‘It Meant Everything’: West Michigan Music Teacher Reflects on How Students Honored Her Retirement

By Isaac Constans

May 12, 2023

Little did Susan Gould know that her final band concert would play second fiddle to what was coming next.

As part of Teacher Appreciation Week 2023, we’re highlighting stories that honor the contributions of educators in Michigan. 

GREENVILLE.—After three decades in the business, Greenville High School music teacher Susan Gould decided to hang up her baton in 2021—but not before one final curtain call with the band.

It was May 17, 2021. Hundreds had descended on the school’s football field across town for the final band concert of the year. Typically, this concert would be indoors. A well-rehearsed affair with immaculate acoustics. But these were COVID times, and everything we were used to had gone out the window. 

Gould had spent the earlier portion of the day rigging speakers and placing tape on the ground, marking out band positions that were safely spaced apart. Closer to concert time, parents dotted the stands, mirroring the social distancing between the performers who would soon take their place on the field. 

Boasting a decorated 30-year career at the school, Gould had turned out nationally acclaimed performances, earning her Greenville High School Band invitations to perform at the Detroit Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Citrus Bowl, and international venues. She had received individual recognition for her contributions as well, winning Teacher of the Year and Orchestra Teacher of the Year awards from the Michigan State Band and Orchestra Association.

This wasn’t quite how she’d pictured her last band show would go.

“It was kind of a logistics day for me,” she said, citing the special requirements the band had to accommodate during the pandemic.

Sporting protective gear from head to instrument, the Yellow Jackets formed a socially distant semi-circle at the stadium’s 50-yard line. As the wind rustled their sheet music, the band played loudly through horn covers, their feet surrounded by coiled wires connected to microphones.Speakers were necessary this time to amplify their muffled sound. 

The show proceeded without a hitch. “Wasn’t our best,” Gould recalled, but for a concert that served as the first and last for students in a pandemic-interrupted year, it went better than she might have expected.

Little did Gould know that her matinee performance would play second fiddle to what was coming next.

After the last note rang out over the field, a group of seniors darted from the makeshift band shell and into the stadium tunnel. When they reemerged, they drummed out a procession of dozens of Gould’s former students. Each class stood behind hand-drawn posters representing their graduating year, covering the breadth of every class Gould had taught—from 1992 to 2021. 

“I had absolutely no idea what was planned at the end of the concert. I had no clue,” Gould said.

Gould hugs students who have come back. Photo courtesy Courtney DeKraker.

Gould wasn’t surprised that there might have been some sort of tribute planned for her years of service—a retirement clock was the usual show of appreciation for tenured teachers at Greenville High. But she was astonished by the number of former students who had shown up for her final show.

The reunion had come together over several weeks leading up to the concert. Courtney DeKraker, who played clarinet in Gould’s orchestra from 1997 to 2001, had helped organize a secret Facebook group to plan the celebration. 

“We didn’t know who was going to show up, if we were going to have 10 or over a thousand,” DeKraker said. “I can’t remember how many people we actually had, but it was a good representation.”

While waiting in the tunnel, DeKraker said she experienced a swell of emotion she’d only felt once before—walking down the aisle for her wedding. The similarities between a football tunnel and a church aisle might not first appear clear. But DeKraker said she was overcome by emotion, and realized that everyone else in the tunnel was, too.

As soon as Gould saw her former students marching toward her, tears streamed down her cheeks and onto the field.

“We were walking out there and we didn’t know what her reaction was going to be,” DeKraker said. “Our emotion matched her emotion.”

30 Years of Service

DeKraker remembers Gould as a kind and encouraging teacher who was never shy about giving her students that extra push. For example, DeKraker said she’d been the third-chair clarinetist during her freshman and sophomore years, but once her best friend graduated, she took it less seriously. Gould noticed.

The always-enthusiastic teacher asked DeKraker what had happened—she had all the potential to be first chair. And after DeKraker decided to attend Michigan State University, Gould also encouraged her to throw her hat in the ring for the Michigan State Color Guard.

“She was advocating for me past where I thought my capabilities or interests were,” DeKraker said. “She was advocating for what I might be.”

For a job that she’d begun at just 21 years old, Gould said that the COVID years were even more challenging than her first years of teaching. So much of music is tactile—the tiniest details of mouth positioning for wind instruments, or how to balance a bow for string instruments, can make all the difference. Between learning virtually or in-person with safety requirements, the usual connection students find in music class was stifled.

“I just was so heartbroken for the kids because their experience was so fractionalized,” Gould said. “I mean, they didn’t get a full anything.”

That was all the more reason to make sure that Gould got a full tribute—regardless of the  adverse circumstances. Teri Marsman, a former Greenville High violinist who graduated in 1996, said in an email that Gould was a “constant.” Gould stretched her commitment far past standard school hours to produce an excellent musical product and be a mentor and source of support in students’ lives.

In a local newspaper follow-up article, students decades later agreed, referring to her as “Mama Gould.” Per The Daily News, one senior said, “If I didn’t have her as a support, I would not be here.”

“I was glad to have the opportunity to attend an outdoor event to show support for a teacher who committed herself to the Greenville community for her entire career,” Marsman wrote. “Saying goodbye on the football field, surrounded by fellow alumni, seemed like a unique send-off for an incredibly worthy educator… I was happy to honor her on behalf of one of the earlier classes in her time at GHS. The joy on her face was the best part of the night.”

The students and faculty on the field weren’t the only participants in the celebration. 

Having become well-accustomed to video calls, others from around the world—as far as Jerusalem—paid homage to Gould in a recorded video thanking her for the difference she made in their lives. 

Many recalled the trips far and wide they were able to take while in band or orchestra.

Click here to watch the full video if the file above does not work.

“We wanted to let you know you had a huge impact on our lives,” James Christensen, class of 1997, said in the video. “I am exactly the type of band nerd who met my wife in band.”

Several months following the performance, Gould found the Facebook page for her retirement surprise. 

“I wish I had more time to visit with everybody and catch up,” Gould said.

Photo courtesy Courtney DeKraker

A Week to Give Thanks

Now an educational representative for Meyer Music in Grand Rapids and an instructor at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, Gould says what happened after the performance meant everything. “It still does,” she said.

Especially given the difficulties of teaching during the pandemic, she thinks expressions of gratitude are vital to attracting and retaining good teachers. 

Gould said that Teacher Appreciation Week, which runs from May 8-12, isn’t just another “Hallmark-type holiday.” It really matters, she said.

“When teachers are given a nod from a current student, or in this case all of my alumni, that was so significant because you wondered, did I make a difference?” Gould said. “And to have it come back full force like that years later, there are no words that can describe that feeling. It validates everything you thought you were trying to do all those years for kids.”

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