Teacher Cheryl Tolbert is busy ruling the room 15 days before her retirement.
Tolbert, 67, had 98 students in the Crawford Middle School gymnasium on Thursday morning and was wrangling them into shape for her last student concert after 46 years in a classroom.
Tolbert has spent the past nine years at Crawford, after she and her father moved to Lexington from New Orleans around the time of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Although there are more than 100 people in the room, Tolbert is easily the dominant presence. She exudes the easy charisma of her beloved New Orleans and the authority of a drill sergeant.
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In students, she inspires awe: One former student returned to the school for Tolbert's last student concert May 7 to present her with a "Helping Hand" award for having improved the lives of so many students.
Barbara Ward, a former Bryan Station teacher who now works at Crawford, took the microphone earlier at the concert to praise Tolbert as "a sister, a friend and a survivor."
"I have personally witnessed how you have taken some of the most difficult students and made their lives better by music," Ward said.
In one case, that shaping is literal — lining up students during concert practice, sternly instructing them to not do what middle school students do as a matter of instinct: pick at one another, shuffle their Nikes, strike poses conveying sullen boredom.
In another case, it's a more subtle shaping — taking the talent Tolbert sees in each student and guiding it through discipline, high expectations and showmanship.
The songs, with the exception of Michael Jackson's Man in the Mirror, are from classic Broadway shows: Hard-Knock Life from Annie, Memory from Cats, and from Les Misérables, Do You Hear the People Sing?
At the final Tolbert-directed concert last week, a sixth-grade student briefly loses focus and runs off stage while singing Man in the Mirror, and Tolbert steps in to rally the remaining singers, using her deep gospel-choir voice and breaking into an impassioned dance.
Eventually the student returns to the stage to finish singing.
It's all part of what Tolbert says is her guiding philosophy: "I am not just your music teacher. I'm your teacher of life."
Earlier, at group practice, Tolbert tells her students she wants them to sing so it can be heard in the rafters: "You've just got to blast it."
As the choir winds up My Favorite Things, the inflection on Tolbert's critique is equal parts clipped, funny and dismissive: "That was all right."
She then paces the gym like an unfed lion, slicing the air with her finger to teach her troops concert decorum.
"None of that woo-woo-woo," she barks. "I don't like that."
Crawford principal Mike Jones and Tolbert became fast friends when they first met. She calls him her prince; he calls her his queen.
Jones said of Tolbert: "She has an uncanny ability to work with kids and get them to believe in themselves."
When Tolbert told Jones this was her year to retire, she said she hoped she had made a difference in students' lives.
Jones did some quick calculations —— 150 students a year for 46-plus years is about 7,000 students — and told her: "You have a made a difference in thousands of kids' lives. Don't ever think otherwise."
He adds: "She has made a difference in my life, too."
Tolbert's journey has taken her from New Jersey to Chattanooga to New Orleans and now Lexington. In retirement, she hopes to spend more time with her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter in Atlanta.
Tolbert interviewed at Edythe J. Hayes Middle School and Crawford Middle School. The day after she accepted a job at Crawford, she was offered a job at Hayes. She thinks coming to Crawford was a fortuitous move.
Former Fayette County superintendent Stu Silberman, who attends church with Tolbert at St. Luke United Methodist Church, calls Tolbert "an amazing talent. ... a very inspiring individual whose talents were shared with many kids during her time as a teacher."
Tolbert's performances at church, including her powerful rendition of the hymn His Eye Is on the Sparrow, regularly bring the St. Luke congregation to its feet.
Her voice is best described this way: It shreds your soul and wrings it out through the tears left standing in your eyes.
"I tell the kids all the time, no matter what I go through in my life, the music has saved my life," she said. "When I sit down at the keyboard, I try to get as close to heaven as I can."