Pat Ellison, A Living Eulogy

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Perhaps it is a macabre thing to eulogize the living; yet, it’s oddly satisfying. It’s the chance to softly whisper “Thank you for what you did for me.” As we recognize the truths that others attempt to reveal, our eyes and hearts will turn inward, sharing similar memories and thoughts. Recognizing a person through other eyes is a precious joy in life, and I am sure that as other people who shared time with me in band read this, they will be held captive for at least a brief moment, recalling days long past. Trying to pick the words that convey the march of time and emotion is both a chore and an act of respect. All too often, we hear speakers exhort others to plant the words of appreciation and respect into the lives of those who are still living, so that they might feel the soft comfort of being remembered. As much as I have written about a soul named Barb who pointed the way for me, Pat Ellison was her counterpart for me in school.

If we are lucky, we each have a few people who define our nascent ideas of character, intelligence, and charisma. While we might not even recognize them as such at the time, as we grow older, life tends to grab our shoulders and turn us back to them, teaching us, revealing things that should have been manifested earlier in life. Perhaps those students lucky enough to have amplified homes with loving parents will not see the past as I did. After having known so many people who were in the military, I’ve discovered that some elements of my respect for Ms. Pat Ellison are exactly those that allow recruits to grow to love their drill instructors. No matter how irritated she would sometimes be, it was a frustration rooted in things I could understand, which was markedly different from what I might experience outside of school. I know for a fact that she wanted to throw a tuba at me a few times; if she had, I would hope she would have extracted the tuba player from inside it first. She told me that she remembered my sweet smile and I joked that I remembered the time she was vainly trying to teach me to play a solo for a concert in the park. (Hint: neither one of us was smiling for the first hour.) One year, she picked a marching song with “Malagueña” in the title. That song was more complicated than calculus. The only reason I learned it was so that she would not throw me off the marching observation tower. I’m not sure I’m kidding. Any honest student will tell you that Ms. Ellison had her moments of intense frustration. In her defense, I’m not sure how any teacher confronted with 1 to 200 students might not claim criminal insanity multiple times a year. Let’s not even start considering the lunacy of trying to be a calm, rational person on a bus ride to Washington D.C. with hundreds of kids intent on finding the most fun possible.

I sat and talked to Pat Ellison on a Monday morning last year. Even though I see her from time to time, I haven’t interrupted her regular life to share moments and memories. As is always the case with her, she hugged me and talked as if the intervening years were a figment of our imaginations. She told me she had heart surgery a few years ago and back surgery later; at 71, her pace might be slower, but she is still a force of nature. She uses a flip phone and is not a fan of technology. She loves golf, but I don’t hold that against her. I did my best to convince her that so many of her former students would love to share with her as adults and that she was a huge impact on all of us. She humbly denies that any of my flattery could be true. Even though her eyes still light up when someone makes her laugh, you can tell her humility isn’t false. I can only imagine how full her memory must be from the countless people she’s known or how sore her knees must be from the million hours of marching and standing at the podium exerted upon her.

We have Pat Ellison at a great disadvantage: almost everyone remembers her. She has touched so many lives that her list of students and friends must be at least as long as a metropolitan phone book. Her connection to us and to others is immense and monumental. (For any teachers reading this, you at times have the best shot at immortality, being etched into your student’s minds and words for decades to come. Many of us are merely memory footnotes to others; some teachers are the thesis and anchors in so many kids lives.) Undoubtedly, there must be people who didn’t appreciate her – because I’ve also learned that good people must accumulate those who don’t understand them. Being great necessitates not being appreciated, too. I’m glad that I fell onto the side of right in regards to Ms. Ellison.

I told her that I was at a graduation a few years ago when she gave the “Tag-You’re-It” speech. She admitted to being terrified at the idea of giving such a speech. I would have never suspected her to experience stage fright. She was surprised when I told her that I had seen her speech on a blog a few years later, from someone who only knew her through another band member. While she thought her speech was uninspired, it had, in fact, reached many more people than she had imagined possible. Her legions of students and admirers hadn’t forgotten her. Even if her efforts hadn’t been inspired or creative, her commitment and persistence at showing up and working toward a goal, day in, day out, year after year certainly would’ve earned her recognition. I had also seen her at a British Brass Band concert many years before and the familiarity of her expressions took me back a couple of decades.

She genuinely is both unaware and humbled at the idea that she sits at the nexus of several thousand people who have such great memories of her. For those who know me well, you know that band is one of the few things that allowed me escape from my home life and opened the world up to me. Without band and without Noel Morris and then Pat Ellison, I am certain that my life would have taken a more sinister turn. I stayed in band through the generosity and kindness of both Noel and Pat. By being in band, I stayed connected to the world at large and remained able to convince myself that I was more than the circumstances of my youth. Unlike the cases of many of my contemporaries, band was almost my sole window to the world. I learned things in band that dwarfed the concept of simple musical notes or technical ability – that is what a good teacher and great human being seems to do naturally.

It was Mrs. Ellison who told me that the only thing keeping me from making All-State band was ‘me’ and to set aside who I was going into the audition room. It worked. “They don’t see through the curtain. Play like you just did for me and you will leave smiling.” She was right. Noel Morris had said, “Practice, you fool!” when I said I’d never even learn how to make a sound emanate from the mouthpiece. (It took me 2 or 3 days just to ‘buzz’ the mouthpiece, a bad omen. I think Mr. Morris thought I might have been soft in the head.) Between the ritual of books and practice, I advanced. Ms. Ellison told me the same thing over and over: practice. When I failed my senior year, it was her I let down. But I had those 2 years of All-State, all because even if Ms. Ellison didn’t really believe I could make it, I believed her when she told me I could. That confidence from her propelled me. Even though I didn’t take advantage of either, it was Ms. Ellison who gave me the option of both a music scholarship in college and a free pass into the U.S. Army Orchestra.

It is one thing to ponder in abstract the moments from over 30 years ago, reminiscing. It’s another to sit and share moments that Monday morning with someone who has lived such a rich, full life. It was a pleasure to share time with her and I think we all might be missing the chance to continue to learn from someone who probably could teach us all a few lessons in compassion and hard work. (All of these things are held in common by great teachers, of course.) Pat Ellison’s impact seems to echo and flourish as I age. The primary lesson I come back to is one of insistence on looking toward the goal and practicing enough to see it move a little closer. So much of what we excel at is due to simple persistence. Ms. Ellison certainly believed in persistence; at times, we played certain bars so many times I felt as if we were in the movie “Groundhog Day.”

When I was younger, there were times I didn’t understand Ms. Ellison. All I wanted to do was the play music, interact with people, and avoid being the center of attention. I didn’t enjoy some of the monotony of group practice, especially marching. (I still believe marching might be the only genuinely demonic force in the universe.) However, band allowed for travel and banter, though, and those things are what melded us into a loose group. I was able to be in a group of people and enjoy a huge slice of life that would have been otherwise mysterious to me. Maybe no one will understand it when I say that a great deal of life would have been hidden behind the curtain if it weren’t for band and Ms. Ellison. I’m certain that she had been exposed to enough of life to suspect how severe my circumstances sometimes were, yet she was also able to not press too closely. That’s another skill that is probably difficult to hone as a teacher and even more unlikely for the average human being.

Ms. Ellison had her own reasons for the things she did, some of which we weren’t invited to be a part of – and with good reason. Times were different and things that are easily accepted now weren’t met with the same casual indifference. Ms. Ellison was a complex person and not understanding those complexities back then diminished my ability to look past any frustrations I might have had. She made choices and did things precisely because of her own life exerting its pressures.

Now that I’m older, I can appreciate her as a music teacher and as a person – and my heart grows a little. For so many of the people in my list of notables; among them, Barb, Willie, Pat, or Nellie, they all share one thing in common: I wish I could live a part of my life again, as their contemporary, to see who they were and what made to be the individuals they became by the time I came along. Pat is now in her early 70s. Just thinking about how many people she grew to know in life since she graduated college in 1966 makes me feel both old and tired.

If she were standing here listening to me read this aloud, she would shift her weight from one foot to another, looking toward the ground and smiling. As I finished, she would deny that she had done anything special, other than work and try to finish what she started. But the flicker in her eyes would belie the notion that she probably does see the incredible line of students standing in single file behind her, all looking back to the times they shared with her. It is the earned legacy of a great teacher.

Thank you, Ms. Ellison.

 

 

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