Singing Lessons

Rita Andreopolous was the kind of person who didn’t sing much. She could usually manage to lift her voice when she was at church — for one of the older hymns that she was familiar with. Sometimes, too, by herself, driving to the office, if there were some Beatles playing she might find herself humming along. But usually, she knew that she had no voice, and kept quiet.

She was the manager of a branch of a local 2-year college in northeast Pennsylvania. She felt the work that she did was important, and she did it well: Creating class schedules; hiring faculty, approving time cards; checking expenses; recruiting new students. There was a small office staff of four, and the full-time faculty of eleven, and then the ever-rotating adjunct faculty of 20 or so.

And the students. An odd assortment of late-teens and twenties, rising up to some 40- and 50-year-olds. They had the most amazing array of backgrounds, and it must be said, excuses for not paying bills or not attending classes.

Most of the time, they were just names on the page, and Mrs. Andreopolous was happy to keep it that way. No one guessed at the fierce fondness she had for all her strange brood of chicks. She didn’t engage them in long conversations, unless they came to her, seeking forgiveness for those bills or absences. Her demeanor during these conversations was what it always was: attentive, cool and efficient. A sort of academic nurse taking temperatures, and meting out sturdy advice that was respected in the strange way of these students, but rarely followed. For these interviews, she somehow gathered her passion into a dense ball — rather like the golf ball whose elastic is wound tightly to give the ball its propulsion. She used her devotion to empty herself of herself and simply listened. Her usually bird-like demeanor stilled. She had a strict purpose: To nudge this person towards the better life that Rita imagined — hoped — waited for them at the completion of even one course of study.

Her devotion to the cause of self-improvement had all the selfless courage of that first crocus that will bloom despite the snow. Luckily she survived because she sheltered from the withering winds of cynicism by never displaying this impossible optimism.

If she was one of many who supported these students’ early efforts, so much the better. But she was driven by the thought that for many of these “road not traveled” types, they were alone. Her specialty was a gift of seeing how to overcome the practical obstacles that lay low their unspoken hopes. Leave it for the faculty to rev their engines with the courses, it was, she thought, her job to get their seats in the seats. It was for those isolated souls that she worked. She helped them to learn the rules of the road for adult life, and how to follow them.

She had won the approval of her small staff with her efficiency. These days a lot is said about leadership, no one much mentions the priceless ability to not stand in the way and just let people do their best. And though the staff rarely noticed it, her quiet strength greased the wheels for the whole small machine.

For many of her students those sessions with her were just one of many conversations with authority. For a forever unknown number, she gave life to that restless pearl buried underneath the hundred suffocating blankets of ordinary lives. Some even remembered her. Her advice, when followed, changed lives. How she gave it, the words she used — her voice — was not.