The three years I spent at Upper Columbia Academy were among the very best of my life. It wasn’t because it was high school. It was because God led me to that high school. I discovered a lot about myself during those years. I chased my dreams there. I escaped some of my fears there. I learned to appreciate my mom there. I made life-long friends there. And UCA is where I met two men who would change how I saw myself forever.
Zvonimir Hacko was the Choral Director at UCA; my first year was also his first year at the school. Mr. Hacko was from Yugoslavia, and he was very serious when it came to music. He held auditions for everything he did; no one was in his choir just because they wanted to be. He also had a talent for seeing “diamonds-in-the-rough”. I loved to sing, but auditioning for him was a very intimidating experience. He listened to me run through some scales and then asked me to sight-read some sheet music for him. After a few minutes, he turned to me and asked why I wasn’t signed up for vocal lessons. I responded that I only had so much time in my schedule, and I was already taking piano lessons. And that’s when he looked at me and asked the question that would end up defining my years at UCA:
“Do you want to play the piano or do you want to sing?”
Mr. Hacko told me that I had potential—that he could work with my voice and train it to do what it couldn’t yet do. He could teach me not just to sing music, but how to “make music.” I was sold. He spoke to my heart and my heart wanted to sing!
Telling Mom that I was abandoning the piano wasn’t easy, and she wasn’t as sure as I was, but she told me to do what I wanted. I joined choir, took vocal lessons, and practiced daily. I worked hard, because I wanted to be what Mr. Hacko believed I could be.
By my Junior year, I was in Choraliers (the touring choir). By my Senior year, I sang solos with the Men’s Chorus, mixed quartets with other seniors, and even an aria and duet in a German Cantata at St. John’s Cathedral in Spokane, WA. Mr. Hacko’s work ethic played well to my perfectionistic, people-pleasing, high-achiever personality. He taught me that hard work, focus, and good choices could take me to the top of whatever I set my mind to do.
He also taught me how to “make music”. It’s more than memorizing words and notes and performing them flawlessly. You “make music” when you sense the audience, watch the conductor, tune in to your fellow musicians, and make the performance fit the situation. Each time was unique; I loved the concept of music as an ever-evolving work of art. This man forever changed the way I looked at music.
But John Briggs forever changed the way I looked at God.
God brought Mr. Briggs into my life while I was struggling to cope with the feeling of not being “good enough” for my father. He worked as the Guidance Counselor and one of the Bible teachers at UCA. During my Sophomore year, he was on the periphery of my school experience. But then I heard about this great Bible Elective class that he taught each quarter—a sort of seminar class, covering a different book each time. The class was small—intimate, even—and supposedly wasn’t too demanding. I loved the idea of credits that wouldn’t hurt my GPA!
And that’s how God works. He takes our petty personality issues and uses them to show us His message for us.
Through this class, with this incredible man, I learned about appropriate, unconditional love and tenderness. Mr. Briggs was soft-spoken, gentle, almost always smiling, and he always used our relationship to point me to Jesus. He was encouraging, but direct, as he challenged me to expect more of myself in healthy ways—to appreciate my strengths and remember that I didn’t have to be all things to all people. He stressed that I just needed to be me—that my weaknesses were just ways to grow.
I grew close to John and his wife Judy, spending many evenings at their home, and several weekends at their cabin near Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. They were surrogate parents during my time at boarding school. They gently shaped my broken faith and unhealthy performancism and taught me about real grace. They helped me understand that my “good enough” didn’t matter, because I was a child of God; a daughter of the King. They encouraged me to learn and grow without falling into the trap of believing that Jesus would only love me if I was “good enough”.
John Briggs introduced me to the Biblical works of Paul and John—and they are still my favorite parts of the Scriptures. I continued to struggle with a legalistic, demanding view of God, but Mr. Briggs gave me hope. He believed in me because he believed in God. He knew that if I could just see myself the way that Jesus did, then I would never be the same.
He taught me that “Jesus loves me, this I know” is the most important song to sing. I know he would be so happy to see that, 30-plus years later, I finally understand.