I woke up this morning, rolled out of bed and got into the shower. To my surprise, I found myself singing, “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” This amused and amazed me. I did not know I still knew those words. Then I found that I could sing an entire medley from the musical, Oklahoma. Wow. The brain is an amazing mechanism, isn’t it?
Later, this caused me to muse a bit about Mr. Botz, my high school music teacher. I often think about my English teacher, Mrs. Garding, who basically taught me everything I know. But my music teacher, I hadn’t thought of in a while.
Mr. Botz didn’t fit the typical high school teacher profile. Where other teachers, for the most part, attempted to be fun and humorous – or at least oddly witty (in a demonstration that they were smarter than we were) – Mr. Botz was instead a strict and serious military guy. He was a disciplinarian. But his classes were large – Band and Choir. Everyone wanted to be in Choir, an elective with no homework. I was a Choir member. By then, I’d gone downhill enough to quit the clarinet, so no band for me, but I still had enough presence of mind to sing in the choir.
We were unruly. Some days, someone in class would say (before Mr. Botz arrived – he saved his entrance for the last moment), “Okay, today let’s really pay attention and surprise him!” We would all agree and would have every intention to follow through, but then, one thing led to another and we would be our usual mass attention deficit crowd. Mr. Botz’ blood pressure would visibly rise as the level of distraction rose.
When I took my granddaughters to Fiddler on the Roof last fall, I noticed that I knew almost all of the words to that score – another medley taught to us by Mr. Botz. How he got all of that music, each of the parts, and extensive lyrics into our unruly heads, I will never know.
I was an import into this small, rural Minnesota high school. I had come from the colorful diversity of Palo Alto on the West Coast to join this all-white, nearly all Roman Catholic school . My family and I always felt a bit on the outside of the tight-knit community because we were most definitely Protestant. But on Christmas eve, by virtue of my Choir membership, I got to have a glimpse of the local culture thanks to Mr. Botz. This public school choir sang every year at Midnight Mass at the local parish. High up in the choir loft, Mr. Botz’ unruly charges became well-behaved and attention-filled. We loved this ritual. I honestly don’t remember anything about the Mass, except for the candle-filled sanctuary and the beauty of the space.
My other redeeming activity with Mr. Botz was the Color Guard. We were the all-female crew that marched in front of the band on hot, steamy summer days. Mr. Botz’ penchant for order and military precision was in full swing there, and it was really something to behold. Getting us bleary-eyed teenagers to stand at attention and march in formation on the football field was quite an extraordinary achievement. It wasn’t like he had a massive student body from which to choose the motivated students or those with some aptitude for this stuff. My graduating class had 126 kids in it. We, the color guard, were also the partiers (or some of us were). We were mostly people who weren’t interested in or didn’t have the skills for cheerleading, had lost interest in playing an instrument, but we could show up and hold a flag or a wooden rifle and march around the field. We lived in small towns scattered all around the rural area and it was something to do on a Saturday morning.
On parade days, the band and color guard had black wool uniforms. This was back before the time of supportive moms with spray bottles and ice water. We marched when it was ninety degrees and ninety percent humidity through small town streets. And Mr. Botz marched with us. What a guy.
Though our behavior in class was consistently bad, and defied Mr. Botz’ sense of decorum, we secretly loved and admired his rigid sense of right and wrong, his quiet dignity and unforgettable presence. In our senior year, we were shocked and grief stricken to learn that he had died of a sudden heart attack. His daughter was just a year or two older than we were. The entire school attended his funeral.
We were in collective grief for the remainder of the year. A new, kindly teacher was found, but the excitement had definitely gone from our choir. Life without the commanding leadership of Mr. Botz would never be quite the same.
So, though I don’t have cause to think of him often these days, some 42 years later, when a catchy show tune, obscure Christmas carol or little-known majestic hymn pops into my head, I know who to thank. Thanks, Mr. Botz. You taught us well.