December 30th, 2009
07:50 AM ET

Dear President Obama #345: A great gift of music

Reporter's Note: I’ve never heard President Obama sing. Presumably he does, and I’ve always felt that a “talent” competition would add to the contest for the Oval Office. Think how cool it would be to say, “Yes, he is the leader of the free world, and a ventriloquist!” That is the sort of thing that was on my mind as I wrote today’s letter to the president.

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Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

My elder daughter’s high school chorus was fortunate and talented enough this year to be chosen to perform at the Kennedy Center. It was a wonderful show. Joining hands with the adults of The Washington Chorus, they rolled through a rousing selection of holiday numbers with a small orchestra. She’s done well as a singer; making it into the All State chorus every year, becoming part of the elite singing groups at her school, and generally developing both a wonderful voice and ear for music. This spring, her chorus will also perform at Carnegie Hall, so you can understand our pride.

But as I watched her on that magnificent stage here in DC, I could not help but whisper a quiet word of thanks in this season of giving, to a man who gave me a great gift long ago that no doubt has contributed greatly to her success.

When I was entering my junior year in high school, my parents and I moved from Illinois to Alabama. My older brother and sister had already left home, so as the youngest I bore the burden of assimilating into a new school alone. My mother was from Alabama and we moved back to her home town, so we had family to offer some guidance, but the single most important recommendation came in this simple sentence from an older cousin about a teacher. “You really need to meet Joe Tisdale.”

Mr. Tisdale was the choral instructor and highly respected for many miles around. His standards were exceedingly high, his kindness and caring legendary, and his dedication to making marvels happen in a small town school was the very definition of a good educator. What’s more, he directed the annual musical, which was quite a production by any school’s standards. I was interested in acting and the idea of taking a role in this beloved show was attractive. But I had two problems: I was new, and I could not sing. At least, I had been told that.

Personally I thought I had talent, but it had never been confirmed, and as the years had passed, I had relegated my musicality to shower serenades and duets with the radio while driving alone. So when I made my way down to the chorus room to find this man sitting at his piano scribbling on some sheet music, I confessed immediately.

“I can not sing,” I said.

“Oh, I doubt that,” he responded warmly. “Let’s find out. Do you know America the Beautiful?”

And before I had time to back out, he played the intro, and I was launched. I did the best I could, and fought the urge to hold back; unloading all the heart and soul I could muster. When the song was done he said six words that changed my life.

“Why, you have a beautiful voice!”

In that instant of an autumn afternoon in Alabama, he opened a world of music for me. I not only joined the chorus, and made it into the show; the next year I had the lead. I learned to play guitar and piano, and eventually was the lead singer in a band in New Orleans. And my children have grown up in a house filled with music every day.

Mr. Tisdale suffered a stroke at a young age, and that changed his life of course. His role in the music of that community was greatly reduced, and his wonderful wife took over many of the tasks that were previously his. But he continues to serve the people of south Alabama, and the memory of his unselfish love and encouragement inspires me, as I’m sure it does countless others, to this day.

I have received many wonderful presents over a lifetime of Christmases, but nothing has ever outshone the remarkable gift of that caring teacher on a perfectly unremarkable afternoon. I do not know if he remembers that day, but I will never forget it. I had no doubt as I watched my daughter on stage this holiday season, that I was watching the hand of that great and humble man still at work, across the miles and ages.

Hope all is well. Enjoying my time off. Went to see The Young Victoria this afternoon; excellent!



Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Tammy, Houma, LA

    This was a nice tribute to your former teacher. Mine was my high school band director. He gave us a place to belong, helped us create lifelong friendships with each other, and for me was an inspiration to earn my doctorate because he went back and earned his. He took a love and gift for music my dad gave me and took it to new levels. As an educator, I try to be all the good I saw and had in this director. The gift continues paying itself forward, I hope.

    December 30, 2009 at 11:05 am |
  2. Jeni Schmitt

    Good teachers are the most important people in our lives (besides our family) yet they are underpaid. Why? You see how important your teacher was to you. Teachers make sacrifices each and every day because they believe in their students. They know that everyone needs someone to care for them.

    December 30, 2009 at 10:18 am |
  3. Tim Gibson

    How proud you must be for the gifts you continue to receive and what a joy song brings to our lives.

    Perhaps if Obama belted out a tune now and then his popularity rating may go up, but then again, it could go down further and he would find himself voted off the idol stage.

    December 30, 2009 at 9:01 am |

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