Our high school begins in seventh grade. I had all the attendant anxiety of moving from 6th grade to 7th, and still remember my late summer nightmares of that year. One thing that stayed the same, though, was my tenor saxophone. And 7th grade brought us to Mr. Vandermeer: a burly, sometimes bearded guy with a love of music and a true gift for teaching.
Unlike elementary school, I actually tried to practice some for high school band. Mr. V was not a cheerleader so much as a taskmaster, and I wanted to do well. The tenor sax department generally consisted of me and one other guy, who really didn’t care about band much (I mean no disrespect, but he didn’t), so I had a somewhat elevated sense of importance.
Halfway through seventh grade, my dad had a stroke, and holy crapbarf. My only memory of school the Monday afterwards is going into the band room to get our instruments. Chad Smart’s trumpet was on the shelf above my tenor, and he told me how sorry he was to hear about my dad. I blinked back tears, and thanked him. It was the first of many times that the band room became a sanctuary, a place to feel connected and heard on all kinds of levels. Much of that was because of Mr. Vandermeer.
Because our school was so small (my class was the smallest at the time, with all of 23 students by the time we graduated), we didn’t always have enough people for all the activities, and when I was in 8th grade, our boys’ basketball team went to (and won!) the state basketball championship. This was fantastically exciting, but it made filling all the seats of the high school pep band a bit of a challenge. So I was invited, as an 8th grader, to come along on the pep band bus. Do you understand what that meant? I was the youngest player! None of my classmates would be coming on the bus, and I’d have to room with older girls! (I mentioned that adventure here, for those of you keeping score at home). It didn’t occur to me until right now that perhaps Mr. V didn’t really need my tenor playing, but instead thought I could use a trip to Minneapolis. Either way, I felt hugely honored that he’d asked, and I likely wouldn’t’ve been able to go otherwise. I felt like an important part of something bigger than myself, and that was a tremendous gift for thirteen-year-old me.
As I mentioned, Mr. V was more of a taskmaster than a cheerleader, and that held true throughout my time with him (and beyond, I’m told). He could get angry when we weren’t paying attention, and helped us hear and listen and feel music together. For years I came to Jazz Band practice at 7am so we could rehearse before school. Do you know how hard it is to get a bunch of high school students to come to school an hour early? He even taught our choir for a few years, as well as the band, and though his heart belonged with the instruments, his direction in vocal music was inspiring, too. I don’t know how he managed both, and he must’ve been exhausted after our concerts, but he didn’t complain.
And he didn’t praise too effusively, either. I was a fairly good saxophonist, and went on to play all through college. I spent six years under Mr. Vandermeer’s direction, and he told me twice, TWICE in SIX YEARS, that I was doing well. He didn’t even make it that personal. What he said, each time, once in pep band rehearsal and once in jazz band, was “Good job, tenors.” Three little words, said twice in six years. Really a word per year. But I remember them clearly, nearly 25 years later.
As a teacher myself, I know how hard it is to balance connection to students without crossing into friendship, and still get students to rise to their potential. So much of how I try to motivate students, and help them feel like important parts of our classroom, but not coddling anyone, and how I relate to kids very different from myself is modeled after what I saw Mr. V do all through my high school years. His energy, sense of humor, and inherent belief in his students continues to inspire me. If even one of my students remembers me 25 years out, Mr. Vandermeer is partially to thank for that.
I’m telling you all this because Kurt Vandermeer is retiring this year. There’s a big party tonight, and though I can’t be there, my heart is, and I very much look forward to hearing his own band play as he enjoys his retirement in musical ways, too. I can’t imagine my hometown high school without him, and I was so lucky to have him lead the bands I was in for six years.
Thank you, Mr. Vandermeer. And good job.
23 May 1991. Photo by Carol W, in the high school office. Go Panthers!