The Great Teacher

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Many years ago, when voice lessons was high on my list of things I never considered doing, a friend started raving to me about her voice teacher and told me I had to meet her. I told her my sole interest in singing was with a bar of soap in my hand.

"What's so special about her?" I asked.

"Come and see," she insisted. This is a line that also appears in the New Testament.

Unable to shake her off, I gave in. The teacher was Madi Bacon, a woman in her 90s, a founder of the San Francisco Boys' Choir. After spending about half an hour with her, talking about nothing much, and singing less, I said to myself, "It doesn't matter what she teaches. What I can learn from just being with her transcends any particular subject." I asked Madi for voice lessons, and she agreed. Anyone I would call "lucky" has had a similar experience.

I was thinking about this during a break in a play rehearsal, while chatting with someone 50 years my junior. Where would I even begin if faced with growing up now, in a world as unrecognizable to me as the one in which I evolved would be to her? But the way in which she talked about one her teachers forged a link between our generations unrelated to the material progress that separated us. What we really learn, we learn from people. And not so much because of what they know as who they are. Of course, this idea isn't new. People hung around Socrates who, according to himself, knew nothing.


One of my favorite hasidic tales tells of a young hasid who visited a revered teacher two weeks' walk away. When he returned, his fellows crowded around him, eager to hear some words of wisdom from the master's mouth. To which the traveler replied, "I didn't go to him for his words. I wanted to see how he tied up his shoes."

Madi Bacon came to my birthday party that year. While descending 60 steps, she tripped and tumbled to the bottom. She picked herself up and started to dance.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Friedlander.

Richard Friedlander is an actor, mediator and author. He lives in the East Bay.