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‘I owe so much to them all’

Rockstar teacher David Sowerby

David Sowerby can’t recall the exact moment that he became interested in music, because he doesn’t remember a time where music wasn’t the focus.

Middle school orchestra teacher David Sowerby and his wife, Rebecca, both work as teachers for the district

“For me, I knew that I wanted to become involved with music, teaching and learning, very naturally,” said Sowerby, who has been teaching orchestra at Caledonia schools for the last 15 years. “Music was something that made sense to me immediately, something that didn’t feel like work at all.”

Now, even in his 22nd year of teaching, Sowerby said his job still doesn’t feel like work, but instead like something that was supposed to happen all along.

Beating the Odds

The St.Clair Shores native started violin and piano as part of school requirements in fourth grade. Playing the violin came easily, as did his passion for music, he said.

“I knew that playing the violin was my gift, something that I could pass on,” he said.

He graduated from Eastern Michigan University in 1994 with a degree in music education, and worked as an instructor at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp and a general music teacher at the middle and high schools at Grand Rapids Public Schools before coming to Caledonia in 2005.

Middle school orchestra teacher David Sowerby stands in front of his students during a middle school orchestra program

“Teaching music was something that I knew I wanted to do,” he said. “It just felt like something I was good at that I could help others succeed with.”

He said encouraging a passion for music in his students has been the most important and rewarding part of his job.

“Sometimes, students who struggle in an academic sense really thrive with music,” Sowerby said. “It’s rewarding to see a student move up in the ranks and really succeed.”

Since Sowerby came to the district, the middle school orchestra program  at both Duncan Lake Middle School and Kraft Meadows has grown from five students his first year to 200 this year. He encourages students to help select concert music and hopes orchestra class is an opportunity for them to learn a little bit more about themselves, he said.

“You never know what is going on in a student’s day before they get to class, and orchestra can be such a common ground, a comfortable space,” he said. “I hope that my class is a place for students to relax and express themselves.”

Middle school orchestra teacher David Sowerby received a liver transplant in 2018

The Support of a Community 

As Sowerby looks forward to the upcoming spring concert, he reflected on two years ago, when things looked very different.

After being diagnosed in 2009 with primary sclerosing cholangitis, an often progressive bile duct condition, Sowerby’s liver became infected in 2018 and his body went into sepsis, a potentially life-threatening condition caused by the body’s response to an infection.

He spent 21 days at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital, and was transferred to Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit for a liver transplant.

The typical hospital stay for a liver transplant is six to 10 days; Sowerby’s body rejected the new liver, which resulted in a two-month stay to stabilize the transplant.

During those months, he was only released for occasional weekend visits to his parents’ house in St. Clair Shores. Luckily, his wife, Rebecca, was able to take some time off work to stay with him while their children stayed with her parents back in the Caledonia area.

Middle school orchestra teacher David Sowerby and Becky while in the hospital for a liver transplant

“It was a really difficult time,” Sowerby said. “I missed my classroom and my family.”

It was a long, strenuous journey to recovery, one that he said was supported 110 percent by the Caledonia community and Rebecca, who also teaches at Kraft Meadows Middle School. 

The nearly year-long absence from the classroom was made easier by  messages of support on social media and an understanding district, Sowerby said.

“I was reading messages about how people were there for me, my students missed me and all of the people that were supporting me back home, and that meant a lot,” he recalled. “More than I can express.”

When Sowerby returned to teaching, his eighth grade orchestra and band students surprised him with a special performance that included songs from his favorite movie, “Top Gun.”

Steve Uyl, principal at Kraft Meadows Middle school, said he has always been impressed with Sowerby’s rapport with students and families.

“He is dedicated, passionate and does a great job challenging his students to learn and grow,” Uyl said. “David has been through more than I can imagine over the past couple years in regards to his health, but I think how he approaches each day and his outlook on life serves as a great example and reminder for our students.”

Sowerby said support like he has at Caledonia has been a source of his positive outlook.

“I owe a lot to the students in the community for helping out with what I went through, more than I can say,” he said. “I owe so much to them all.”

Middle school orchestra teacher David Sowerby with his 10-year-old son, Cooper
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Hannah Lentz
Hannah Lentz
A 2017 graduate of Grand Valley State University and a lifelong teacher’s kid, Hannah Lentz has worked as a journalist in and outside the Grand Rapids area for more than five years. After serving as editor-in-chief at the GVSU student newspaper, Hannah interned at the Leelanau Enterprise where she learned a lot about community journalism. In addition to her work for School News Network, Hannah has worked as a freelance blogger in the furniture industry, focusing on design trends, and as a social media manager for World Medical Relief in Detroit.

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