My photo search opened a Pandora’s Box of memories this afternoon when I came upon these photos from the beginning of my teaching career. I was so very young, a recent graduate of Florida State, newly married, and these photos were from a middle school jazz band concert at the Pasco County Fair. (Yes, I said jazz band…possibly the squarest jazz band in the history of jazz). What made these photos special was that my father was in the audience (the gentleman with the ball cap in the front row).
My parents divorced when I was a toddler, and I saw my dad typically once a year for an uncomfortable fifteen minute visit. Dad never heard me play clarinet, and in fact, warned me not to go into music because I’d “never work”. I remember the one and only time that I ever stood up to him; he had always told me not to worry about college if I did well in school, that he would take care of it. When I graduated from high school, I called him, excitedly telling him my plans to attend FSU and major in music education. That excitement didn’t last long; he informed me that I needed to go into the ROTC at a local community college to pay for school, and if I “had to major in education, at least major in math or English” so that I could get a job. I was crushed. My mother, on the other hand, told me not to worry- we’d find a way. Follow your dream, Neese. You can be whatever you want to be. I thank God to have had her loving support every day.
There is nothing wrong with the ROTC, but it- nor a career in the military- were for me. I knew in my heart that a career in music was the only thing that would bring happiness to me as my life’s passion. I gathered my courage and told him that I didn’t care if I had to scrub floors- I was going to FSU, and I was going to major in music education. That didn’t go over well. He didn’t put one nickel into helping pay for my education; somehow, some way, thanks to a scholarship, financial aid, student loans, jobs, my mom, and my Aunt Sara, I managed to piece it all together and get through my degree. Every single semester was a struggle, but the lessons I learned – in and out of the classroom- were priceless. It set the path for my life’s work, laying a strong foundation for my ultimate career as a performer and university professor.
My father heard one performance of my band program, one performance of my life’s work, this little jazz band concert, even though he lived in the small town of my first teaching job. It was one of the only times I heard him say the words, “Proud of you, Gal.” (The other time was when I called to tell him I’d won my first college job.) It was just his way- he was a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army who served his country proudly for over thirty years and fought in three wars. Not a warm and fuzzy man by any means. However, hearing those words from him that night meant the world to me.
My entire life I wanted to make Dad proud of me. Perhaps if I worked hard enough, did well enough in school, succeeded professionally, if I was pretty enough- maybe then I would be good enough to earn his attention and approval. A therapist’s gold mine, right? At any rate, and after lots of self-reflection, as I look back on my life, it helps makes sense of so many things, so many choices I made.
I made peace with my father years ago, visiting his grave to tell him that I forgave him, that I understood he did the best he could with the tools he had. I told him that he had missed out on a really great daughter. I don’t know if somehow he heard my words, but they were healing to me just the same. I hope he did, and I pray he is resting in peace. He was a good man changed by war and life. I do think that he loved me in his own way.
I am finding that one of the gifts of aging is perspective and the ability to (hopefully) gain understanding, empathy, and compassion. None of us is perfect- I am certainly not. The other gift that comes is the ability to forgive and let go. I’m grateful that these photos brought to mind happy memories of some wonderful students and the beginnings of my career. They also reminded me that my father did try- at least this once. That is a gift, too- one that I Will gladly take.