“What a teacher is, is more important than what he teaches.”
— Dr. Karl Menninger
I was blessed to have more than a few great teachers throughout my public school years; none more influential than longtime Baldwin High School instructors Sue Ann Loudon and Lance Jo. Miss Loudon put the greasepaint in my blood; Mr. Jo nourished the music in my soul, even before I entered high school.
As 5th-graders at Makawao School, my friends and I were thrilled when our teacher, Miss Elaine Yamaguchi, told the class that her former classmate, the new band director at Maui High, was willing to teach us to play musical instruments. This was in the late 1960s, before the Department of Education established its intermediate school band program on Maui. Looking back, I imagine Miss Yamaguchi and Mr. Jo had to cut through miles and miles of red tape to provide us with borrowed instruments and instruction time.
My memory is a bit foggy on the details of the short-lived Makawao School Band, but one particular moment stands out and, in fact, occasionally recurs in my dreams. Sitting among the clarinets as we tootled through a simple arrangement, I suddenly experienced an out-of-body sensation. I felt myself hovering over Mr. Jo’s shoulder, sharing his vantage point as he tapped out the beat with his baton. For the first time, I heard the entire band, not just my own squeaks and fumbled fingering. I saw myself and each of my classmates as moving, meshing parts of a wondrous machine.
Afterward, I tried to describe that magical moment to Mr. Jo. With an exuberant pat on my shoulder, he beamed, “You got it!” I was only 9 or 10 years old, but I realized that, for Mr. Jo, developing our instrumental skills wasn’t as important as sharing the sheer joy of making music. In that instant, he became more than a teacher to me; he was a trusted father figure.
The Makawao School Band was short-lived, but I was fortunate to have Mr. Jo throughout my four years at Baldwin. With his encouragement, I switched from clarinet to oboe for concert band, became a snare drummer for marching band and percussionist for dance band, and served as his teacher’s aide in my senior year. I wasn’t as gifted as many of my bandmates, but Mr. Jo knew how much I loved playing. He never scolded me for breaking posture and swaying in my seat while playing oboe, because, he said, it made him happy to see how deeply I felt the music.
Lance Jo passed away on Feb. 23, surrounded by his biological family. His extended ‘ohana, the hundreds of students he nurtured, mostly at Baldwin, but also at Maui High, Kamehameha Schools Maui, Maui Youth Philharmonic and more, immediately took to Facebook with condolences and tributes. Most, I noticed, had put aside their instruments after graduation, but they all expressed gratitude for Mr. Jo’s guidance, lessons which extended beyond music.
Especially telling — and touching — was a video post by Iao School Band Director David Kuraya, recounting an incident from his freshman year at Baldwin. While setting up for a concert, Mr. Jo, in a rare display of anger, spoke sharply to David, who was having a bad day himself, but wisely kept his head down and his frustration to himself. At school the next day, Mr. Jo apologized for his impatience the night before. “The greatest lesson that Mr. Jo taught me . . . was that the role of a leader, a director, a teacher, is to set an example as a human being.” David said that the memory of Mr. Jo humbling himself and treating his young student with respect and dignity has stayed fresh in his mind and helped him in his own teaching career.
Last Monday would have been Mr. Jo’s 81st birthday. It was also the night of Baldwin’s 73rd annual Spring Concert at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. David’s father, Noel Kuraya, conducted the Baldwin Symphonic Band and Sherri Hart led the Baldwin Chorus in a program that had me alternately cheering and crying. As I tapped my feet and swayed in my seat, I felt Mr. Jo’s reassuring hand on my shoulder. I closed my eyes and saw the twinkle in his smile, heard his gentle voice say, “You got it!”
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.