It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m on the train headed to NYC for an all-day Adoption Conference tomorrow, which I love. I’m an adoptee who also understands the frustration of not knowing when (or if) something is going to happen, so I can relate to the people who attend. I enjoy helping them, listening when they need it, and sharing their joy when they find a child.
I have a heavy heart, though, because yesterday morning I opened the Albany Times Union, and on the front page was an article about the passing of Ned B. Fleischer, my high school chorus teacher – the man who nicknamed me “The Winklett” at age 14 when I was a geeky, awkward, skinny freshman at Shaker High School, class of ’87. I’ve been winklett everywhere ever since. That article didn’t say how he died; another one only said he was “stricken.” Stricken. I wavered on my feet, shaking, put the newspaper down on the counter, and realized I’d been holding my breath. Stricken. Gone.
Frustratingly, there was no wake/funeral/obituary I could find, even though I called the reporter who wrote the article, hoping he’d have the contact number of someone I could ask. I left a message for him to please call me back. I’ve yet to hear from the guy, and that was Friday of last week. Well who the hell am I, anyway? Nobody. Just one of hundreds – maybe thousands – who’d really appreciate a way to mourn a man who made a tremendous difference in their lives. Before I left Facebook, I was in the “Ned Fleischer Fan Club” and understood exactly why everyone else was too.
Mr. Fleischer was one of those rare individuals you can’t pigeonhole or categorize (I can’t help but revert to what I called him when he was my teacher; I never could refer to him as Ned). He was perpetually tanned – a swarthy, slight figure with an aura of mystique. He could be peevish and moody. You’d ask him a question and he’d nod and say “no” simultaneously, just to throw you off. He had this uncanny way of figuring people out – discerning what he could expect of you and demanding exactly that, without cruelty or condescension. High school kids’ egos are frail. He knew not to crush sensitive youth but rather to build us up, through persistence and integrity and damn hard work – work to which he was unfailingly dedicated. Equally dedicated because of it, we rose to his expectations.
He nicknamed us. He reveled in the process of orchestrating a new combination of people every year – a new set of personalities and voices to blend into songs. We gave him our all. Something made us want to please him – perhaps the confidence he bestowed upon us as both trophy and duty – perhaps the way he’d lend an ear when you needed one, because he genuinely cared. He was counselor and confidante to me more than a few times.
He’d sit with me in his office, cigarette lit in the ashtray, gifting me with his full attention until the cigarette had a four-inch ash on it because he hadn’t smoked it at all. He was too busy listening. Finally, he’d take a final puff, press it out in his glass ashtray, and utter something wise – sometimes soothing, sometimes not at all. But after a talk with him, I always felt validated. He made me feel like I was somebody.
Every one of us learned the language of his looks: Sarcastic. Angry. Proud. A heavy glance from him could mean anything from Nice pitch to Enunciate! or Smile!
To let him down was unthinkable. It simply wasn’t an option.
While I understand his family’s decision to hold a private funeral, I know I can’t be alone in longing for a way to gather, mourn, and honor him. So many of us loved him. And while I respect Shaker High School’s request for mourners to refrain from placing memorabilia or candles, etc. on the school grounds, I long to return to the chorus room, sit at his bench behind the big black grand piano, cover its surface with flowers, and cry my eyes out.
I was lucky enough to sing in Melodies of Christmas all four years of high school; back then, it was always the Shaker High School Chorus who did Melodies. Even in the subsequent years when they chose kids from various high schools to perform, Mr. Fleischer remained their leader.
During I think three of the four years we sang Melodies, we ended the show with The Halleluiah Chorus. There was nothing in this world more beautifully fulfilling, more excitingly breathtaking than singing that amazing piece of music with a full chorus, orchestra, audience, and Mr. Fleischer’s let’s do this intensity at the helm.
The Halleluiah Chorus was a climactic apex of all the hard work, of months of singing-while-smiling, learning, laughing, memorizing, struggling – of doing it all over and over and over again. Melodies of Christmas was a long performance in front of a live audience, 60 of us or so collectively standing tall and singing full, from the diaphragm, diction trained into sharp consonants and cool vowels, eyes and mouth smiling despite heavy red chorus robes under hot lights. By the last song, Handel’s Halleluiah Chorus, we were exhausted…and yet exhilarated. It was this final, from-the-gut push upward into flight – Mr. Fleischer in the lead, all of us lifting and v-ing out behind him on wings of The Messiah. God it felt good. Like magic.
To be honest I was a decent singer at best. My voice peaked around age 10, then settled into a mediocrity which was on pitch, but breathy and limited. Shaker High School had a special “select chorus” of 10 or so of the best voices in the general chorus. Select Chorus had special rehearsals and performances, and we all wanted in. I tried out too, auditioning for a position among the elite. Mr. Fleischer never encouraged me not to, and he never implied I couldn’t do it, even though I knew I couldn’t. With blind hope and stubborn persistence, I auditioned every year. Though I did my best, I never did make it into the select chorus.
It didn’t help that two girls in particular, P.D. and A.E., both one year ahead of me, had voices like angels –and not only led the select chorus but won all the leading roles in every musical as well. I couldn’t even be upset about that. These were girls you’d pay money just to hear sing something. Anything. They really were that good, and were pretty and stylish too. I envied them not only for that, but also for the extra time they got to work with Mr. Fleischer, who must have loved such incredible vocal instruments to shape into maturity. I still think about them sometimes. I can still hear their rich, clear, beautiful voices. I wonder if they continued to sing. I hope so. Damn, they were good.
I went back to visit Mr. Fleischer only a few times. He’d recognize me immediately, greeting me with a joyful shout — The Winklett!
I hope I can find out where he is buried so I can visit his grave, at least, just to sit with him. I always took it for granted I’d see him again. One more time. One more visit. One more Melodies.
Goodbye, Mr. Fleischer.
You are loved, and you will be deeply missed.
“Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.”
~ Mr. Holland’s Opus