The Because Project asks Vermonters to share their stories about people and experiences that have shaped their lives, especially during their formative years — stories that may inspire others to get involved. Because together we can all make a difference.
This month's essay was written by Grace Potter, lead singer, pianist and guitar player, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.
I came to Harwood Union Middle and High School as a seventh grader, not knowing where I belonged in school. The middle and high school years are a very scary time.
I found my home in the music department. Diane Phillips was my choir teacher. She made me feel like choir wasn't just a class — it was a lifestyle. It was a commitment to my voice, and to quality, to becoming knowledgeable about different genres of music.
Choir might sound boring, but she made it exciting. She always brought unbelievable energy and enthusiasm to every single session we had.
When I was in ninth grade, I was finally able to audition for her exclusive choir. I stayed after school and practiced for three weeks just to get in. She showed me that commitment to something you care about can create the groundwork for the rest of your life.
When I was in tenth grade, I came to her with some music of my own, and asked if she would let me write it into a choral piece and have the entire choir perform it. She said yes.
The sound a choir makes when they're all singing notes you've written is pretty thrilling. It was a very ballsy thing for a teacher to do, to let go of the reins a little bit and allow a student to do that. I think she understood that I was reaching beyond the notes on the sheet music, for something more universal.
And it wasn't just me. She gave other students the same opportunity a couple times after I did it. I thought it was a really commendable thing for an adult to treat her students as peers and but also to be our mentor. She balanced that beautifully.
I had a very special bond with Di and the music department. I saw them go through ups and downs. I saw them struggle through budget cuts, changes in the schedule — just the lack of resources in general.
But Di would always spend extra time with you if you needed it. She didn't just pack up her bags and go home at the end of the day. If you needed her, she was there for you.
On the week of our second CD release, I actually flew home so I could surprise her at her retirement celebration — she taught at Harwood for 39 years. I played piano at a high-school assembly.
The day I was there, it really sunk in. You could see that nothing had changed in the 10 years since I had been at Harwood. All these students knew exactly what I was talking about. They all understood how powerful an influential teacher can be.
When kids are influenced by somebody, whether it's at 5 or 6, or during the formative teenage years, that respect never fades. Everybody understands the emotional connection you have to someone who encouraged you and pushed you to do things you may not have known you were capable of.
I mentioned my trip to Di's retirement celebration to my friend, country music singer Kenny Chesney. Within a week, a white baby grand piano showed up at the school. He sent it because he related to my story; Kenny had an influential music teacher, too.
The Vermont Children's Trust Foundation supports statewide prevention programs for children and families to help give all kids a fair chance at success.