I’m in bed. Well I’m sort of half in, half out. I’m hanging off the edge of the bed so the light from my phone doesn’t rouse my sleeping husband. Anyway.
As I write this in the darkness of my bedroom, it’s well past midnight Vienna time – a time by which I’m usually long gone. Few things keep me up this late – my toddler, a show I can’t walk away from, a growling stomach. But this time it’s a person – a teacher – a man who impacted my life so greatly during my high school years that now I find myself unable to sleep knowing he’s no longer on this earth.
Mr. Chaffin was his name.
I don’t normally talk or write about high school. Not because something horrific happened or because my grades weren’t anywhere close to “fridge worthy” and the embarrassment is too much, I just don’t talk about it. I’ll put it this way: if during my high school years I could’ve had a Facebook relationship status with my high school, it would’ve read “It’s complicated”, which is why knowing Mr. Chaffin was and still is important to me. I liked most of my teachers. I think most of them liked me. But he stands out among them all as the one who understood me.
I think that’s key in a teen’s life. Being understood. As a teen life is nothing but hormones and week-long crushes, and there’s no way your parents live on the same planet as you do despite their claims to having also been teenagers once. I think Mr. Chaffin was fully aware of that need to be understood at school because that’s where the action happens. I think he knew his students, some more than others, would need someone on their side on those days where a D on a math test wasn’t the only thing wrong in their world, and I got a lotta Ds.
Mr. Chaffin was sporadically mixed in my class schedule all 4 years of high school, but only in the Fine Arts Department. I was, believe it or not, a cellist. (If you don’t know your instruments, it’s the big wooden stringed instrument that looks like an oversized guitar but is not the one that looks like a giant guitar that you have to play standing up. And yes, my cello was bigger than me.) Playing in the orchestra introduced me to all of the teachers in the Fine Arts Department, including Mr. Chaffin, who was the choir director for a good while until his health forced him to take a lighter class load. Occasionally he would sub in on my orchestra classes which is initially how I got to know him. He was friendly but wasn’t “a buddy”. He was interested in my day but didn’t want the drama. He was older and wise and somehow managed to pull off a sort of booming tenor pitched voice. His mustache was always trimmed and he’d squint through his glasses which always fell to the end of his large nose when he was seriously serious about something. He loved to sing. He radiated Christ and adored his grandchildren. In fact I remember the day his granddaughter was born. The man was ecstatic, and when he came back from visiting her, he didn’t stop grinning for a week. He was the happiest grandpa of all the grandpas.
Mr. Chaffin impacted me most my junior year. I very foolishly took his class on Music Theory, thinking my years of cello playing would pay off in a different light. I was quite wrong and realized music theory is basically like math, which I’m horrible at, so I was pretty much doomed the second I registered. But despite my deep lack of understanding composition, it was my favorite class. Every Wednesday after lunch, I would grab myself a Coke and one of those half pints of Bluebell ice cream – always chocolate chip cookie dough – and head to music theory. Mr. Chaffin would greet me with a cheery “Holly girl!” upon entering the classroom. Some of my best friends were in the class with me, and it was a small group which made for a fun yet intimate setting. If anyone was in a celebratory mood, we celebrated together. If any one of us were having a bad day, we all knew. We could feel the tension in the room, simmering there, ready to blow. Then Mr. Chaffin would look at us over his glasses and ask if we were ready to begin another day in the great world of music, and the tension would dissipate. He’d sit down at his piano and we did our ear training and I would pray he wouldn’t ask me to compose something on the white board in front of everyone.
There was one time though when the tension I brought into his class didn’t go away at the sound of his playing a perfect fifth. I was hot mad about something. I remember coming into class and barely touching my traditional Coke and ice cream; I just sat next to a best friend and stewed. Most of the time when I was mad, I did the healthy thing and bottled up all of the emotional stuff – rinse – repeat. I think most of it wound up coming out at home, but occasionally some unlucky soul at school wound up being the target for a smack down. On this particular day, it was the South African. He was a year older than me and was very smart, and his accent made him sound posh and a little ho-hum when he talked about topics that didn’t interest him at all, like American football. Our class was in the middle of ear training (FYI: ear training is training yourself to hear and identify notes or chords being played:: FYI: this is a rookie definition) and this guy got all up in arms about not being able to concentrate on the notes because of our “bodily noises”. He lectured us about not coughing or moving in our chairs during the training so he could hear better. This achieved nothing but a unified eye roll in his direction and we went on with our lives and training unaffected by his lecture. The next phase of the training was nearly complete when my friend sneezed. Our “no bodily noises” classmate lit into her but only squeaked out a couple of words before I spun around and lit into him without being stopped. I have no idea what poured out of my mouth, but I do remember he cried.
Mr. Chaffin calmly peered over his glasses at me from his piano bench and simply said, “Holly girl…” He wasn’t disapproving or mad. But he knew saying “Holly girl” would break me down. He asked me to run an errand for him, which was code for “take a walk”. He knew my relationship status with the school was complicated. He knew I had many less than stellar days. He knew I wasn’t a viscous teen who preyed upon the weak. But he always knew when I needed to take a walk.
Unfortunately picture phones weren’t all the rage while I was a teenager so I don’t have any pictures of myself with Mr. Chaffin. I do however have this picture of me from my high school graduation, which I am dedicating to Mr. Chaffin. Though I think I would’ve graduated regardless of Mr. Chaffin’s mentorship and love, I know for certain that I wouldn’t be the woman I am today had I not known him. He taught me how to use music to bless others and help myself. He taught me how to be patient with people, even those “no bodily noises” types. He pointed out to me once that my Coke and ice cream habit wasn’t the best diet choice – a good call. He was happy and jolly and a good man. He was the one and only Mr. Chaffin.