I recently received word that one of my college professors passed away.
Mr. Dean taught me second year music theory and music history. I also took organ lessons from him for part of a semester. His classes were notoriously difficult. He was tough. If you wanted to pass his tests you needed to know your stuff. But he was fair. I earned my only B in college from Mr. Dean in second semester music history (there's a longer story there I'd be happy to tell you under the magnolia tree).
With respect to all my other teachers at Centenary who taught me a so much, I learned more from Mr. Dean than any other teacher. He built the framework that supports my entire understanding of music. He taught me its basic forms and building blocks. He trained me to hear rhythm, melody, or harmony and write down what I heard accurately (which I put to use a few years back when my friends Jonathan and Katy asked me to play the medal ceremony from Star Wars as their wedding recessional!). He taught me that something new comes along in music history about every 150 years or so, and he taught me what was revolutionary and remarkable about composers who seemed distant and unimportant before. And he taught me how to work hard for a grade.
He could sit down at the piano and improvise in the style of any composer you asked, and you'd believe it really was that composer. Honestly he might have been playing music written by that composer because I would believe he had committed every piece of music to memory. I know that's not possible. But is it?
And he was funny. Not in a cool way. Funny in a dad joke kind of way. Dry as Phoenix in the summer. We played "spin the Steinway." When he had a stack of test papers on his desk he'd stand them up on end and make magical gestures at them as if his magic was holding them upright. I still sometimes do this when I have a stack of papers. I like to think I'm channeling a little bit of his magic. He'd make up words to the pieces we were studying that were ridiculous...ridiculously genius because all these years later I remember not just the words to the songs but the forms those words taught me (like my personal favorite Mozart: "Clo-sing sec-tion, clo-sing sec-tion, yes this is a clo-sing sec-tion...").
Sometimes when famous musicians die we talk about the influence they had on the music world. I'm not sure if anyone is saying that about Mr. Dean, but I know about the influence he had on my music world. And all the others who he taught. And because of the six degrees, well, maybe we should be talking about the influence he had on the music world after all.
I'm not sure what we talked about the last time I saw him, and it's bothering me. It's bothering me because I'm fairly certain it wasn't me telling him how much I appreciated his teaching, and I wonder if he knew.
It reminds me of Father Tribou, who was the principal of my high school and also highly influential in my life. Did I ever tell him? I don't think I did. In fact, I think the last words we ever shared consisted of him telling me (literally as I walked out the door from graduation) that I needed a haircut...and me telling him I felt like it would probably be a while.
The truth is that most of the time we just don't know. We don't know which conversation will be our last conversation--which words will be our last words. That's as true for the people who mean the most to us as it is for complete strangers. We can't see when our paths will cross again--or if they will--until it's too late. It's too late for me to thank Mr. Dean now...unless I bump into him in the great beyond, no doubt improvising Mozart-like melodies on a harp.
What if we treated every interaction with every person like it was potentially our last? Would we brush all the petty things aside to make way for the words that really matter? Would we waste breath on platitudes and pleasantries (or worse, bickering and back-biting)?
We would want to be remembered for spreading love and encouraging. We would want to be remembered for setting a feast of the fruits of the Spirit. If we could control our legacy, we would be caring and patient and fair and kind.
We do control our legacy. One last interaction at a time. Let us not waste our breath on anything short of living in love.