mr. mitchell’s opus

This morning, I woke up as usual – reaching for the BlackBerry and seeing what everyone was up to. I saw one person’s status message mentioning Mr. Mitchell’s passing, and I instantly felt a chill. I sent an email to my mom to confirm and when she responded, the tears just began to fall upon each cheek.

It was shortly before middle school that I started playing the flute. I had played the piano and knew that come time for middle school, I really wanted to pick up an instrument and the flute just seemed to come naturally to me. Living in Huntsville, all of our schools tend to have names affiliated somehow with the space program – so my middle school, the newest kid on the block at the time, was named in memory of the Challenger (Challenger Middle School).

I remember how much I loved band. I’ve always been competitive in general, but it was within the musical realm that I really focused and thrived. I loved it. I remember wearing my red polo shirt we wore with jeans to the football games, embroidered on the top right-hand side with our names in cursive script and a small embroidered version of our instrument below. Looking back, I can just picture me – massive bangs and my styling flip chart with the various songs resting upon my thigh. Hot. But it was what I loved. I remember it like it was yesterday.

But what made it was the direction of Tom Mitchell, our band director. He was well known for his capability – for that great skill in challenging students, bringing a great selection of repertoire to them, and for the overall opportunities afforded under his direction. He always supported me. I quickly learned it was in general just understood that moving up within the pecking order of each musical section came with years in the organization more so than anything else, but Mr. Mitchell saw something in me and didn’t hold me back due to that. My seventh grade year, I had major issues with my stomach and missed a great amount of school. I remember I’d been chosen to play a major piccolo solo in one of our numbers and even though I missed so many practices, he was anxious but said he’d let me keep the solo if I thought I could do it. Determined and stubborn, I held on.

As normally happens, students get older and the contact you have with these people who had a hand in shaping you becomes less and less. Tam and I came back to Huntsville at Christmas, and it was while eating at Rosie’s Mexican Cantina with my parents that we ran into Mr. Mitchell. I had not seen him since he became ill. He had battled cancer for so long – he had not completely conquered it and there was so much unknown about it and not understood by the doctors, so I don’t think it was ever thought to be understood what was to be expected. But he looked good based on what he had been through. He looked strong. I feel so blessed we were able to see him one last thing.

Music is really magical. It just is. And the connections based upon it are just different. He looked at my sister and I as my parents gave him the brief update — us being in NYC, Tam back in school, me moving to DC — and there was such a twinkle in his eye. He looked at us both and genuinely told us how proud he was of what we had both become. He and my dad mentioned plans to try to get together in the future for lunch and then he was off.

He survived seven years of serious cancer, which is a feat of itself. But as I sit here on my futon typing this, it just makes me sad. Takes me right back instantly to those days where I was an awkward 12 year old with permed hair whose primary sense of self came from music. I’m sad. So sad. But thankful. Thankfully for his support and thankful I was privileged to work with him for those three years. After so much suffering though, he’s now in a place where that’s a battle to be faced again no more.


10 thoughts on “mr. mitchell’s opus

  1. I unfortunately never had the pleasure of meeting him but my thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends. Coincidentally enough, Mr. Holland’s Opus was on TV last night. It is a great testament to what band directors really mean to their students and the impact that they have on our lives.

  2. Thanks. That’s ironic… I haven’t seen that movie in so long, but this made me think of it for sure. I totally agree with you. Definitely an impact and why it always makes me so sad to hear of schools cutting funding for the arts.

  3. Thanks all for the hugs and thoughts. I love that when I put things out here, there’s someone listening. That never ceases to be comforting – so thank you…

  4. Oh my goodness. I only just looked up Mr. Mitchell’s name to see how he’s been these last 16 years since I last saw him. I, too, was inspired by him and his belief that we could be better musicians, even better people if we just applied ourselves. I’m so saddened to know that the man who inspired me and instilled a life long passion for music has passed. I was at Challenger only two years, but he has lived long in my memory. Thank you for writing such an honoring piece in his memory. I hope his family is blessed by it.

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