By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
What happens when teaching transcends the boundaries of reading, writing and arithmetic?
When teaching goes beyond the simple definitions of teacher and student?
When the teacher is an educator, to be sure, but meets his students as a fellow traveler?
For the answers, look no further than the students of McNary High School’s Jim Taylor, who was honored for his work with students and in the community with the Keizer Chamber of Commerce’s President’s Award Saturday, Jan. 25. It was an unprecedented second President’s Award in a ceremony where only one is traditionally given.
Taylor is McNary’s choir director and under his wing, the program’s reputation has spread far, wide and up. It was deemed the best in the state a few years ago and regularly elicits the favor of competition judges.
Start with the everyday that isn’t. Walk into his choir room at the beginning of class and you won’t always find Taylor there at the front. Student leaders often take on the job of getting voices tuned up and preparing for the rest of the lesson. Taylor is adept at singling out the ones who can command fellow students’ respect for their talents and couple it with a get-it-done work ethic. It’s a partnership that often starts early.
Taylor first learned of sophomore Lily Tipton’s middle school struggles when she was in seventh grade. Tipton had reached such a low that her moods began affecting the mood of an elder friend in Taylor’s classes. Taylor took notice, then action.
“He went to talk to her and then he came to me,” Tipton said. “But it wasn’t parental, it was ‘Hey, I’m here as a friend.’”
Tipton still counts Taylor among the friends she can talk to, but she didn’t join the choir program until this year.
“He just told me to audition. I turned bright red and I was so nervous, I probably sounded terrible. But he gave me the chance and helped me, and I still feel like I can talk to him about anything.”
That deep level of caring – more than one student called it Taylor’s love for them – reveals itself in a variety of ways.
“There’s a lot people don’t know about him. He can come off as intimidating, but he’s actually really fun and he makes class fun while we’re getting better and smarter,” said Marissa Rodriguez.
Hannah Clow moved to the area 10 scant months ago, but she had no choir experience, she just wanted to be part of something great. It led her to Taylor’s door.
“He’s a great man. He will accept who you are, what you are and in any form you are. He’ll just love you to death,” Clow said.
But Taylor also knows how to lay down the law, Clow said, and expects students to live into his expectations for them.
“Every day, before we leave class, we have to repeat, ‘No drinking, no smoking, no drugs, no sex.’ He helps us all stay positive and adhere to our morals,” she said.
Taylor is adamant about students finding ways to stay engaged and involved with school, and avoid the temptations that lay outside the building. The result is his students find themselves reaching further than they thought themselves capable of.
Brianna Koch had deep-seated fears about auditioning for the All-City choir; it threatened to put her in a spotlight she was uncomfortable assuming.
“He encouraged us all to try out. I was going to chicken out and I was about to cry, but he told me, ‘You have a good voice and you can do this,’” Koch said. “I didn’t end up getting a part, but he helped me build my own confidence. As a teacher, that’s a big thing.”
Taylor managed something similar with Hannah Samples, who never really thought about trying out for a play, much less a musical, but Taylor encouraged her to give it a try. She ended up with some small parts, but when an actor dropped out of a role in McNary’s production of Two Gentlemen from Verona, and director Dallas Myers needed to fill the role …
“My hand shot straight up. Before I met Mr. Taylor, that never would have happened,” Samples said.
It’s small expressions of care for students and their futures that, when taken as a whole, transforms students’ notions of what it means to be smart.
“When I think about how much I like choir, it’s because he makes us think in different ways. There are times when I feel like I’m really bad at school and I don’t have as many friends as I should, but I stay in to hear his stories about how choir has helped his other students,” said Jade Rayner. “He inspires me to be a better person.”
Most of Taylor’s classes revolve around music, of course, which he’s fond of saying is “a great way to get smart.” But the lessons he imparts often move students in directions other than they originally planned.
Matthew Bugado found himself roped into Taylor philosophies about music because of their power.
“Mr. Taylor had this idea that music is the thing that’s going to change the world. It’s not going to be war, it’s not going to be politics, it’s music that will make change happen. If world peace is possible it will be because of music not anything else,” Bugado said. “He wants people to be smarter because knowledge is the one thing that is truly yours. He understands that and wants people to better themselves in every way possible.”
Bugado himself favors progressive metal, but Taylor’s teachings are infecting his work in that genre.
“My band is writing this song Within the Mizpah of Humanity. A mizpah is a connection between two people that have been separated emotionally or physically and we’re trying to incorporate that into something that can be life-changing,” Bugado said. “If we can influence one person that will be a win.”
Mark Pfeiffer (whose name has been changed to protect his privacy) wanted to be part of the next Imagine Dragons or the next Justin Bieber, but he now favors what he called “real music” and aspires to be a composer. The fact of the matter is, without Taylor’s involvement, Pfeiffer might not have been here to aspire to anything at all.
“He saved my life,” said Pfeiffer, who you get the feeling isn’t given to hyperbole. “I’ve spent the past four years battling drug addiction. I eventually got into a lot trouble with it. Mr. Taylor went out of his way for me. It was like something a father would do for his son, to save me.”
Taylor now serves as Pfeiffer’s accountability partner in keeping him clean, sober and engaged with opportunities that don’t allow for him to fall back on bad habits.
It might appear difficult to break all Taylor’s work down to a simple math, but try this: transcendental teaching equals transformed students.
High school years are only rarely easy for students. Pressure from friends, parents, teachers, on themselves and any other number of possible influences take a toll. Even for students like Julia Sjakovs, who is no stranger to the McNary stage, fears sometimes get the better of them. That was the case when she decided to try out for a lead, and singing, role in McNary’s production of Urinetown.
“I never had done a musical, but it was the best thing in the world hearing him say, ‘You’re doing good, kid,’” Sjakovs said. “He’s there for students and he’s not afraid to be close with us. That’s something people should know, that there are people out there like that.”
It’s as simple – and complex – as that.