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The Last Say

By Alice Swersey, NCMC Board Member


Note: This essay was originally published in the book Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story by Alan Gelb (Penguin Random House 2015) and is posted here with the permission of the author.


I was in my music classroom late one fall afternoon after the children had been dismissed. It was beginning to get dark and I was racing to turn in the first quarter grades. It was taking more time than I had planned, and I was unaware that someone had walked into the room. “Hey, Mrs. Swersey? Remember me?”

I looked up and saw a tall, sandy-haired young man in a plaid flannel shirt and denim overalls. Ryan had been one of my students five years before. “Of course, I remember you, Ryan” I said. “Although I didn’t have to look up at you when I saw you last.”

As we spoke, he told me that he was now in high school in the agricultural program in Northampton. The school bus had dropped him off at the elementary school, and he was waiting for his mother to pick him up.

“You know,” Ryan said, as I watched him walk around the room inspecting the rhythm instruments on the shelves, “I’ll never forget what you taught us about Leonard Bernstein.”

One morning back in 1990, as I was driving to Berkshire Trail Elementary School in rural western Massachusetts, the news on the radio announced the death of Leonard Bernstein, the night before. I pulled the car over to the side of the road, turned off the engine, and wept. Bernstein had been my maestro. When I was in high school, we often got special passes to attend Friday afternoon rehearsals at Carnegie Hall, where he was conducting the New York Philharmonic. When he noticed that a group of students were in the audience, he would sit down on the edge of the stage and talk to us about the music he was preparing. He was a master teacher, and I always cherished how lucky I was to be one of his ‘students’.

I had known that Bernstein was very ill. I had seen him conduct his next-to-last concert at Tanglewood two months before, visibly fragile, stooped over with a cape covering his shoulders on that warm August evening. After that concert, I decided that I would teach my students about Leonard Bernstein, the man and his music.

I spent the last few weeks of summer preparing a six-week unit on Bernstein. I wanted the children in this part of the world, where Tanglewood rules in the summer, to know of the contribution Bernstein made to this venerable music festival, where he was a major presence for more than 40 years. Most of the children had never been to Tanglewood, but some knew of it because their parents worked there behind the scenes, collecting garbage and tending the grounds.

That year, when the school term started, my classroom was hung with photographs of the Maestro. We read that Bernstein, who became a musician over the objections of his father, had natural talent and we began to learn parts of West Side Story. The morning I heard about Bernstein’s death I shared the news with my classes. The children were all very concerned, particularly since they observed my sadness. As a result of Bernstein’s passing, children who could barely read brought in stories about him from Time and Newsweek magazines they found at their grandmother’s or the dentist. The excitement in the music class was amplified by the coincidence of the death of the Maestro.

“Sometimes these days I listen to jazz and I kind of like it. Oh, there’s my Mom,” said Ryan. “See you, Mrs. Swersey.”

“See you, Ryan,” I said, as he left the classroom.

You never know what kind of impact a teacher can have on a child, I thought. As I remembered Bernstein for what he had taught me, one of my students remembered what I taught him. I was glad that I stayed late at school that day.

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