I had many music teachers who touched my life and influenced me but none more so than Merrill Jerome Edwards. Jerome was my marching, symphonic, and jazz band director, instrumental studies teacher, church choir director, role model, and at one point, my rock.
I remember my freshman year, sitting in the back of the band room on the last row with my clarinet, which I didn’t play very well (hence the last row). I was in marching band only because I wanted to be the lead singer for the high school jazz band, which I had spent three years in middle school preparing for with my then band director Harold Moyer (also a dedicated teacher who introduced me to the whole idea of singing with a jazz band or any band for that matter). You see, if you weren’t in the marching band, you couldn’t be in the jazz band, so there I was, one of the last chair clarinet players (a small price to pay for high school stardom).
Mr. Edwards quite frankly scared me! He was an ex-marine who had the features of our school mascot, the Golden Eagle. His steel-blue piercing eyes were deep-set on either side of his strong nose, his head set atop squared-off shoulders, a flat top military haircut, and high forehead. When he spoke, his voice boomed and rattled the bass drums lined up at the back of the room. He took his position as the Golden Eagle Marching band leader very seriously and expected his students to take pride in their involvement and do the same. Mr. Edwards disciplined us to through a military demerit system displayed on the wall behind the music chalkboard. If you were late, demerit, if you talked when he talked, demerit, if your uniform was in disarray when it came time to perform, demerit. Mr. Edwards wasn’t just there to bark orders and give demerits, though; he inspired us with his cheesy whit and stories of overcoming adversity, having integrity, and showing initiative. He detested apathy and spelled out the damaging long-term effects of being apathetic to his class regularly; as you can imagine, he was dealing with 13-18-year-old students who were in their most apathetic stage of life.
Mr. Edwards nurtured with strength and always laid it on the line. My first encounters with him included auditioning for the jazz band (I was the lead singer for four years) and asking if I could go to his office to purchase new reeds or cork grease for my instrument. Every time I approached to speak to him up on his conductor’s riser, I felt intimidated. I had no father figure at home, and men were bad in my mind. He would look down at me as I asked him my question and say, “look me in the eyes when you talk to me, Jeri Moore.” My eyes would have rolled out of my head before I’d have the nerve to follow that simple order. He said, “no one will ever take you seriously if you don’t look them in the eye.” It took me a good year and a half before I could stand eye to eye with him and feel confident. He was strengthening me, and I didn’t even know it.
It was clear very early in my freshman year that I had to drop my marching band instrument and twirl a baton to stay in the marching band to stay in jazz band. We live in Florida, and I don’t know who thought WOOL marching band uniforms in 90-degree heat with 78 percent humidity was a good idea, but we had to wear them, and it was murder. On top of the smothering comfort of the uniform, I was and still am very allergic to wool. As a result, I passed out at one of the first football games we marched in, and my body swelled all over. Of course, we didn’t know I was allergic to wool because I never had to wear it growing up in the Deep South. We needed a solution to this problem, or I would have to quit the band. Mr. Edwards quickly introduced me to Arianne Crawford, the captain of the majorette squad, who gave me express lessons on how to twirl, chose an audition song with me, and taught me a routine. By the end of the marching season, I was ready to try out and made the squad, never having to put on that nasty hot navy blue uniform again. My teacher’s tenacity taught me to overcome problems if I could come up with a solution. Not always something taught in school. I was also encouraged to use my common sense. Mr. Edwards made me accountable in many ways. For instance, by having to be in the marching band and on the majorette squad to be in the jazz band, my teacher developed this network of projects and people I had to report to who made me take ownership of the function I was there to perform. He was very clever.
I needed the discipline I received from being a part of Mr. Edwards classes. I grew up in a household with a single mother, and as the youngest child of 5, my siblings had moved on in their own lives, and there was not a great deal of continuity and stability at home. Things were pretty fluid and inconsistent when it came to parental discipline during my high school years, and I needed just the kind of strict leadership Mr. Edwards had to offer. The lessons I learned as his student are valuable ones I have used repeatedly as a college student, employee, lead singer in pop bands, mother, and wife.
There was a point in my high school years when Mr. Edwards became more than the formative figure of leadership and musical power in my life. Around the end of my 10th-grade year, and as I got to know his sons in the youth group at our local church where we all attended youth choir with him as our leader, he became Jerome or Burr. (I’m not sure if we ever called him Burr to his face or not, but we thought it was funny either way). Jerome became a person who joked with us between songs and conducted our music sessions more casually. He made me feel welcome and treated me with respect as a musician while praising my abilities and encouraging me to solo often. I appreciated this so much. It was one thing to have applause from an audience or praise from your mom or family for your accomplishments. Still, it meant everything and had so much more value from a respected musician in the community who just happened to be somewhat of a father figure. I can’t imagine how many people felt this way about this man. He has touched so many lives throughout his career, and I know many of them admired him. Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Edwards was not a perfect person; everyone has their flaws, but he cared about his students, and he knew how to get the most out of us, and that was his superpower.
The defining moment in our student-teacher friendship came when I was in a moment of crisis. I struggled with some weighty boy issues and was doing everything I could to keep it to myself. Jerome could see I was hurting, though. My emotion came through when I sang as I played the piano, and he could see me sinking into myself in class. I’m not sure if anyone else noticed me silently begging for a lifeline or not at that point. Still, he pulled me aside after class one day and let me know I wasn’t alone, that he would stand by me if I ever needed an adult to confide in, and assured me I would be ok. Our conversation wasn’t prolific, and his actions weren’t superb; he simply gave me a moment of assurance and safety. He said, “I see you, I got you,” in the only way Burr knew how and that gave me strength.
I was gifted with a voice but got lost in the shuffle of home and out-of-control teen issues. This teacher, bandleader, father and faith leader was an adult who seemed never changing, stable, and someone that I could trust. For as long as I can remember, he believed in me not just as a student who could be a success someday but as a human being. He could see the good in me even when I didn’t feel good enough. And in those times when I wasn’t good enough, Mr. Edwards, Jerome, Burr inspired me to be better, not because it mattered what others thought of me but because having integrity was essential and it mattered what I thought of me.
So, I dedicate this story to Merrill Jerome Edwards and hope that my words will reach and touch him the way they reached me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.