An improvisational life

It was the Sufi poet Rumi who said, “If you follow the music it will show you the way,” and the Beatles who sang, “All you need is love.” Both have been guiding lights in the life and work of Mary Strickland, the beloved Annunciation Catholic School music and arts teacher whose 40-year career will be celebrated Oct. 13 at Creative Artstravaganza, the elementary school’s fall fundraiser and variety show. 

“It’s not just me, I just gave it a little push at this school,” said Strickland in August, sitting in her second-floor office, a former church choir loft that overlooks the school auditorium. Bromides about art, music, love, life, teaching and improvisation share wall space with posters and photos of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson and former students. The loft’s boho décor — shag carpet, pillows, books, musical instruments, tapes, CDs and records — proves to be as instantly warm and inviting as the witchy-woman who works and plays there herself.

“This school is a really creative place,” continued Strickland, shifting the focus off her and on to her colleagues and the connective nature of art and music itself. “I think they would have gotten there in good time, but creatively I was able to start something and it mushroomed. There are a whole lot of people who are supportive and who are doing amazing teaching and work here, and I could not do it without them.” 

Still, Strickland’s singular influence on the 90-year-old Catholic school on West Diamond Lake Road has been profound — as illustrated by the student-crafted peace, love, God and social justice artwork that line the hallways and the marquee in front of the school that read, for the duration of the summer, simply, “Peace Kindness Joy,” which harmonizes nicely with the Buddha statue that sits in the window of Sigh Yoga across the street, if not with the current reputation of the Catholic Church. 

“She was 30 years ahead of her time,” said Amy Jo Reinhart Hyde, a K–8 product of Annunciation who graduated in 1985 and now teaches French at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School. “I remember miming, and dancing, and singing women’s lib songs like Helen Reddy’s ‘I Am Woman.’ She did things I see people doing now for the first time. She was cutting-edge, always so fired up, and such a positive presence with all the scarves, bracelets, leather boots, ponchos [and] tight jeans. All the girls thought she was just the hippest thing.”

“She taught us that art, in particular music, is good and that we should use our talents and passions to enrich our lives and the lives of those around us,” said Matt Abdo, who, along with his siblings and bandmates Mari and Jake, are former Strickland students whose alt-rock band Lynhurst (formerly the Abdomen) will perform at the October benefit, along with writer and actor Dylan Lamb (class of ‘02), the Belfast Cowboys (led by Terry Walsh, class of ’76) and guitarist and composer Billy McLaughlin (’76). 

All were beneficiaries of Strickland’s mission to instill in her students self-confidence, the joy of improvisation and the importance of never putting anyone down.

“First of all, they all have talent,” she said. “There are degrees of it, extremes of talent, but everybody has it. If they don’t have guts, they won’t be able to do anything. It’s their own self-confidence, and then you let them know you have that confidence in them: You can do this. And that’s what happened to me.”

Strickland was born in Virginia and grew up in Wells, where her mother was a singer and her father was a social studies teacher and principal at the school Mary attended for 12 years. She started playing violin in second grade and ultimately ended up studying music at the University Of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne.

“I was in shock,” she said. “It was the ’60s, my school was very avant-garde, it was all new music and I walked into a lot of very contemporary stuff. And it was wonderful. Oh my god. It was just incredible.

“But when I got there, I was scared to death. I had no confidence about playing at all; I just did the best I could. And that’s why the confidence thing is so crucial to what I do here. I had a great teacher who said I was too technical and that I had to find my [own voice]. I was 25 years old, I was working on a master’s degree, and no one had ever told me to just play.”

After graduation, Strickland and her husband, Lance, an acclaimed jazz player and composer (and former music teacher at St. Louis Park High School), moved to Philadelphia where Mary briefly taught music. Upon moving to Minneapolis, her dream job was to teach in the public schools, but there were no openings.

“I went to a teacher placement bureau downtown,” she recalled, “and this lady said, ‘I know a really nice little Catholic school in South Minneapolis, they’ve got a new principal, Sister Monique Kelly, and they’re looking for someone.’ So here’s my father, a teacher in the public schools his whole life, and I’m going to go teach at a Catholic school? A private school? 

“I walked in here and here was this nun, who was quite elderly, but full of life. She said, ‘We need something different. Don’t stick with the traditional; you’ll lose these kids.’ I said, ‘This is my chance. This is what I’m going to do. This is going to be so fun. I’m going to go do this. I’m going to teach kids how to compose; I’m going to teach them how to create stuff, and how to [own] every aspect of it.’”

It worked.

“Mrs. Strickland changed my life. She’s magical,” testified singer/songwriter Brianna Lane (nee Melford, class of ’91). “Everywhere she went she carried a strong and peaceful presence. She commands every space she’s in. This, combined with her eccentricity, allowed me to learn the importance of confidence in my own life — as a performer, a woman [and] a person of peace.”

The first song Strickland taught at Annunciation was John Fogerty’s “Proud Mary.” Over the next four decades, her lesson plan has freely combined contemporary music with traditional church music, and to this day she can cite only one instance of butting up against a detractor. “I have my political views,” she said, “but I’ve never ever been interrogated or anything like that” -— which is heartening news, since the Beatles figure into the Annunciation mix as much as does Jesus.

“I teach the Beatles in second grade, but I originally taught it in fifth grade,” she said. “One student, Patrick, in first grade knew more about the Beatles than I or you do, because his parents love them. He would come in here and tell the kids about the Beatles and the songs, and they’d sit there and draw pictures to Beatles music and we had to listen to all these songs that Patrick knew. He came in here for two or three years and basically taught the younger kids [the Beatles catalog], and when they watch something like “Yellow Submarine,” they get it more than even we do.” 

Student stories like that are myriad and mythical from Strickland’s time at Annunciation. (For the record, she insists that her love of teaching trumps her occasional thoughts of retirement.) Graduates include painter Darril Otto, dancer Nancy Mann, actors Matthew Dudley and T.R. Knight (of “Grey’s Anatomy” fame) and McLaughlin, who recalls being sent to the principal’s office in the spring of 8th grade. 

“Not knowing what I had done wrong I was nervous by the time I got there,” he said. “Standing in the office with two of my 8th grade classmates was Mary Strickland. She said, ‘Grab your lunch, I’m taking you three to a concert for the rest of the afternoon.’ We ran back to our homerooms and met at her car in the teacher’s parking lot. 

“She drove us with the radio blaring over to the [University of Minnesota campus] where her husband was performing with a rock/jazz ensemble with a full horn section. We sat in the grass and I felt the sense of being a special kid that day: out of class, listening to one of my first live concerts with real musicians, hanging out with college kids and Mrs. Strickland, whose head was back, eyes closed to the warm sunshine, smiling as she listened to the music.

“She has given so many kids that sense of being special, that sense of self-worth and the gift of music and drama. I know she made all the difference for me and that cutting class that day with her brought me closer to my dreams of being a professional musician.”

At Benilde-St. Margaret’s, Reinhart Hyde tries to bring a similar sense of wonder and spontaneity to her classroom.

“I just remember being giddy about coming to her class and her room,” she said. “There was always this anticipation of good things coming. I try to set the stage for my students that way, with music playing, and she was so dramatic and theatrical and fun. I try to inject that whenever possible. She’s meant so much to so many families.” 

This writer’s family, to name one. My sister Molly (class of ‘81) is mother to current Strickland student Sara, and my brother Terry (class of ‘76), leader of popular Minneapolis rock bands the Belfast Cowboys and St. Dominic’s Trio, appeared in Strickland-supervised summer plays after graduation. Both say Mrs. Strickland remains a formative force in their lives.

“She said we could call her ‘Mrs. Strict,’ but it was clear that the name would never fit,” Terry said. “She let my creativity off its short leash and actually encouraged me to be funny instead of telling me to be quiet. Being allowed and even encouraged to be loud and funny was an entirely new experience, and I felt like a balloon that had been released to the sky.

“She is unquestionably the best teacher I’ve ever known. She would never let us get away with putting less than 100 percent into our time on stage, even at an early summer morning rehearsal when half the cast was hung over. If she caught even a whiff of our going through the motions, she’d yell, `Stop! Energy! Go!’ That voice still rings in my head whenever I’m performing.”