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Marching on: A band director’s legacy of leadership and love

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Jennifer Gibson was an institution in Clay County. A music educator for over 20 years, she was starting to teach her second generation of Hayesville students.

She was a dynamite teacher, with an empathetic ear. She cared for her students far beyond the classroom. Clay County Superintendent Dale Cole said Gibson was an early adopter of social and emotional learning. She used the portal of music to focus on her students’ needs. And once those needs were met, academic success would often follow.

When speaking with Gibson’s students at Hayesville High School, the phrase “second mom” kept coming up.

Jennifer Gibson. Courtesy of Hayesville High School

Gibson passed away due to COVID-19 complications in September. Her band class has been marching on since the loss.

Destiny Humphries, a 10th grade band student, said the best part of playing music in school is that “we’re a family, we stick up for each other, if something happens, we’re all there.”

If the band program at Hayesville is a family, then there is no question as to who is considered the matriarch: Gibson. She was more than a teacher to the students that picked up their first instrument in her classroom — she was part of their lives past graduation and a pillar of the community.

We visited to hear how the students are doing and to learn about the legacy of this dedicated band director. Since the loss of Gibson, the program is holding up with love, resilience, laughter, and leadership.

Three key ingredients that helped keep the beat

The student becomes the teacher: Jacob Christiansen

In a small town like Hayesville, substitutes with Gibson’s skills are hard to come by. Gibson was both the middle and high school band director, so 6-12th graders were left without a teacher who knew how to play and teach music.

Enter 11th grade student and drum major Jacob Christiansen. When Gibson was admitted to the hospital, Christiansen asked school leadership if he could help out with the seventh and eighth grade band classes. And by help out, we mean teach.

Jacob Christiansen, drum major at Hayesville High School. Caroline Parker/EducationNC.

“He saw a need, particularly with the middle school band, in order to keep it going for those kids. He just stepped in without anyone even asking him to, and worked out his schedule,” said Cole.

Christiansen’s first block is a computer class, and his second and third are online college courses. He could do the work for those courses on his own time, which freed up his morning to teach the seventh and eighth graders. He said his plan was to keep the program and students going in the right direction for when “Mrs. G” returned.

Christiansen himself plays the clarinet and doesn’t know how to play all the other instruments. He began teaching his classes about basic scales and notes. He got the bucket drums out, so the class could learn about rhythms. He taught for over a month before a replacement was found.

“I’m thankful beyond measure to say that I’m able to learn from Mrs. G, and able to apply that to others.”

Jacob Christiansen, 11th grade student at Hayesville High School

Gibson’s replacement, Alexis Dockery, was able to pick up right where Christiansen left off.

A former student steps in: Alexis Dockery

Alexis Dockery began her music career in fifth grade at Hayesville Middle School — with Gibson. Dockery’s family relocated from Georgia to Clay County when she was young, and the band room was a place where she found her community.

Like other students, Gibson was Dockery’s favorite teacher, and band was her favorite class.

They shared a love of music and Dockery went on to major in music education after leaving Hayesville. She even attended Gibson’s alma mater, Meredith College in Raleigh.

Dockery didn’t expect to head back to Hayesville so quickly, but a position opened up at Clay County Schools, and she returned the Monday after her college graduation to begin work.

“She [Gibson] wanted to make sure that when we left here, we weren’t just musicians but that we were good people, and good citizens, and that we were able to contribute to the world.”

Alexis Dockery, music educator at Clay County Schools

Dockery started working in the primary and elementary school in May 2018, and was there until this year. It takes a special person to step up and fill the void left by a beloved, veteran educator. Dockery moved into the role of middle and high school band director with grace and openness. It’s easy to see in her band room there is space for her students to continue loving Gibson, while following the lead of Dockery.

Alexis Dockery, band director at Hayesville Middle and Hayesville High School. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

“We have amazing students here … as someone who went through this program and someone who came back to teach here, I really believe that the Hayesville Band Program has something special … Over these past few weeks that I’ve been teaching, I’ve just seen them grow so much. And they have this want and this need and this thirst to just learn, and to grow, and make music, and I really think that’s truly amazing.”

Alexis Dockery, band director at Hayesville Middle and Hayesville High School

A small, but mighty band program: the students

The day we visited Hayseville High School’s band room, there was Daffy Duck playing the trumpet, Goofy on the tuba, Minnie Mouse on the drums, and a ghost coming out of a mellophone. It was the Thursday before Halloween, and the band was dressed up and ready to showcase their talents to two visiting classes.

Students played the theme of “Ghostbusters,” “Scooby-Doo,” and the song “Werewolves Of London” for an excited audience. In between songs, members of the band would stand up, talk about their instrument, and play notes that highlighted their respective instrument’s sound. Dockery spoke with the fifth graders and conducted the band, but the high school students took ownership of their presentation and recruitment efforts.

After the performances and instrument demonstrations, the floor was open for any and all questions. Fifth graders asked questions like, “Is it hard to have enough air to fill the tuba?” and “Do you have to buy your own instrument?”

After exhausting band-specific questions, the high schoolers opened up the floor for a broader discussion. Humphries (10th grade band student) told the group that if they have questions about middle school, they can ask, because we’ve all been there. Hands shot up and the 5th graders asked about having a locker for the first time, the difficulty getting from class to class, and overall, if middle school is stressful.

This peer-to-peer interaction exemplifies the leadership skills built in band, cultivated by Gibson. The high schoolers took their role seriously, entertaining younger students in both costume and performance, and as a trusted source of what it’s like to grow up. They took pride in showing the next iteration of middle school students what their future could be like, and were patient and honest with the vulnerable questions.

Gibson and Dockery’s students are examples of how a band can keep playing during difficult times. They are a family. Here are some more words from the students on why they love music, and how important Gibson continues to be in their lives.

“She was one of my favorite people on this entire earth. Having her as a teacher for seven years, or right at seven years, she deeply impacted my life, and I knew she was there for me no matter what. Just being able to come sit in her office whenever my day wasn’t going very well, I just knew she was always there for us. She was essentially just like a second mother to me and I know most of the other students.”

Dallyn Rhea 11th grader at Hayesville High School

“Music is almost kind of like another language. You’re always learning … there’s no cut off with music. You’re always learning, and I love music.”

Wesley Myers, 10th grader Hayesville High School

“She was the sweetest person. She had a heart of gold. She was always there for her students. Whether, it was a band related [or not]. It could be school, family issues, whatever, she was there no matter what. She never judged anybody. She just you know, she loved you for who you were.”

Breanna McGough, 12th grader at Hayesville High School

“​​She was the perfect example for a teacher. If she would teach you, she would take time and if you didn’t understand something, she’d explain it until you got it. And if you had a problem, she was willing to talk about it, and it didn’t have to be about band … And she always had a sunny disposition and she was always you know, smiling at everybody, it just helped make everybody’s day better.”

Destiny Humphries, 10th grader at Hayesville High School

“She was honestly like a second mom to most of us. When we need[ed] something she’d be there no matter what time it was, no matter what day it was. All we’d have to do is call her up and be like, ‘Hey G we need you for this’, and she’d be there in an instant.”

Madison Bright, 10th grader at Hayesville High School

“She was the best teacher … she listened to students, she was honest, and she was just a trustworthy person.”

Wyatt Eggleston, ninth grader at Hayesville High School
Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is a multimedia storyteller for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, and STEM education.