Leaving on a high note
After 31 years teaching in Lee County, including working at J. Glenn Edwards Elementary School every year it has existed, Danny Hester is retiring.
Tuesday was Hester's last day at the school, where he has spent most of his professional career, teaching children — and even some children of former students — to love music like he does.
"The best part about this is I teach them through fifth grade, so I get to see them for more than one year and can see them grow," Hester said. "It's great watching the fifth-graders, and seeing how they're better than the first-graders, but knowing that the first-graders will be there soon."
Edwards' first-year principal, Christina Womble, said Hester was a huge help in her own transition to leading the school — through both his deep institutional knowledge and his chipper attitude. Hester is the first to arrive at school around 6 a.m. every day, leads the car line so he can greet all the kids and their parents, and emcees most school events.
"He's honestly just such a pillar of J. Glenn Edwards, he's huge in all we do," Womble said, calling him "the one to go to, always willing to help out."
Hester, 56, took his first piano lesson in second grade and hasn't stopped playing since. He has a doctorate in music and has taught organ classes part time at Campbell University — where he helped designed the organ — since 2005. This fall, he will also start teaching Campbell juniors and seniors who are music education majors and want to do what he has spent his life doing.
"The good thing is I'm fresh out of the system, so I know exactly what's needed," Hester said, adding that while he like the idea of being able to reach even more music students by teaching the future teachers, it is still with a heavy heart that he says goodbye.
"I'll miss the kids," said Hester, who was all smiles during an awards ceremony Tuesday morning but broke down in tears a few minutes later in his classroom. "That's the tough part. That's the hardest thing because it is a big family."
Some of those he's leaving behind at the school are equally sad to see him go. The children, parents and staff at Tuesday's awards ceremony gave him two standing ovations, and second grade teacher Gaynell McIver — another 30-year teaching veteran — bid him an emotional adieu.
"We've been blessed to have you," she said. "... It's great sadness, but we wish him the best of luck."
Womble said that for her part, she has at least made Hester promise that he'll still swing by now and then — especially to help whomever the school hires to be its second music teacher in 26 years.
"Whoever is his successor will have very big shoes to fill," she said, adding that Hester doesn't just teach music. His classes are about math, science and history, too.
Hester himself said there's no studying the arts without studying history, and vice versa. Whether his students are learning about trends and composers or putting on a musical about immigration, he said, it's always about more than just singing or playing instruments. And he said he's glad the school's principals during his time at Edwards have seen the value in arts education.
"We know, from science, that there's nothing that stimulates more parts of the brain than music," he said.
Fourth and fifth graders who want an extra dose of musical brain stimulation can also audition for the school choir Hester founded in his first year at the school, and which and was the first chorus of its kind in Lee County. One of Hester's final official acts was conducting the chorus at last week's Lee County Board of Education meeting.
As his hands flew all over the keyboard the students sang some fairly advanced pieces, integrating multiple-part harmonies, both major and minor keys and even some tricky rhythms.
"They can do it if you know they can do it," Hester said of his approach to not going easy on his young pupils. "You put it in front of them, and they look at it and say, 'I don't know.' But you show confidence in them, and they get it done."
Hester is the son of the late Winston Hester, a businessman and longtime community volunteer who served as mayor of Sanford from 1993-2005. The elder Hester instilled a love of the community in his son — so much so that Danny Hester said he had several good job offers to teach at universities after receiving his doctorate some years ago, but he wanted to stay at Edwards.
And even though he's moving on now, he said he will remain active in the Jonesboro area. He plays organ at Jonesboro United Methodist Church and is working on starting a children's community choir there in the fall.
Because even if he's moving straight from elementary school to college, Hester said, he can't bear to give up the look he sees when a young person discovers a love for music.
"That's where it's at," he said. "The excitement on their faces can't be beat."