A Star in Their Hearts

In Elkton, children remember a favorite teacher -- and the music she brought to their lives

September 11, 2001|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

Cynthia Matthews came to Thomson Estates Elementary in Elkton with the job of bringing music back. It was 1989, and the school had fallen silent with the sudden death of a beloved music teacher.

Until her heart attack, 58-year-old Janet Reihl was the only music teacher the school had known. After her funeral, a plaque was hung in the hallway, and the new teacher walked past it whenever she entered or left her room.

She could see how much Ms. Reihl was missed.

Mrs. Matthews came to the school after her husband, a United Methodist minister, had taken a job in Delaware, just across the Maryland state line. Her co-workers soon understood why an administrator from her last school had called Cecil County to say: "Even if you don't have an opening, interview this woman."

Upbeat and positive, Mrs. Matthews blazed into the mourning school like a bright star.

Said Assistant Principal Georgia Clark: "I never saw a woman who could just come in and motivate students -- they listened to her every word."

She had dark eyes, curly hair and a round face, and the boys and girls who saw her 45 minutes a week thought she was pretty. They liked to watch her because she danced when she felt like dancing and sang when she felt like singing.

If they hesitated, she encouraged them, whether it was during the Dr. Seuss play, the recorder concert or the fourth-and fifth-grade chorale.

It wasn't long before fellow teachers embraced her, and children of every grade said Mrs. Matthews was their favorite. No one imagined they would one day lose her, too.

After 11 years, nobody at Thomson Estates knew the music teacher as well as the band instructor.

Ernie Cebrat and Mrs. Matthews saw each other nearly every school day. On Thursdays, they ate lunch among music stands and sheet music.

He learned she loved music so much that she named her first daughter Melody. Her second daughter, Amy, is such a fine clarinet player that she brought her to school to perform for the fifth-graders' promotion ceremony. Mr. Cebrat knew Mrs. Matthews sang at her church, directed a youth chorus and had started an all-male choir. He never heard her complain.

When her husband took a church in Chestertown and the family moved to the Eastern Shore, Mrs. Matthews kept her job in Elkton. She drove at least 45 minutes each way on two-lane roads and sometimes through Chesapeake Bay fog.

Still, like a light through the fog, she came.

The new principal, Dr. Carolyn Teigland, sometimes stood in the classroom and marveled at how Mrs. Matthews kept even the troublesome students in line. For her, they behaved, and more amazing, for her, they sang.

"The whole way she approached life was that there was good in everybody; she believed in everybody, and she expected the best out of everybody," said Dr. Teigland. "I think the kids saw that in her. They knew she wanted them to be the best they could be."

A gym teacher wanted to thank Mrs. Matthews for listening to his problems, so he sneaked into her room and painted smiling instruments and cheerful notes on her walls.

At Thomson Estates, she was named Cecil County Teacher of the Year, lauded by the PTA and the NAACP, and awarded the Outstanding Music Teacher Award by the Maryland Music Educators Association.

Mr. Cebrat had considered retiring until he thought about how much he would miss Mrs. Matthews. As far as he knew, she was not ill. But on Thursday, Aug. 16, 50-year-old Mrs. Matthews died from a heart attack, one week and two days before the start of school.

The first week of school, the children were greeted by a familiar face, longtime substitute Rita Lambdin.

On the piano lay a sheaf of yellow construction paper and several crayons of different colors. It was the principal's idea that each child be allowed to express his or her feelings. While they lay on the carpet and cut out hearts and stars, Mrs. Lambdin played "We Shall Overcome" and other songs Mrs. Matthews used to play.

One child said: "The nice thing about her was she never leave nobody out."

Another drew a rainbow on a star and wrote: "I love you, Mrs. Matthews. I wish you had never died."

A third child turned an eighth note into a sad face. "Mrs. Matthews," she wrote. "Your music will go on."

A stack of hearts and stars grew on the piano beside a box of tissues. By the end of the week, the walls were covered and the music room was lit up like the night sky. Anyone could see how much Mrs. Matthews will be missed.

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