We all loved our choir director, and we worked hard to rehearse professionally and curb our chitchat in those moments when we weren't singing, which is very hard to do in a choir, especially in high school.
Mr. Paulsen was slow to anger, but firm, and we all felt intrinsically like we should respect him. He was, after all, so very good to us.
In my noisy, crowded, fast-paced school, Mr. Paulsen's office was an oasis. It was dimly lit, quiet, and rather spacious, and he had it all to himself, unlike most teachers who had to share theirs in common. There was an electronic keyboard for sectionals, two comfy chairs opposite his desk, and several lamps so that the awful, overhead florescent lighting need never be used.
Several students kept their books and personal affects in his office during the day, and a core group of us would eat lunch there, too. I had eaten lunch in that office every day since the 10th grade.
The big draw was that Mr. Paulsen would have lunch with us. He would sit at his desk and listen to us talk while he ate the lunch his stay-at-home wife Pam had packed for him, which usually consisted of a Tupperwared main course, a little baggie of tortilla chips, and a little baggie containing a pre-peeled clementine.
"She peels your oranges for you?!" we'd all tease.
He'd get this boyish smile on his face and say, "Yep. She must love me."
Well, far be it from us to question her methods. She made it possible for Mr. Paulsen to spend less time acquiring lunch and more time hanging out with us. Plus, every once in a while, she would send him to school with a giant, old-timey tin of chocolate chip cookies to share. They had four children who they homeschooled, which we as public school students definitely thought was weird; in general, we thought their ways were very strange--they seemed straight outta Mayberry--but then again, the Paulsens were some of the nicest people any of us had ever met, and they seemed like they had a nice family life.
Mr. Paulsen fascinated me, and the more I got to know him, the more I understood what set him apart: he radiated with love because of his spiritual practice.
I marveled at his patience, his gentleness, his genuine kindness, and also his genuine authority. He never spoke rashly, and he seemed very comfortable with himself. Overall, I just sort of understood that Mr. Paulsen was very wise, and that intrigued me since I was acutely aware of my own lack of self-control.
I couldn't help but compare him to my dad. While my dad could certainly be very charming and funny and generous, and he frequently told us we were beautiful and how much he loved us, he could also be explosively angry. If he felt he was being disrespected--which he probably often was in our household, to be honest--he would yell and start swearing.
I saw him and my mom get in lots of fights which made me think, Wow, being married to a man is one of the most illogical life choices you could make. Who would sign up for this? When push comes to shove, the man will turn on you.
The worst part about when my dad would get angry is that he would swear at you and shoot you an authentic look of pure contempt, no matter who you were to him. There would be a flash in his eyes--eyes that had maybe been kind to you just a few hours earlier--accompanied by a snarl in his lip. In those moments, he was a totally different person--no, it was like he ceased being a person and became something beastly, something temporarily inhabited by the demonic. Behind his eyes, you could tell that he sincerely wished you harm. No, he never hit you, but it was essentially the same thing. It was very scary. And confusing. And of course, hard to recover from.
My dad's wrath reminded me of my own. When my sister would make me mad, I'd use physical violence to get my point across, to exact justice. She always cried and made me feel abusive afterwards. But I couldn't control it. The best advice I could give her was, Don't make me mad. Be less of a shit.
Mr. Paulsen and I got to talking one day after school, after a music lesson, and I told him I admired him for all of his good qualities. He thanked me, then deftly shifted the glory away from himself.
"You know, I wasn't always this way. I used to be kind of an angry guy."
"You?! An angry guy?! Get out of here. . ." It was impossible, inconceivable.
He explained that he had struggled with wrath early on in his life, but that over time, via his spiritual practice, he had felt himself undergoing authentic changes from within.
I could testify to the authenticity of those changes. When you grow up with an angry dad, you learn how to read someone's micro expressions very quickly, to know if there's danger afoot.
Mr. Paulsen had never once, in all these years, in all the contexts in which he had dealt with me, let a devastating flash of his eyes escape in a moment of impatience or anger. I mean, I'm sure the guy got mad every once in a while, but I personally had never seen it. And he didn't seem like the kind of person who would hurt someone in the midst of his anger.
I couldn't imagine my dad morphing into someone like Mr. Paulsen. No one in my family had a before-and-after story like his. Everyone was static. My mom was just "good" and had always been good; my dad was just "bad" and had always been bad. She had been an obedient kid, she was a patient mom, and she never struggled with anything; as far as I knew, she never went to confession.
As for my dad, he had been a red-headed hellion, he dropped out of high school, and he didn't go to church. He liked to drink and swear, and he had too many struggles to count. Everyone, including himself, wrote his anger off as a fact of life, something we just had to live with and manage.
Mr. Paulsen opened my eyes to the possibility of self-betterment via something supernatural, something outside of ourselves that had real power, that produced real virtue.
From sophomore to senior year, Mr. Paulsen provided me with a much needed example of gentle, trustworthy manhood, and it was no surprise to me that, in light of that, I poured a lot of energy into being the best choral musician I could be.