used humor to keep us all in line but we were all pretty compliant kids. After all, it was the 1950s, still the era when traditional rules reigned. There was no physical contact between teacher and student, no use of faculty first names. In fact, it wasn’t until you signed my report card that I discovered your full name was Mary Alyce Marshall. But, of course, you’ll always be Miss Marshall to me.
Other than those daily rehearsals, my first real connection with you came after you set up a system for earning a band letter. There were points for attending concerts, listening to music, and more for book reports. An avid reader, I found it easy to rack them up. You updated the tally every morning on a bulletin board in the front of the room.
One morning while waiting for class to begin, I was examining the board and found I had many more points than anyone else. You saw me looking, came over and congratulated me, adding that you liked my writing style. Needless to say, this was reinforcing and led me to redouble my book report output. Earning that letter was a no-brainer.
Whenever possible, I hung around the band room after school. There wouldn’t be much time to linger because I had to catch the school bus home. But I was there as long as I could because it was a chance to be with you. Once in a while, there would be another kid there but it seemed we were often alone. We discussed composers, music, movies and I’m sure much more that I can’t recall after all these years. You made me feel my opinion mattered, that I had something to say.
I’m not sure how the idea came to me or where I got the nerve to do it, but I asked my parents if they would invite you to dinner. This just wasn’t done back in the 1950s. There was little if any social contact between kids and teachers so this was, well, a revolutionary act. I remember shyly delivering the note to you one morning in your office, followed soon by the joy and anticipation when my mother said you had called to accept.
When the long-awaited night came, I was rattled and excited, more than I could ever remember. The doorbell rang and I forced myself to calmly walk to the door. And there you were! Dressed up and inside my house! We all sat in the living room for a while, making small talk, and then I invited you into my room. I wanted so much to share my inner world. On the walls were autographed photos of my favorite movie stars; there was a shelf full of books, many about music; there was a cabinet full of LPs. But you already knew my favorite was the soundtrack from “The Benny Goodman Story,” an inspiring film for a novice clarinet player. In fact, during one class, I had lifted my clarinet up like he did to play a high note and you quickly corrected me. It was not appropriate in this band, you declared with firmness.
Mostly, I wanted to show you that I was working on my drumming skills. I had a rubber practice pad and drumsticks and regularly played along with an LP of marches. I put one of them on my record player and drummed through the entire “Liberty Bell March” while you watched attentively. When I was done, you smiled and applauded and I felt valued for having taken the risk.
I don’t remember dinner but now I think back upon that evening with great warmth, even though the anxiety never quite left me. To me, a teacher was the highest form of life, right after being a movie star. And there you were—in my house, in my bedroom, eating dinner with my family!
There was one other memorable extra-curricular event. You invited me and two other girls in the band to go with you to a symphonic concert in downtown Los Angeles on a Saturday. I had hoped we’d all cram into your racy 1957 powder blue T-Bird but you had borrowed someone else’s sedan for the trip. I felt very special for being given an opportunity to spend time with you and to experience classical music in person for the first time. I have loved it ever since.
After I left Revere and had a driver’s license, I came to visit you after school a couple of times—just a quick drive-by, really. I still basked in your warmth and wit and loved that you wanted to hear what I was doing. I had abandoned the high school band and was instead working on the newspaper as an editor and movie reviewer.
The next—and, it turned out, the last—time we met, we hadn’t seen each other in several years. I wrote, asking if we could get together after school and you agreed. Walking into that band room again evoked familiar feelings of safety augmented by tense memories associated with my turbulent adolescence. You greeted me with a wave and a warm smile.
When we walked to the parking lot, I was delighted to see we’d drive away in your T-Bird. As you pulled out of the lot, you asked, “Do you tope?” I didn’t know what that meant. You quickly added, “Do you drink? I thought we’d go to a bar on 26thStreet and have a few beers.” It’s a good thing you were driving so you couldn’t see the shocked expression on my face. I was nineteen for starters, and it was only three o’clock in the afternoon. I responded, “I think I’ll pass on that.” I was sufficiently stunned by this turn of events that I don’t actually remember what happened after that.
The years zoomed by. As it happened, my eventful life almost always included music—as a fan and collector, as a writer and as a performer. Somewhere along the way, I had reconnected with my Revere drama teacher but, for some inexplicable reason, I was reluctant to reach out to you. That last conversation had stayed with me.
I knew it was likely you had long since retired. Now, though, there was Google and the internet and I suspected I could find you. But first, I asked the drama teacher if she knew where and how you were. She told me you had married my comically stiff social studies teacher in the early 1960s and had three children. The drama teacher revealed that, for many years, her family and yours would vacation together in the summer at a ranch in southern Oregon. Our conversation renewed my enthusiasm, so setting aside residual trepidation, I emailed her adult daughter to find you.
Within a few days, she responded. “My mother died many years ago,” she wrote. “Alzheimer’s.”
I told her how much you had meant to me, how sad I was that I couldn’t tell you that, myself. The daughter said that she had heard from other former students expressing the same fond sentiments. Then she went on to tell me what I had been afraid to hear.
“My mother was fired from Revere for drinking on the job. She was a terrible alcoholic. My dad divorced her and we didn’t see her at all those last few years.”
I was without words. Had I seen the early signs that afternoon or were you in full disease mode by then? I was engulfed by equal doses of curiosity and sadness. Your last years must have been horrendous. Did you seek treatment? I know there’s often an overlay of Alzheimer’s with alcoholism. Who took care of you when everyone walked away? Judging by your date of death, you must have been only in your late 50s. So young.
You were such a magical person. A talented viola player, an inspiring conductor and, most importantly, a strong and generous role model for me as a teenager. In the course of my long life, much of what I have accomplished bears your fingerprints—as a performer, a musician, a writer and a teacher. There’s even a touch of irony here. My Ph.D. dissertation in clinical psychology was about alcoholism.
The news of your death provoked me to contact the important people who made a difference in my growth as a person. It’s only as a mature adult that I could fully appreciate the gift you gave me. I’m disappointed we didn’t get to have this conversation, but realizing the state you were likely in toward the end, perhaps it’s better that it all be said right here. Thank you, Miss Marshall. For everything.
With fondness and appreciation,
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram and Almost Famous. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her essays, book reviews and short stories have appeared in more than 100 publications She is the nonfiction book reviewer for Fourth and Sycamore.Her first play, “Life Without” was nominated for Outstanding Original Writing by the Desert Theatre League and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her memoir, As Alone As IWant To Bewas published in 2018 by Adelaide Books. Her work can be found at www.pammunter.com.