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REMEMBERING MELISSA STRAW: Columbia teacher and "beacon of light" for the young

"The Queen of the World" 

COLUMBIA, Mo  10/31/17 (Beat Byte) -- Prayers and well-wishes are pouring into family and friends of Melissa Straw (photo), a beloved Columbia music teacher who died Saturday. 
 
"What a blessing she was," Columbia resident Bev Pfeffer wrote on a Facebook album of photos from Straw's career.  "God must have needed this talented, awesome, beautiful angel to lead His choir in Heaven.  She was loved by so many!"

"She was a beacon of light for thousands of young people," another friend remembered.

Born in 1970, then-Melissa Lock fell in love with music on a bench next to her mother, the church organist, every Sunday. She sang in the church choir and became the adult church choir conductor at the remarkable age of 15. 


Straw graduated
from Carrollton (Mo) High School in 1988 "a big high school golfer who played the trumpet in every school band, and sang in the all-state high school choir," explains a 2012 profile of her family in the Columbia Daily Tribune.  

As a student at Mizzou, Straw "fell in love with teaching" as a mentor at Jefferson Junior High, now Jefferson Middle School

She graduated summa cum laude and started her career teaching vocal arts at Southern Boone High School in Ashland. 

At Columbia Public Schools, Straw developed an award-winning fifth-grade honors choir with singers from every public elementary school in Columbia. She extended her inspirational vision when she took over the vocal music program at the new Smithton Middle School in 1995.  She stayed for nearly two decades, teaching music to some 500 students each year and receiving the Outstanding District Director Award.

"OMG!  She is like my awesome most favorite teacher in the world," a student wrote on RateMyTeachers.  "Never thought I could learn so much about music." 
 
"Students were no longer required to take music classes after sixth grade, and Straw was the last person in the schools who could persuade kids to continue. She became dedicated to the challenge of helping students discover their musical talents," the Columbia Missourian reported in 2013

"I teach because I want to give a gift to young people," Straw told Missourian reporter Ashley Szatala for the holiday profile.  She wanted her students, she explained, "to understand how important it is every day to experience beautiful things."

Competing against choirs from around Missouri, the 100 students in her Smithton Middle School choir won the chance to perform at the Missouri Music Educators Association conference, "one of the highest honors you can attain," Straw said.

Her grace and style are on display in a short Youtube video, Peace Song. "This is how Melissa Straw ended each choir rehearsal," Tim Wahl wrote beneath it.  "This is what compassion looks like."

Teaching wasn't all ups and accolades, however.  Straw admitted she had her down days.  At first discouraged, she learned to push through to new inspiration.  

"For many years in my teaching career, I have tried to save the world and have been let down many times," Straw told Szatala. "I no longer try to save the world.  I now just try to have positive contact with everyone I meet."
 

Straw's music education legacy reached beyond the school system.  As director of the Missouri Symphony Conservatory Children's Chorus for over a decade, "Straw studied other directors' methods...and worked to bring to her students the most exciting and fresh practices in the field," Szatala reported.   

Those practices included "body, mind, spirit and voice" exercises such as yoga and breathing techniques.  Straw wanted to "bathe" her students "in the text of the music, in the harmony, blend, balance and tone."
 
"Have yourself a merry little Christmas/ Let your heart be light," they sang during a holiday practice.  "A few parents in the room shut their eyes and smiled."
 
"Mrs. Straw is honestly my second mother," said Children's Chorus member Elizabeth Zenner, then 14.  "She is the best part of it."

Musically accomplished in their own rights -- piano, cello, violin, dance, and of course, song -- Straw's children, Margaret and Matthew, followed her musical lead. 
 
"Mom was an incredible teacher," Margaret wrote in a public remembrance. "She taught me laughter and joy, forgiveness and strength. I wish I could hold her in my arms right now."
 
"Children are our future," Straw reflected in the Missourian profile. "You have to try and make a positive impact when they are young, so they can nurture their understanding and gift for the rest of their lives."

Her students clearly felt nurtured.   "She is an awesome teacher," one remembered in 2008. "I wanna nominate her as the queen of the world."  

[Ed. Note: Mrs. Straw taught the author's daughter at Smithton Middle School.]


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