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Thank you, Professor Wong.

September 8, 2016

A few days ago on the first day of the new school year, I heard a phone-in radio show asking listeners to reflect on the importance of education, and to tell how their lives were influenced by teachers. Here’s my tribute to a teacher who, in a fleeting moment and with a simple and selfless gesture, played a huge role in my life and career direction.

My father is an accountant, my mother trained as a nurse. One sister became an accountant. Another sister trained as a nurse and married a doctor. Meanwhile, all of my high school friends were heading to university to train to become accountants, lawyers, engineers, nurses and physicians. I remember everyone being so enthusiastic about it all. I, the lone musician of the crowd, wasn’t feeling the enthusiasm. But maybe if I enrolled in a pile of science courses. I could be a doctor, I said.

After three semesters, I flunked out of university.

After my two-semester “break” from university, I returned, let go of the prospective medical career, and enrolled in the Faculty of Business to become an accountant. Dad and my sister seemed very happy and successful as accountants. If there was anything at school I didn’t understand, well, I had these great resources at home to get me through. This should be a breeze, I said.

After two semesters, I flunked out of business school.

This wasn’t as bad as flunking out of university, though. So, progress! I could at least stay on campus, take some easier courses to boost my GPA, and make my way back to the business school. So I did. The following fall, I was accepted back.

After one semester, I again flunked out of business school.

I’ll pause the story here for a quick backgrounder. The only kind of study I ever truly enjoyed, from age 8 until I was flailing about in university, was piano. I loved going to my piano teacher’s house every week, I couldn’t wait to grab hold of whatever music he assigned, practise my fingers to the bone, memorize the music and show off my work to him. I also couldn’t wait for my grandparents to come to Sunday dinner, and for my grandfather to get half sauced on post-dinner Drambuie and ask me to play. I’d play him all the oldies from his younger years, and this would go on for a good hour before he’d nod off and snore. In retrospect, it was probably the Drambuie. But I preferred to think that my music relaxed him into his Sunday snooze. Whether for my grandparents, or the local Kiwanis Music competition, or for school concerts, I loved playing piano and worked incredibly hard at it.

When I flunked out of business school (the first time), I quit piano lessons, thinking that would clear more time to study. Gone were the weekly lessons, the challenge, the passion, the competition, the performances, learning something new all of the time. Gone was the thing I loved doing the most, so that I could carve out more time to study something that interested me about as much as it would interest my cat.

Now, back to the story.

When I flunked out of business school (the second time), my musical sacrifice was for naught. That’s when the wind completely left my sails. That’s when I felt left behind the spray of my friends who were coasting smoothly towards their careers and were more distantly out of my reach. The phrase “at the end of my rope” can seem cliché, but I swear I felt it physically. I felt it in my gut and could almost feel it in my hands. The desperation to do something – anything – to somehow keep up with my successful friends and family. I had no other option but to grovel. I never felt like a quitter or a failure. I never skipped a class in business school. But something was terribly wrong. This isn’t who I am. I’m better than this.

And Professor Shu-Lon Wong knew it. Flunking business school back then meant scoring an average grade of under 65%. I missed by one per cent. I remember, as clearly as if it was yesterday (nearly three decades ago), driving numbly to the school on a cold, damp, windy late-afternoon when my grades were released. I climbed the one flight of stairs to the second floor offices and felt like it was the CN Tower, searching for any professor who might cut me some slack, who might listen to me. It must have been late in the day because I remember it was dusk outside, the fall semester had just ended, it was nearing Christmas, and no other professor was in. Except for Professor Wong.

He intimidated me on the one hand with his vast intellect on all things accounting. But I was more taken by his accent, soft-spoken, fluently English with this cool mix of Chinese and British in his speech, and by his calm, gentle, professional demeanour. Hong Kong born, UK educated, somehow made his way to St. John’s, Newfoundland, and on this dreary day was dealing with the likes of me. He had his scarf on, I remember that. Getting ready to leave for the day, maybe for a few weeks. But he gave me his time, only about five minutes, maybe less. But he was incredibly kind and patient. And he gave me the percentage point I needed to stay in school. Just gave it to me. Why? I should have left the building floating on air, but instead I felt terribly guilty about asking for, and getting, something I didn’t deserve or earn. But my guilt quickly turned to determination to invest in that one per cent and make it last a lifetime.

Two years later, I graduated and then spent about seven years working in the accounting field. Armed with a Bachelor of Commerce degree and several years of working with some pretty wild personalities and managing some profoundly difficult work environments, I then had the courage to take my academic, professional and social experiences and apply them to a life as a musician.

No academic strife would follow. I thrived in the Bachelor of Music program. Bachelor and Master degrees in music have been followed by a nearly-completed PhD in Sociology that details careers in music. Seemingly disparate degrees have proven to flow naturally, one into the other, as a stream of consciousness and work experience that I would never have thought possible were it not for one sympathetic professor who breathed just enough air back into my sails to end my drift and nudge me forward. And it was Professor Wong who crossed my mind when many years later I was teaching some courses at the School of Music. There was one student who had been in the program for several years, his graduation held back by a single course he had flunked – the course I was now teaching as the newcomer instructor. He was relentless. He just kept registering for this one course, over and over. I remember the previous course instructor speaking to me of him, saying things like, “He shouldn’t be here. He’ll drive you nuts. He keeps coming back, but just doesn’t try.” As the semester went on, his grades in my course were indeed suffering, but he was there every day. So I spoke with him, simply wanting to know from him where the trouble was. He left me with no doubt about wanting - really wanting - to be a musician, a music educator especially. His passion was palpable, and there was only this one course credit keeping him from realizing his career potential. His other course grades were fine. He wasn’t hauling in scholarships, but nor did he struggle in the other work. Just in this course I was teaching. I spent tutoring time with him outside of class. He barely… and I mean barely… passed my course. But he did it. To my dismay, I remember not one, but two professors of the school telling me later, “That should not have happened.” I couldn’t tell if I was being blamed for going too easy on him, or if he was deemed unworthy of a music degree for some reason.

Those comments turned out to be utterly unwarranted. Just as I was about to start teaching the first class of the next semester, the newly-minted Bachelor of Music walked into the classroom, grasped my hand, looked me square in the eye and said, “Thank you.” He turned and walked out of the room. That was the last I saw of him until a few years later, I was adjudicating a music festival out of town - coincidentally the town where he now works as a teacher. He was in the audience to watch his own students perform for me. Afterward, he came up to me, introduced me to his wife who was expecting their first child. And he thanked me again for our work together.

In a simple good deed as a compassionate educator, Shu-Lon Wong perhaps unwittingly taught me to see past the grade. I’ll never know for sure, but I want to believe that he wouldn’t have done this favour for just anyone. I want to believe that he saw in me not just a distressed student, or not some bumbling kid who didn’t try hard enough, but someone who was maybe out of his element, someone who worked hard, someone who just needed a very small but meaningful nudge that just might make all of the difference. I don’t know what he recognized in me. But I wonder where I’d be today if not for his kind act. And I wonder if long ago he had a teacher who similarly gave him a break when he needed it most, and then passed it on to me. All I know for sure is that how I felt in his office some thirty years ago is something I now instinctively recognize in young people I meet today who are adrift. And the compassion he showed me, that one percentage point which probably meant nothing to his career, meant everything to mine, and by extension maybe to a student or two of mine along the way. And then in turn, maybe one of my students happens to do something to help even just one of their own students along the way. And so on.

piano keys

Skål, to a Friend.

August 12, 2015

I’ve been through a bunch of end-of-life farewells in my family - those we all come to expect in the normal course of things: the passing of grandparents, uncles and aunts. For the first time in my life, and I suppose not for the last, I’m struggling … and not too successfully… to come to terms with the passing last evening of a dear friend and mentor. She’s a former teacher from my university music school undergrad years of the late-90s, early 2000s, who also quickly became a very dear and treasured friend for the rest of her life. Someone I could feel comfortable just hanging out with, usually over a very long coffee in her office, then graduating to all-morning-long gossipy, laughy, wonderfully engaging breakfasts/brunches at our favourite St. John’s restaurant. She personified self-confidence but never in a conceited way. She was very sweet, under a deceiving exterior of toughness. She embodied stoicism, when in fact she was a softy at heart, crying on my shoulder or lending her shoulder for me to cry on.

This is my personal tribute to Kjellrun Hestekin.

It was early-September, 1998. I was 33 years old, about to enter the studio of my piano professor for my first official lesson as an undergrad. I was feeling like I had made the worst mistake of my life. What in the name of all that is good was I doing to myself? I just gave up a relatively steady accounting career with decent pay to go into…. music….?? I must be nuts. So there I was, clutching my piano books like a scared eight-year-old. My legs wouldn’t hold my nervous self up any longer, so I leaned on the wall in the corridor, and slumped down to sit, knees up to my head, and still clutching my books, waiting for my piano teacher to emerge from her office. I was alone in this long, empty corridor. Classes were in session and it was my private lesson time. I had the place to myself to wonder about my sanity for those moments before my piano prof would come out of her office to usher me in. Her office was alongside the office of another professor with a strange Scandinavian-looking name on the door. To set my mind somewhat at ease with forced humour, I imagined that a Viking lived in that office of the professor whose name I thought I would never need to know how to pronounce.

Then, seemingly from nowhere, I heard these loud footsteps from the far end of the hall to my left. I glanced up. Marching straight towards me was this woman in a crisp, crimson red pant suit offset by a white blouse with thin wavy subtle patterns in it. In one lapel was a brass-coloured french horn. Her hair was short and bright orange. It was her hair that especially grabbed my attention. It was kind of the colour of fire - something warm, possibly temperamental and unpredictable. Or maybe it was closer to the colour of a tangerine - something gentle, sweet, and leaving us wanting more. I would come to learn that it would represent all of that. As she got closer, I saw she was looking straight at me, smiling. Then she abruptly stopped, looking down at me. “HI!” she said loudly. “….hi…” I quietly, depressingly responded. She kept smiling and said, “Waiting for your lesson??” “Yeah,” I said. “I don’t know what I’ve done to myself. My name is Dave, by the way.” “Oh, I know who you are” she said, smile broadening even more. All of that red and orange was now complemented and brightened even more with this smile. Then she said, “I’m sure you’ll be fine. If you ever need to chat along the way and my door is open, stop in and I’ll be glad to listen.” And then she disappeared behind the door with the name of the Viking on it. Kjellrun Hestekin.

She meant every word of her kind offer. And I should know, since I took full advantage of her availability and ran with it. I’d stop in for every office hour to beg for help understanding her music theory courses. My God, they were brutal. There was a required, hefty assignment due every single week worth only a point or two, but filled to the brim with challenge. Not to mention the requisite mid-term and final exams, neither of which were for the faint of heart. I recall hearing some young students complaining among themselves about how tough she is, how awful the course is, and how they couldn’t stand her. But then there were others whose feelings for the work load and the teacher were the complete opposite, and I wholeheartedly agreed. She ended up teaching me seven theory courses over my time in that building. There was one weekly assignment that came at a particularly bad time, and I mistakenly mis-read the clef when writing out my notation - Therefore, the entire assignment was wrong. She handed it back at the start of the next class and I saw a red ‘F’ looking back at me, when I was expecting an ‘A.’ I felt like someone just punched me hard in the gut. I slumped in my seat like a sooky child and wanted to quit. Throughout the class, I noticed her glancing in my direction repeatedly. When the class was over, she called out to me to wait a minute. Then she confirmed my stupid mistake aloud, “You read the clef wrong.” Thanks…. thanks a lot. But then she went on, “Re-write this tonight and hand it in tomorrow. If it’s better, we’ll forget this one.” With no sleep, I re-submitted the next day and she gave me an ‘A.’

‘A’ for effort. It’s an old-school way of teaching, and in that regard she was among the last of the greats. Her weekly work was not meant to instil fear and hatred for the course or disdain for her, but the complete opposite. She was giving every one of her students opportunity to improve our standing, even telling the class at one point, “If you blow it in the early part of the term but I see you’re improving as things roll along, I might just forget about the earlier assignments.” And she did for those she felt deserved it and who responded to her repeated generous offerings for additional help.

I remember very fondly her parting words at the end of every class. She was like a talk show host signing off for the night. At the very end of class while everyone was chatting and making noise picking up their things, she always yelled out things like, “And appearing tonight at The Ship is Pat Boyle! And tomorrow at the LSPU Hall, you can see some former students! And don’t forget Kiera’s recital on Sunday!” So I’d go to many of these events, and quietly tucked away in the back of the audience was Kjellrun. Usually she had a stack of assignments on her lap, grading during the show. A few times I saw her knitting. But she was always there, far outside the fearsome classroom, supporting her students past and present. All she ever wanted was for all of us to do well. I was never fooled by that tough exterior. She was an old softy with a heart of gold. Just a year ago, my young friend Stephen Ivany and I performed a concert to a small audience. The day of the concert, she apologetically e-mailed me to say she didn’t think she would make it because of prior commitments. She was there, telling me after her big bear hug following the show that she dropped her other plans. “I wouldn’t have missed this.”

She and I shared a great passion for adopting pets. We were both dog owners. When my wife and I endured the loss of our first dog about ten years ago, it was like losing a member of our family. We’d never been through anything like that. It so happened that Murphy the Dog died in the wee hours of a day when I was to perform in a CD release concert for a friend. So there I was on stage, somehow getting through the performance on the lowest possible reserve of energy and emotion. When my bit was done, I circled around through backstage and went into the audience. Kjellrun saved me a seat next to her. Just as the lights came down for the next piece, she whispered, “How’s Murphy?” With that, I blubbered like a baby uncontrollably. Before I even realized it, she was crying with me, her left arm draped around my shoulders. I’m glad we were in the back row because we were in quite a state. A couple of days later, she invited me out for breakfast at Blue on Water and started a tradition that would last until she was no longer able to do so. Those very long, highly caffeinated discussions would extend well past breakfast and long after our table was cleared. We really never talked about academia. We always seemed to be sharing photos of our dogs, family, vacations, gossiping, talking politics. After her retirement, she went back to MUN to take a course here, a course there, at the first-year undergrad level, in other languages or history. I got such a kick out of her excitedly telling me, in her 60s, that she got a B on an assignment she felt she didn’t deserve. This brilliant woman who could write her own theory text books was laughing at herself not getting an A in a non-music course.

Her face would especially light up when talking about, or hearing about from me, updates on her former students. It didn’t matter to her if some of the people I was talking about didn’t do well in her theory courses or dropped out of school. All she wanted to hear from me was that there was some take-away from music school for them that they were somehow applying in their new lives. That’s what she was doing, after all. She technically retired, but only in the official sense. Retirement made her more “free” to develop new course material for the school, attend more shows, travel to more places, take courses having nothing to do with music, volunteer. Unbeknownst to a lot of people, Kjellrun gave a lot of her final days to bettering the lives of others in small, local charities who she felt could use an extra couple of hands. Upon learning of Kjellrun’s illness, my friend Alice dropped by my home with some drawings made for Kjellrun by children supported by the Association for New Canadians. I knew Kjellrun for 17 years but did not know that on her last day before being admitted to hospital a couple of months ago she was playing with these kids. So I brought the sketches to her hospital room and, once again, her face and eyes were restored to glory. She was indescribably happy to see these drawings. I relayed a message from Alice about one of them: “Alice tells me that you called this kid ‘The little stinker.’” She laughed and said, “Yup.” Even as the end was drawing near, I was still getting to know Kjellrun.

In the eight weeks between her diagnosis with a brain tumour and her passing, she embodied everything I came to know about her over the previous many years. The warmth and sweetness represented by the colour of her hair were there to the end. If she was afraid of the fate that had been handed to her, she never showed it. I visited her frequently and walked away from her room not sadder, believe it or not, but rather empowered by her boundless energy and positive spirit. There were no tears at all. Only smiles, holding hands, and that inimitable belly laugh of hers whenever I or someone else said something funny. She was about 17 years older than I, but that never bothered either of us. I dare say our friendship is responsible for my being so comfortably able to befriend people younger than I am. And what a gift that has been.

Years ago, we were having a pint together and clinked our glasses. I said, “Cheers!” to which she replied, “Skål!” She then explained to me that this is the Norwegian way of saying “Cheers.” Given her Norwegian heritage, I thought I would respect her by saying the same thing over that pint and future others. But I never got it quite right to her. Every time I would say, “Skål!” it came out sounding a bit too much like “Skole” and that was not to her liking. There was some linguistic inflection I was always missing. In one toast that went on much too long and that I wish had been audio-recorded for the ages, our conversation sounded like this:

Me: “Skole!”
Kjellrun: “No, “Skål.”
Me: “Skole.”
Kjellrun: “Skål….”
Me: “…. Skole…?”
Kjellrun: “Cheers.”

For you reading this, I have only this message, and it’s a simple one. In your own way, and in a way that’s best understood and appreciated on the receiving end, show and tell your closest friends how much they mean to you as often as you can. It doesn’t even have to be in words. Quality time can speak volumes. Go to ball games together, or shows, or have them over for dinner, go out for drinks, and just hang out a lot. Toss in a hug now and then. Give your heart to your friends as much as you can, and it will make the great times even greater and the eventual difficult paths for both of you so much easier to travel.

To my friend, teacher and mentor - the warrior “viking,” Kjellrun Hestekin - who to the very end was a boundless source of inspiration, positive energy, and who never for a moment stopped teaching.. and learning… how to live life to the fullest… Thank you for your legacy. Skål.

Stephen Ivany and David Chafe

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