Phillip Burgess: Don’t dwell on the obstacles that life throws you

  • Posted: Sunday, May 19, 2013 12:01 a.m.

The countdown until the final day of the school year has begun.

Students and teachers alike can see the goal ahead, and each day they press forward to that end.


For those continuing next year, the end of the school year merely marks a break.

For those graduating or retiring, the end of the school year means a new chapter in their lives.

My teachers, at all levels, have had a great deal of influence upon my life.

Recently, one of my college students asked me, “What causes you the most anxiety as a teacher, educator and performer?”

I thought for a moment, and then I realized that what troubles me most is that many of my closest teachers, mentors and friends have died.

When I have a question or problem, I am the one that has to find the solution.

I, the student, have become the teacher. And for me, that is a scary place to be.

Now you might expect that my favorite teachers would be my music instructors, and yes, I do write of them often.

But today I want to travel back to August 1970, my first day in first grade.

The teacher was Marylou Walker and the class was physical education.

When it comes to my athletic ability, two words come to mind...non and un-. Nonathletic and uncoordinated.

These traits were exhibited early in my academic career. On the first day of class, Ms. Walker, a pseudo-Wonder/Bionic woman wearing a silver whistle, introduced us all to what would be my nemesis for years to come.

Blowing her whistle she had us all line up in front of a woven rope suspended from the ceiling of the gym. To me it seemed a mile to the top, but in reality was probably only 25 feet or so.

Ronnie Tincher was the first in line. This “son of Tarzan” scampered up the rope, touched the ceiling and rappelled back to the floor.

Others followed suit, some even grabbing the steel girders and swinging over the floor for added bravura.

I was last. Grabbing the rope, I closed my eyes and pulled. Over and over and over again I pulled and pulled.

Surely with all this effort and as much as I was sweating, I had reached the top. When I opened my eyes, I was eye level with Ms. Walker. I had probably climbed four feet.

Looking at me she said, “Little one, open your eyes. You must keep looking up. You will get there eventually. The rope is not an obstacle. The rope is the way to your objective.”

I have been told there are two kinds of people in the world, those that see the glass “half-full” and those that see the glass “half-empty.”

One of my closest friends recently admonished me. In one of our conversations he told me that every time he made a suggestion I always responded with, “The problem with that is…” Ouch.

Perhaps, like that first day in gym class, I too often let obstacles get in the way achieving my objectives.

Now, I know that many of you are wondering if I ever made it to the top of the rope. Yes, it happened one day in fourth grade.

When no one was watching, I grabbed the rope, looked at the ceiling and pulled and pulled and pulled. Upon making it to the top, I grabbed the steel girder of the ceiling for extra bravura.

Ms. Walker suddenly blew her whistle and everyone stopped. I descended to thunderous applause, the first standing ovation of my career.

Many years later, Ms. Walker would journey a great distance to hear one of my doctoral recitals at the University of Michigan.

She came up to me and said, “Little bit, aren’t you glad I made you climb that rope in first grade?”

Recently, one of my students sent me the following poem. I think it is a fitting tribute to all of those teachers, mentors and friends that have touched our lives. those that have shown us how to look at the objective and not dwell on the obstacle:

The teacher said to the students: “Come to the edge.”

They replied: “We might fall.”

The teacher said again: “Come to the edge.”

And they responded: “It’s too high.”

“Come to the edge” the teacher demanded.

And they came…

And the teacher pushed them…

And they flew.

-L. Voskull-Ditter

Dr. Phillip E. Burgess is director of music ministries at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

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