Advertisement
  1. Archive

RHYTHMS of goodbye

Published Sep. 3, 2005

The bell rings for first period, and she rolls into the room. The sea of students doesn't part. She bumps past their backpacks, steering between their wide belts and low-waist jeans, up the wooden ramp to her desk.

She parks her scooter. Sets the brakes. Slowly, she raises both hands above her head.

Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Quarter notes. Not loud, but sure. Four of them. A rest. Four more.

The kids keep talking, laughing, running around. Their racket bounces off the acoustical ceiling tiles.

Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. A couple of kids look up. Then a couple more. Another measure and she has them.

"Hello! Welcome to music class," she says, smiling. "I'm Mrs. Clark."

In sweet silence she scans the room: the familiar bile-yellow cinder blocks in the background, papered with posters from Godspell, Annie and other musicals she has orchestrated over the years. More than a decade's worth of Tyrone Middle School Band alumni grinning from faded photos on the bulletin board. And now these new students, sinking into the old plastic seats: blank faces, ponytails and slip-on sneakers. Same kids, another year.

For 27 years she has started the school year the same way. This morning, she adds three short lines to her routine: "This will be my last year teaching. So I want it to be my best," she tells the seventh-graders. "I'm going to need your help."

While the students whisper and fidget, Mrs. Clark says she expects them to pay attention. "When I clap, you clap back. Echo my rhythm," she says. "Then stay silent." This year, she tells them, they'll learn how to count sixteenth notes, dance the macarena and perform Sousa marches.

Then she tells them she can't walk. She tries to explain multiple sclerosis. "It's a disease of the nervous system. I've had it for 16 years," she says. "So if I shake, or stumble, or even get sicker sometimes, don't worry.

"And don't be fooled!"

She grasps the armrests of her scooter, heaves herself straighter, purses her lips. The kids watch quietly, wondering what she'll do. Slowly, Mrs. Clark pushes up the left sleeve of her blue-flowered dress. She makes a fist and brandishes her bulging biceps.

"I may be in a chair," she says, "but I'm stronger than you think."

Swan song

Linda Clark is 48. She crops her black hair short, for easy styling, and spikes it slightly on top, to show she's fun. She magnifies her almond eyes with copper-framed trifocals so she can study a sheet of music without switching glasses. She used to love putting on shimmery eye shadow and mascara. Now she struggles with lipstick.

Her dresses are long, loose and drop-waisted, easy to get on and pull up, no need for stockings underneath. Her shoes are flat and lace-up. She can't move her feet, so pumps and sandals slip off.

She became a teacher when she was 21 and just out of college. A divorced mother of two, she took a middle school gig to make ends meet. She taught physical education, then chorus and band. Twenty-two years ago she married Ray Clark and became Mrs. Clark.

Back then, she could perform Bach's impossibly complicated Gigue Fugue on the organ, sing any part in the choir at Clearview United Methodist Church. She could march between rows of middle school students, showing them how to play each instrument.

Then her feet started failing, and she couldn't push the organ pedals. Her chest constricted, and she couldn't reach the soprano parts.

By the time she turned 32, she knew: She had multiple sclerosis. She wasn't going to die, but she knew over time she would get weak and wouldn't be able to walk.

Mrs. Clark could have retired on disability. She could have spent more time with her children and her husband. She would have had more time to take care of herself.

But she couldn't stop teaching. So when she began to stumble, she got a cane and wrapped bright ribbons around it. When the cane wasn't enough, she got a walker. One afternoon, she fell during Honor Band. "Don't worry," a seventh-grade girl whispered after another student helped her up. "Even if you can't walk right, we'll still clap for you. You're still Mrs. Clark."

Being Mrs. Clark meant doing more than anyone would have asked of her. As she weakened, she compensated by taking on more and more. She was the only teacher in Florida who taught chorus and band. She was the only teacher at Tyrone Middle who asked to have physically and emotionally disabled children in her classes.

They inspired her, and she them. A couple of years ago, Mrs. Clark had a student who had lost parts of all his limbs to disease. His name was Justin. His legs had been amputated below the knees. His arms stopped at his elbows. One afternoon, Justin confessed to Mrs. Clark that he had always wanted to play the drums. "You should, then," she told him. "You will."

The next day, she wrapped two Velcro straps around Justin's elbows. Into each one she tucked a new drumstick. She showed him that you don't have to have hands to do single-stroke rolls.

"Most of the teachers have 160 students a year. Mrs. Clark takes on 70 more. And at least 10 percent of those children are disabled," principal Marshall Brown said. "She gets all those kids' total attention just by clapping. She sets incredibly high standards, and for some reason, most of the kids want to meet her expectations. She can be frustrating and demanding at times. But she's good."

Mrs. Clark sponsored so many clubs and activities that her picture appeared on six pages of the yearbook. She dedicated her afternoons to candy sales and piano lessons, Bible study and Builders' Club, trips to retirement villages and Walt Disney World. She earned $47,500 a year, plus $1,000 for her after-school work. Sometimes, Mr. Brown had to beg her to go home.

About a year ago, Mrs. Clark told everyone that the 2001-02 school year would be her last. She couldn't stand up anymore, and some days she could barely suck in enough air to breathe. But those weren't the reasons. She was retiring because her husband, Ray, who's 10 years older, was ready to quit teaching second grade after 16 years at Mt. Vernon Elementary in St. Petersburg.

Mrs. Clark had it all planned: When school let out on the last day, she and Ray would get in their RV and drive to Alaska, a place they'd never seen.

But sometimes things happen that even Mrs. Clark can't anticipate: The Royal Waiter needs to go to the bathroom; William won't go home; your body betrays you.

Sometimes, life doesn't follow the printed score.

Sometimes you have to improvise.

Use Your Head

One month into her last year as a teacher, Mrs. Clark sits on her scooter behind her desk. The band room smells like sweat, saliva and brass. In the third row, the second trumpet player is emptying his spit valve onto the trombonist's shoe.

Clap. Clap. Clap-Clap. Clap. Mrs. Clark holds her hands shoulder-high. Clap. Clap. Clap-Clap. Clap. Now her class is up to eighth notes. Now she can't raise her left hand above her chin.

She stretches toward her desk, grabs her wooden-handled baton and raps louder. This time, the students clap back. All but one. Chequita never claps.

She's a wiry girl in a padded wheelchair, with white beads lining her long braids and wide brown eyes. Her slender body is supported by straps. She has epilepsy, diabetes and cerebral palsy. She can't control much movement, except for her head. She's in Mrs. Clark's seventh-grade band.

"Now, you all have the rhythm right. And that's good. I'm proud of you," Mrs. Clark says. "But we need to do more."

Even before she became ill, Mrs. Clark was not the world's best musician. She couldn't create jazz solos, and sometimes she squeaked on the clarinet. Nor is she much of a scholar. She can't name three Beethoven sonatas or remember who wrote Blue Ridge Rhapsody, although her bands have played that piece a dozen times.

Some audiences might notice that during her concerts, half of the horn section is flat and the cymbal player forgets to come in.

But Mrs. Clark hears music in mayhem. She triumphs in the trumpet players' persistence and silently celebrates when the tuba player ends with everyone else. And when the cymbal crash comes at all, she counts her blessings. Most miracles are small, she says.

"Okay," she calls to her class. "Now listen up. This time, while we clap, we're going to nod our heads to the beat." She raps the rhythm on the right arm of her cart, bobbing her head in time. Nod. Nod. Nod-nod. Nod.

This time, everyone echoes.

Even Chequita. While she bobs her head, her beaded braids flap against the headrest of her wheelchair.

The Last Waltz

By November, most of the students are singing harmonies and learning to read music. Mrs. Clark taught the trombone player to tune his instrument, and she's showing them all how to act.

Every year Mrs. Clark puts on a musical at Christmas. This year it's Cinderella. She's sure it will be great once the students get their scripts _ which are weeks late _ and when the boy playing Prince Charming accepts the obligations of royalty.

It's sixth period, Mrs. Clark's Show Choir, and His Highness, whose name is Mark, is standing at her desk, pleading. Does he have to dance with the Wicked Stepsister?

"You're the prince," Mrs. Clark says. "You have to dance with all the girls. Now, be charming and go sit down."

She reaches into the basket on her scooter and unearths her conductor's baton.

Tap. Tap-tap. Tap-a-tap. Tap. Rest. The students are studying triplets now. Mrs. Clark can't clap loud enough to get their attention anymore.

"Okay, I'm starting to get worried," she says once they're all silent. She tells them they have nine Christmas concerts coming up and she's not happy with the elves' cancan kicks. She tells them Cinderella is only a month away. "I'm expecting your scripts any day now," she says, trying to end on an up beat. "We'll just have to start working on the ballroom scene without them."

Ballroom scene? That means dancing. The kids groan.

"Hey!" Mrs. Clark says. "This is supposed to be fun!

"Okay, watch me. Up here!" she calls to her class. "A waltz has three beats. It's light and lilting; you're sort of floating on your feet." She raps the rhythm on the right arm of her scooter. Then she drops the baton into the abyss of the basket, folds her left arm across her lap and raises her right hand.

"Boys, your right hands are up, left arms behind the girls' waists. You want to lead your partner around, gently. Yes, you'll have to really touch her!" She flutters her right fingers as high as they'll go. "Pretend these are your feet," she says. "ONE, two, three . . . DA da da," singing each step. She moves her fingers in slow triangles. She lowers her hand to her lap. Her limp left arm becomes the stage. Her right fingers dance from wrist to elbow, turn gracefully, glide back again. "ONE, two, three . . . DA da da . . . "

She watches as her students dance, holding each other at arm's length. Mrs. Clark used to love slow dancing with her husband. Last summer, when they were at a formal banquet, she rolled over to Ray and steered him onto the dance floor. It was the first time in more than a decade that she had danced. She's still not sure it counts.

What they don't know

Mrs. Clark knows Amanda likes Mark, but Mark doesn't know. And she knows William rides the city bus two hours each way, every day, because after he moved, the school bus wouldn't pick him up, and his mom doesn't have a car, but he still wanted to be in Mrs. Clark's band. William is a big, broad eighth-grader with crooked glasses and tousled brown hair. He bosses the other students around some, so he doesn't have many friends. He's one of Mrs. Clark's many shadows.

Her students tell her their secrets, things even their best friends don't know. One confided she had been raped; one who was living in a foster home said she wanted to be adopted like her brother had been.

Mrs. Clark tells them about her life, too. But she doesn't tell them everything.

Things are crazy today, crazier than usual. And opening night is only two weeks away.

"Mrs. Clark, I have to go to the bathroom!" one of the Evil Stepsisters says halfway through rehearsal.

"Me, too," the Royal Waiter announces.

Eight other excited actors spill around their tired teacher, leaning and looming over her, crushing in above her cart.

"Mrs. Clark, can my grandma take in my dress for the ballroom scene?"

"Mrs. Clark, this shirt's too small."

"Mrs. Clark, what am I supposed to be doing?"

Somehow she answers them all. Then she tells them to stay silent for just a second. Her head is pounding.

She doesn't tell them why.

She's afraid her husband is dying.

She spent last night in the emergency room, waiting while doctors pumped four units of blood into him. Ray needs a bone marrow transplant, they told her. But that could kill him.

So while she's here teaching an eighth-grader how to pronounce Chablis for the king's banquet scene, she's wondering how long she has left with her husband.

"His liver and spleen are enlarged. And they want to do a CAT scan," she says between scenes, out of her students' earshot. "I'm taking off Friday. We were supposed to have our first dress rehearsal. But I want to be there with Ray.

"There's nothing else I can do. I can't help him," she says. "I can't even reach my kitchen sink."

Then the Fairy Godmother flits over and wants to know if she can put a glow stick in her magic wand, and the Royal Waiter asks why he can't just say "wine," and the Wicked Stepmother whines that she doesn't want to be ugly, not in front of all her friends.

Tap. Tap-tap-tap-tap. Tap. Tap-tap-tap-tap. Clap and nod and rest and silence. Sixteenth notes, and it's still only first semester. Mrs. Clark's left hand lies limp in her lap.

Cinderella story

A disco ball is spinning in the center of the ceiling, shooting squares of light across the stage. A dozen round tables, covered with plastic cloths, have been arranged around the basketball court. A glass slipper rests in the center of each one.

The school gym has been turned into the king's grand ballroom.

Somehow, Mrs. Clark convinced the cafeteria workers they should cook hundreds of meals after school. Somehow, she convinced her kids they should be waiters before starring onstage. The cafeteria workers and the kids wanted to keep the food simple. But you can't serve hot dogs and mini pizzas at a royal ball.

So Mrs. Clark made the menu: chicken cordon bleu, California mixed-vegetables, tossed salad, fruit salad, Bumbleberry Blossom Pie. She bought the food at Sam's Club, stacking frozen pies around her feet on the scooter, filling her basket with bagged salads, her lap with dinner rolls. She had to make eight trips to the checkout line to carry it all.

Now it's the morning of opening night, and Mrs. Clark rolls into the gym. She's crying.

"What's wrong? What's the matter, Mrs. Clark?" All the kids crowd around her. "Are you okay?"

She tries to wave them off, tries to drive away.

"I'm fine, fine," she says, sniffling. "I just got frustrated at home this morning. It's all right now."

The kids press her more. When they're upset, she makes them talk. "Please tell us. Maybe we can help."

Finally, she tells them: She couldn't get her dress off the hangar.

They look at each other. How do you respond to that?

Mrs. Clark lives in a one-story house a few blocks behind the school. Last summer she moved out of the master bedroom because she could no longer climb into the queen-sized four-poster bed she shared with Ray.

Now she sleeps in what used to be her daughter's room, in a hospital bed with stainless steel rails and blue handles dangling above her head. She showers in a converted handicapped stall Ray had built in the garage. Her clothes hang in a hall closet. Usually, Ray is around in the mornings to help her get ready for work, to hand down her dress. But he had to go to an early doctor's appointment today. He's on medical leave from his teaching job.

"I finally had to roll into the kitchen, get the broom, roll back down the hall and knock that hangar off so I could get dressed," she tells the kids, who are unusually quiet. "Nothing is easy."

Her feet are tingling, and her chest feels tight. Her left hand isn't strong enough to grasp the handlebars, and her right hand keeps cramping up. Her throat is sore from yelling at dress rehearsal, and her back aches from bending over.

But when it's show time that night, she's zooming 10 miles an hour around the gym, barking out orders, straightening spotlights. She can't get onto the stage; it's four steps up. Prince Charming's shoes are at her eye level.

As the curtain rises, she presses the play button on the CD player. The music starts.

Mrs. Clark recorded the whole Rogers and Hammerstein Cinderella score herself: all 179 pages of music, all seven parts.

All with her right hand.

She played the piano part first, the right-hand part. And she had to play it slowly, because her fingers won't work fast anymore. Then she recorded the left-hand part, using her right hand, of course. And she dubbed that over the first track. She added horns, drums and woodwinds. And after she mixed down all the parts, she sped up the score to the right tempo. She worked eight hours a day for two weeks to record two hours of music.

She could have hired someone to play piano or ordered a karaoke version on CD. But then she wouldn't have been able to slow the dance numbers for the boys or play the prince's solo a little higher to help him hit the notes.

The play isn't quite polished. But the kids pull it off. The Wicked Stepmother looks just ugly enough, and the Fairy Godmother's wand glows.

And as Mrs. Clark's music fills the gym, the prince twirls each girl around the basketball court/ballroom.

Carrying the torch

After New Year's, Ray decides to retire.

Doctors finally diagnosed a rare form of adult leukemia, myeoldysplastic syndrome; his body is no longer making enough blood. He needs transfusions every three weeks. He still needs a bone marrow transplant. He's too weak to keep up with his second-grade class, even for one more semester.

The Alaska trip they had planned for this summer is starting to seem too ambitious. They're thinking Texas might be nice . . .

"Tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap." Rest. Repeat. Nod. Again. As her students take their seats, Mrs. Clark dives into the silence.

"Okay, now we're going to do something weird today," she tells her Honor Band on a chilly Thursday in January. She passes out new sheet music. The theme for the Olympics. She wants her band to play it to inspire students taking the FCAT, the test every Florida schoolchild dreads.

The kids laugh. She's serious.

Music underscores the importance of events and helps ease tension, she says. It creates special moods for special situations. For years, Mrs. Clark's music has marked big events at Tyrone: a memorial service for a girl who was killed, an assembly after Sept. 11. Maybe it can make even FCATs memorable.

"Now, I know you all can do this," she says, opening her Olympic Theme. "Because you can do anything."

She shifts in her scooter, bends to reach into the basket for her baton.

She doesn't bend back up. Something is wrong.

For more than a minute, she stays hunched over the handle bars. The kids look at each other, wondering what to do. Then, slowly, Mrs. Clark shoves herself up straight again, breathing hard. Her left hand flops into her lap. Her right hand is clutching the baton.

She looks up at her students and smiles.

"As you can see, it's getting harder and harder for me to hold myself up," she says. "You might not always be able to see me. So you're going to have to really listen and keep an eye on each other."

The lunch bunch

On a sunny Friday in February, just after fourth period, 23 students spill into the band room.

They come here every day, at least this many kids. While their friends hang out in the cafeteria, complaining about teachers and making fun of each other, Mrs. Clark's students invade her planning period. They tip back the music stands and balance their lunches on top and munch corn dogs and slurp chocolate milk.

One girl, Brittany, hangs out with Mrs. Clark because "she talks to us like people" and "she's always happy. Except when she gets mad." Jamaal, an eighth-grader, still tells about the time he couldn't afford to buy a band uniform, so Mrs. Clark gave him the money and told him not to tell.

All her students like Mrs. Clark's stuffed squirrel. A former student gave her the toy, for unknown reasons. It's become her symbol. She uses it as a bathroom pass, mostly. And to "squirrel" students, so they'll know she sees everything. They don't like that she sees everything.

While her students gossip and giggle through lunch, Mrs. Clark drinks a vanilla SlimFast. She never hangs out in the teacher's lounge. She doesn't have time for small talk or smoothing ruffled feathers. Some of the teachers resent her for pulling students out of their classes to practice for concerts. One co-worker scrawled "BULL" across the top of a permission slip she passed out.

"Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, Mrs. Clark!" Today, her students are singing like she has taught them, loud and clear. They're crushing around her. First William, then Mark, crouches down to hug her. Sydney hands her a package and kisses her cheek.

"You're like my other mom!" the skinny seventh-grade girl says. "So I made this for you. It's like a scrapbook, or something." Sydney cut out photos from Cinderella and the Christmas concert, of Mrs. Clark playing keyboard and reading Halloween stories, of Mrs. Clark eating a Snickers bar.

"Thank you so much, sweetie. I really love it," Mrs. Clark beams.

Over the years, Mrs. Clark's closeness to her students has come at a price. Her daughter, Debby, 24, who went to Tyrone as a child, remembers envying her classmates' relationship with her mom.

"Mom was really hard on me," Debby says. "She wanted me to be the perfect role model for all her other students. But she didn't want to show favoritism. So she'd always give me the smaller parts in the plays and stuff.

"I know there were times when both me and my brother felt neglected. Mom wasn't home a lot. We thought maybe our problems weren't as important as the other students'."

Mrs. Clark is not one to coddle people. But what may seem like refreshing candor to the lunch bunch can feel like something else to the people closest to her. One time after high school, after Debby moved away, she wrote her mom saying she was down in the dumps. "We all have our problems," Mrs. Clark wrote back. "Get over it."

"A little sympathy would have helped," Debby says. "But that's Mom."

God and judgment

The countywide band competition is at Largo High this year. On a balmy night in early spring, Mrs. Clark and her Honor Band assemble in the parking lot. This is the last time she'll be graded as a teacher.

"I thought by now I'd be over this. I'm not supposed to care anymore. But my hands are soaking wet, and I'm shaking," she says.

She rolls into the rehearsal room. Tap. Tap-a-tap. Tap. Tap. Rest. Tap. Tap-a-tap. Tap. Tap. Repeat.

She tunes the instruments in each section, then leads her band through the program: March of the Unicorns, American Folk Trilogy and Blue Ridge Rhapsody (by what's his name.) "Okay, you're rushing, you're ahead of me. Don't let your nerves get you going too fast. And remember, I might not be able to get up there onstage with you. So you have to watch out for each other."

A couple of years ago, at another band competition, Mrs. Clark couldn't get her scooter onto the stage. She had to conduct from the audience. Another year, she had to get her four strongest students to lift her up to their level.

"Okay, now I know you know that we're not supposed to do this," she says five minutes before her band is scheduled to go on. "But I want us all to do this anyway. It can't hurt." She scoots back and parks by the door. "Please," she says, "let's all bow our heads. Those of you who don't want to listen, cover your ears. But a lot of us need this."

The students all bow their heads. They all close their eyes. Their instruments lie silent in their laps. "Dear Lord, please make tonight these students' peak performance," Mrs. Clark prays. "Please help all these kids to play their brains out . . . "

A high school girl walks into the rehearsal room, carrying a clipboard. She's one of the band proctors, helping schedule the competition. After the "Amen," the girl whispers to one of the flute players: "This is a public school, right?"

"Yep."

"Geez!" says the high school student, shaking her head. "Is that legal?"

Mrs. Clark never prays for herself. She believes she's been given many miracles already. Even her illness is a miracle, she says. MS often damages people's minds and memories; she's lost only her mobility. "For a while, I prayed for an answer," she says. "Okay, God, so you blessed me with this disease. But why?"

The band proctor bends down and whispers in Mrs. Clark's ear. Mrs. Clark beams, rolls toward her students. "You see?" she tells them. "It does work. I've just been told the judges are running late. We have 10 extra minutes to rehearse."

The students score an "Excellent," sort of like a B. Mrs. Clark is furious.

"You all deserved better. You were "Superior,' " she says. "Shows how much those old judges know."

The Grand Finale

The next six weeks fly by. Mrs. Clark helps her students sell candy, learn jazz riffs and march in the Festival of States Parade.

Now, it's the day of the last concert, an hour before show time. Mrs. Clark is whirling around the gym.

"All right. Here's what has to happen," she says. "If you're in Honor Band, go get your instruments. And tuck in your shirts, for gosh sakes. . . . Junior Band, find your seats. Now, don't be nervous. Breathe deep. You're going to be fine."

She's not so sure about herself.

She's lost 20 pounds since September, worrying about Ray. He's refusing to have the bone marrow transplant, saying it's not worth the risk. "I've never asked for miracles," Mrs. Clark says. "But at this point, with Ray, I don't know what else to do. I'm having a much harder time dealing with his illness than with my own. He's been my support. I've been praying."

Last night, after she finally fell asleep, she kept having dreams. When she dreams, she still plays the organ and walks on the beach. And when she dances with Ray, she's standing in his arms.

But then she woke up in her hospital bed, and she had to go to the bathroom, and she remembered how hard it always is to hoist herself onto her scooter. And she still had the concert to worry about.

Now her temples are throbbing, and her neck is stiff from looking up onstage, and her hands are shaking, and she has to go to the bathroom again.

"Mrs. Clark, I left my music at home," the trombonist tells her.

"Mrs. Clark, can I use your cell phone to call my mom? I forgot to tell her what time the concert starts."

It's 6:55. The concert starts at 7.

More than 300 brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents are packed into the bleachers. Dozens of others are standing against the walls. Mrs. Clark's family fills the first row: Ray, her two children, her mother and granddaughter.

In the back, behind the soundboard, Mrs. Clark nibbles a cuticle on her right thumb, adjusts her glasses, clears her throat. "Okay," she tells the audience, forcing a smile. "This is a very intricate program. The toughest my kids have ever attempted. And we've never gone through the whole program ever. So if things don't flow quite as well as I'd like, please forgive me.

"And if you see a stream of tears flowing down my face, just ignore them. This is my last concert," she says, starting to sniffle. "It's going to be a very bittersweet evening."

She turns to her Honor Band and raises her right arm. The students raise their instruments. She turns to the audience and heaves herself straight in her scooter.

"Now, if you all would please stand for The Star-Spangled Banner . . ."

Song after song, Mrs. Clark rolls from one band to the other, from the risers to the front of the stage, keeping both hands on the handlebars, carrying her conductor's baton in her teeth.

"Okay, now, I need my VIP dancers," she calls out. VIP stands for Very Important People, she explains. Two students come forward to push Chequita in her wheelchair and hold Leonard's elbow as he limps along. Leonard is a large boy. He had a stroke when he was 5 and had to learn to stand, talk and feed himself again. A thick scar rims his forehead from a series of brain surgeries.

He leans into the microphone. "TESTING! TESTING!" he screams. Chequita nods her head, bouncing her braids.

"These dancers you're about to see are also called VIP because we're all Very Impaired Physically," Mrs. Clark says.

She parks beside the students and strikes up the band. The sixth-graders play something that sounds like Take Me Out to the Ballgame, except slower. The VIP dancers keep up their kicks and hand movements and remember to shout the lyrics. And long before Leonard gets to scream his solo finale, the audience members are on their feet, whistling and applauding.

"Now for this next piece," Mrs. Clark says, "I'm going to ask all my former students to join us. Anyone who has ever been in music at Tyrone Middle has sung this. Please, alumni, come forward and help us sing Like an Eagle."

Dozens of adults get up from the audience and march forward. They look so much older than they do in the pictures that still fill the band room bulletin board.

Mrs. Clark drives forward to conduct them, steering around cords and microphones. Before she makes it to the stage, her scooter stops. She revs the handgrips, shakes the handlebars. Nothing. She hangs her head.

The audience is silent. The alumni look at each other. The students stare.

Mrs. Clark glances up, laughing through her tears. "No juice," she announces. "William, you'll have to bring me an extension cord. I'm going to have to direct from back here. You'll have to watch each other."

The Jazz Band strikes the first note, and the students begin to sing.

And now is the time, now and farewell, and as we part you taught me well . . .

In the back of the gym, Mrs. Clark lowers her right arm and raises her glasses. She smears the back of her hand across her wet eyes. She swallows hard. Her students sing on.

You gave me strength, you showed the way; I'll not forget you . . .

No one conducts. No one misses a beat.

The last number is a medley of patriotic tunes. All three bands play. The chorus, alumni and audience join in. And at the end, when more than 500 people are singing "from sea to shining sea," hundreds of red, white and blue balloons tumble from the ceiling, float across the gym and fill the floor.

In the center of the stage, Prince Charming is holding a microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen, please!" he's calling. "Please! Can I have your attention?"

The gym gets dark, and the room falls quiet. Mrs. Clark isn't sure what is happening. This wasn't part of her plan. Then, softly from the soundboard, strains of Dave Brubeck's Take Five. Mrs. Clark had played that for her Jazz Band one afternoon. Mark knew she liked it.

The eighth-grader had been up all night, setting memories to music. He had spent three months making a 5-minute audio visual presentation for Mrs. Clark, a journey through her decades of teaching. "I just wanted everyone to realize how much she's done," Mark says later, explaining his gift. "And I wanted her to know we know."

Everyone sees the images flash across the stage screen. Mrs. Clark cries into crumpled Kleenex, hugging students, parents and alumni. No one can hear the rest of the music Mark selected for his slide show. All the little kids are running around the basketball court, stomping balloons.

Pop-pop-pop-pop. Pop-pop-pop-pop.

"Sixteenth notes," Leonard announces proudly, clapping along.

Coda

In the weeks after the concert, Mrs. Clark collects all the sheet music, takes 77 students to Disney World, cleans all the instruments and catalogs the costumes. She starts sorting through 27 years of files.

On June 5, the last day of school, a line of students snakes around Mrs. Clark's desk during sixth period. All the Show Choir kids have brought gifts: a piano-shaped jewelry box, a crystal rose and homemade oatmeal cookies, a 24-carat, gold-plated glass violin and another stuffed squirrel.

"Mrs. Clark, do you have to retire?"

"Mrs. Clark, who will we have lunch with now?"

"Mrs. Clark, can I eat one of those Snickers I was supposed to sell?"

Using scissors and glue sticks, some of the students are helping Mrs. Clark reassemble group portraits of past band classes. She wants to hang them in the school cafeteria. "You're preserving my legacy," she tells them. "I want to leave myself here."

She bites her bottom lip. She blinks back tears. She grasps the armrests of her scooter, heaves herself straighter and claps. "For old times' sake," she tells her students. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Quarter notes. Not loud, but sure. Four of them. A rest. Four more.

A perfect echo.

In sweet silence she scans the room one last time: the familiar bile-yellow cinder blocks, now bare; a spool of fishing line and some broken balloons on her desk; a stack of unsold candy. Unfinished business. She kept thinking she had so much time.

All year, she's been worrying and wondering what her students are going to do without her. Now, for the first time, she wonders what she will do without them.

She and Ray won't be taking that trip _ not even to Texas. He has to stay close to his doctors. He has to keep going to the hospital for transfusions.

So Mrs. Clark is learning to use a digital camera and splice videotape, and she's teaching her granddaughter how to sing. She's planning on watching Elvis movies and seeing some Star Trek reruns. But that won't fill up half the time and attention her students have taken.

Without them, will she still be Mrs. Clark?

"I usually don't tell students this, but I'm in the phone book," she tells them. "And I want you guys to let me know what you're up to, and I want you to visit me and tell me when you graduate and what great things you're doing. And when you get rich and famous _ "

She stops and takes a deep breath, dabs her eyes. "And when you get rich and famous, I'll take a limo ride and a front-row ticket to anything you're in."

Now the kids are wiping tears, too.

"And remember," Mrs. Clark wags her right finger at them. "It's got to be handicapped-accessible."

The bell rings for the last time, and the sea of students spills out of the room. By 4:30 everyone is gone. Everyone but Mrs. Clark and William. He's still working on the pictures.

"It's late," she says. "Don't you have to get going to your mom's?"

He looks down at her and shakes his head sadly.

"I know you have a long ride," she says.

"Can't I help you carry out the rest of your stuff? Your presents and your papers and things?"

"Okay, honey, sure," Mrs. Clark says. William grins and starts filling his arms.

"And I'll tell you what," she says. "I'll drive you home. . . . What are they going to do, fire me?"

MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS facts From the Nationa MS Society

Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the nervous system that affects about 350,000 people in the United States. It used to be fatal. But new medications allow most of those affected to live 90 percent of their life span. The cause of MS is unknown. There is no cure.

MS is characterized by a breakdown in the protective covering of the nerve fibers of the brain and spinal cord. The covering, myelin, is destroyed and replaced by scars of hardened tissue. It's as if the insulating material around an electrical wire were stripped off, so the signals can no longer be transmitted.

The disease is difficult to diagnose because symptoms come and go. Trouble with walking is usually the first. Other signs include numbness, tingling, memory loss and dizziness. After several years, paralysis often sets in.

MS afflicts roughly twice as many women as men, and symptoms usually begin showing up when people are in their early 20s. In the United States, MS is the most common cause of disability for people under 45.

About 35 percent of people with MS are employed.

Linda Clark assists a student in the parking lot of Tyrone Middle School in preparation for the Festival of States Parade.

Mrs. Clark flexes her bicep in front of the classroom.

At her annual pre-Christmas party, Mrs. Clark talks to Leonard Carter, one of her students.

Mrs. Clark watches a line of students from her Show Choir rehearse dance steps she choreographed for their Christmas concert, a musical version of Cinderella.

Linda Clark opens her mouth in an exaggerated "O' to teach her students how to enunciate.

Linda Clark gets help from her husband, Ray, while trying out new scooters at Arden's Medical Store in Seminole Mall.

Mrs. Clark sits in Largo High parking lot reading the judges' comments regarding how her Honor Band was judged at the countywide band competition.

Three saxophone players bow their heads in prayer a few moments before going onstage for the countywide band competition at Largo High.

Leonard Carter waves to Mrs. Clark from a bus, trying to hurry her on to start their trip to Disney World.

After the last bell rings on the last day of school, Mrs. Clark surveys her almost-empty band room.

Linda Clark smiles while holding a camera.