Last Friday Mr. Brooks showed up to teach music for the last time. Three days earlier he had directed his final concert at Merton Intermediate School. For many reading this blog, Mr. Brooks is the reason we sing. The following is a collection of my memories and life lessons from one of the greatest teachers I ever had.
My first interaction with Mr. Brooks was around 1988 when the high school performed the musical “Oklahoma.” Mr. Brooks directed the singing and Mr. Kuehl directed the band/orchestra. I remember being in about 4th grade thinking, “these teachers make music fun!” And I was right. As I grew older, I continued to attend the high school musicals and I loved hearing the Swing Choir perform the National Anthem. Mr. Brooks was known as a teacher who had a great relationship with his students, he got everyone involved, his music program was top notch, and everyone had a lot of fun.
When I was a freshman I knew I wanted to be in choir. As a sophomore I knew I wanted to be in Swing Choir. For all four years of high school I took choir with Mr. Brooks and learned a lot about music. But along the way I developed a relationship with a teacher who actually became a friend and taught me more about friendship than I thought was possible. Like many others students, I grew up without a positive male influence in my life. Mr. Brooks, whether he knew it or not, filled that void for me. I distinctly remember my sophomore year when I had 2nd hour study hall and Mr. Brooks let me sign into his room (he had prep that hour) and we would just talk about life. At Christmas time a group of us would would stay after school for a couple days and decorate his room with lights while playing and singing old Christmas classics. Other days after school I’d stop by his room to just check in before (sports) practice. He lead our student senate and by that time I was in Swing Choir so we had a lot of school-related activities together. Obviously I wasn’t the only student who got along so well with Mr. Brooks. Numerous other classmates, older and younger, had similar experiences. I’m sure it came off as a clique to some, but I reflect on this only because it was a fundamental component to my high school experience. High school is about growing up and learning to be an adult. A huge part of that is learning to talk to and talk as adults. Mr. Brooks allowed that relationship to develop. For those who took time to be interested in him, he took time to be interested in us.
It feels strange reflecting on life as a high school student. So much has happened since: college, working life, married life with kids. But high school was a foundational moment in time where I really grew into an adult. In high school students come to some major crossroads. Many students start going different directions, which is fine and good, but does that mean unity and community have to suffer? Not at Pewaukee, because something like 80% of each class was in choir with Mr. Brooks. Was there another school in the state that could boast of those numbers? Mr. Brooks made singing cool. I don’t know how he did it. I’ve asked him a few times over the years how got the majority of students, the popular kids, the athletes (yes, jocks) to join the choir! He brings up a few names from Arrowhead and then a few guys from his first years at Pewaukee, and it just grew from there. In a small town with lots of little groups of students, Mr. Brooks brought all of us together… to sing.
It’s almost like a fraternity. When you look at the classes and individuals that graduated from his program, it was the community that he created that made you want to be a part of it. Isn’t that what life should be? Isn’t that what we search for in different seasons of our lives? Places to fit in. Places to feel accepted, be challenged, and experience success. I found that in Mr. Brooks’ classroom. I found a teacher who invested in me and I found other students who enjoyed that same community and friendship. Your mileage and experience may be different. I’d love to hear about it. Because here’s what I know about you. If you’re reading this, you’ve been greatly affected by Mr. Brooks, too. I think great teachers deserve all the credit in the world for what they do inside and what they do outside the classroom.
When I think of the teachers who prepared me for life, Mr. Brooks comes right to the top. I remember most of the songs and a few of the dance moves. But it’s the confidence, self-esteem, and friendship that I he gave me that has most greatly shaped who I am today. This world needs teachers who are willing to give their best to students and establish a community of learners who will be challenged. Mr. Brooks did that for 37 years.
I wish I could have been at Merton on Mr. Brooks’ last day of school. I’m sentimental like that. I want to stand at the finish line and say, “Well done! Thank you for all your hard work.” Knowing that wasn’t possible, I find satisfaction and comfort in the fact that our friendship has lasted since I graduated his class in 1996. I’ll probably see him in a few weeks. And I’ll for sure run into him this fall. And that’s my relationship with Mr. Brooks: admiring his musicals as a 4th grader, graduating from his Swing Choir as a senior, and catching up somewhere between his house and mine without skipping a beat.
Mr. Brooks – Well done! Thanks for all your hard work. You were a great teacher.