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Myrna Heitel kept students, colleagues & friends on Top of the World

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“I’ll tell you what,” Myrna Heitel would say to a crowd of 60 unruly choral students. “If you can sing this next line of music perfectly – and I mean perfectly – I’ll do a Bambi leap.” The students snapped to attention and concentrated. When they finally met her strict standard, the piano came alive, and Mrs. Heitel would begin her dance. She’d leap into the air, a la Bambi, and bounce around the room. The kids couldn’t get enough. They would work harder, applying themselves to the task, all in pursuit of five more leaps. 

“Now this next line is tough,” Mrs. Heitel would tell them. “I mean really tough. Concentrate. It’s worth 10 leaps.” They would double-down on their efforts, and she would reward them. As Mrs. Heitel sprang into the air, the students counted in unison – “One!” they shouted, “Two!”

“That was the best thing I could have ever thought of doing,” Myrna says. “It gave everybody a break and gave me a break. The students became serious, and I was pretty darn good.” Once a student of both tap and ballet herself, Myrna had the dancing chops. Plus, she adds, her initial idea of bribing them with candy was a disaster.

Music is Myrna’s medium. It’s her way of connecting, creating, and relating not only to students, but to everyone she encounters. In the 35 years she spent teaching in the Laguna Beach Unified School District, she touched countless lives by uniting people through song. 

Myrna Heitel portrait

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Myrna Heitel, retired LBUSC teacher

Though she’s been retired from teaching since 2006, her passion for music has never diminished and her longstanding legacy continues reverberating across our town.

A child who sings is a happy child. Elder Enrique Falabella

Myrna grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Huntington Park, a suburb of Los Angeles. She babysat for the kids on her block, and tutored them in any subject that proved a struggle. “That’s how I discovered I could teach,” she says. 

At age 9, Myrna began taking piano lessons, as well as violin lessons, in her public school. When her talent became apparent, her parents paid for private lessons. All the while, she played in the school orchestra. A gifted and hardworking student, Myrna took every difficult course her high school offered – 

physics, advanced mathematics, biology – all the courses that would be considered AP classes today. “If you didn’t care about a social life,” Myrna laughs, “then you took physics.” 

The hard work paid off. Myrna earned admission to USC, an extraordinary honor for any woman in the 1960s. She opted to attend against her strict Baptist parents’ wishes, who urged her to enroll in a biblical institution. But once they saw her thrive – majoring in music, minoring in English, playing in USC’s symphony, singing for both the University’s choir and opera – they met her accomplishments with pride. 

Nonetheless, Myrna paid her own way. “I taught my way through college,” she says. “I found students who needed piano lessons, violin lessons. Those parents would refer me to other parents. I’d drive quite a distance to teach.” It still took Myrna 10 years to pay off her student loans, but never did she feel deterred. “Everything I did at USC influenced who I became.”

If you cannot teach me to fly, teach me to sing.

J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Myrna landed her job at the Laguna Beach Unified School District directly out of USC. It was the job that would become a lifelong career. For the next 35 years, she would teach music to students from kindergarten through 8th grade, as well as teaching in kindergarten and lower school classrooms. She taught at Top of the World, El Morro, and Aliso Elementary (until its closure in 1989), as well as Thurston Middle School, where she expanded her instruction to both social studies and the arts. 

“Myrna was the musical heart of Top of the World,” says Sharon Maloney, former Principal and friend. “She would take popular songs and write new lyrics for different occasions. She used music for entertainment and humor and general bonding of staff and community.” Sharon recalls one staff party at a teacher’s home when Myrna led the group in singing Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World.” “She used music as a binding, loving thing to hold us together,” Sharon says. “Or if a class was rowdy or out of hand, she’d bring them back together with her beautiful voice. She was a master at it. Music was her medium.”

So passionate about both Top of the World Elementary and music, Myrna contacted the Carpenters to get their permission to use the popular song as the school’s official theme song. How could they resist? From then on “Top of the World” was their anthem. “Myrna would sing it for every assembly we had,” says Sharon. “What school has its own [Billboard hit] theme song? Thanks to the Carpenters and Myrna for doing that.” 

Sharon Nilsen, former teacher at Top of the World, shares her own memories of those years. “When I envision Myrna, she’s standing (bouncing, really) in front of maybe 75 kids who are jostling each other atop rickety old risers in some dusty school auditorium,” she says. “Parents and audience behind her, arms akimbo as she engages first one group of singers, then another. Myrna is beaming and bopping to her music. In my vision, it’s ‘Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog,’ with even the most reluctant singer gloriously belting out the chorus.”

A good teacher, like a good entertainer, first must hold his audience’s attention, then he can teach his lesson.

John Henrik Clarke

Myrna taught students their 50 states, alphabetically, through song (“Fifty Nifty United States”). Using catchy lyrics, hand motions, and repetition, children internalized knowledge. And it stuck. Years later, her students are still talking about Myrna and remembering the many things she taught them. 

Zac Brewer, now age 25, had Mrs. Heitel for kindergarten and still remembers those days. “I was an anxious kid, but Mrs. Heitel was warm, welcoming, and a calming presence in my day. She was kind and patient with me.” Zac stayed in touch well after kindergarten. They recently had a reunion at the Susi Q Center. “It had been years since I had seen her, but I knew I had to say hello. When I saw her, I told Mrs. Heitel that I’m getting my Masters in school counseling from Concordia University in Irvine. I don’t think I’d be where I’m at if it wasn’t for Mrs. Heitel and the other great teachers and counselors in the District.”

Myrna Heitel meeting

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Myrna meets with former student Zac Brewer at the Susi Q Center in Laguna Beach

Marlise Chel and Jessica Niebuhr both had Myrna at Top of the World. “She was so musical and put her heart and soul into teaching,” they said. “She never forgot about us, and followed our progress throughout our lives. Her students were family to her.” Myrna’s passion paid lifelong dividends for generations of Laguna’s youth.

In 2006, the Daily Pilot recognized the unique and hands-on approach Myrna took to teaching. Her class of kindergarteners created an elaborate map of our town, complete with cutout bunnies, cars, trees, and wildlife. Students could all locate their homes. “Children learn best by doing,” Myrna told the Daily Pilot. “Their interest in painting helps them learn about the town.” By tapping into a child’s innate creativity and helping them use it to explore the world, Myrna solidified not only their knowledge, but their curiosity and desire to learn more. “When the kids are out around town they now point to things they never used to,” Myrna said in 2006. “This wouldn’t have happened two months ago.” 

Though 13 years into retirement, Myrna’s legacy remains. A music scholarship is given in her name each year to several deserving high school students. The Myrna Heitel Music Scholarship is a well-known staple of funding for talented youth. She also continues her involvement as a member of the Retired Elementary School Teachers in Laguna Beach, attending monthly coffees when she can. 

To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart. –Phyllis Theroux

What Myrna can’t communicate through song, she delivers through the written word and personal gestures. A longtime believer in the power of the pen, Myrna maintains correspondence with a number of people. “I write to people who are in need of encouragement, who are sick, who need a birthday card,” she says. 

One of those people is a prisoner in the California State Penitentiary. A cousin’s nephew faced trouble last year, convicted of a crime she believes he didn’t commit. Myrna’s cousin called, knowing Myrna was the right person to help. “It’s Christmas,” the woman said, “Would you send him a card?’” From there, Myrna’s friendship with the man grew. “Whenever he receives my letter, he writes back the same day. It’s been 10 months and now we correspond all the time.”

Letter writing is something Myrna has done for years. “I just started one day. I sent a card to someone and figured it wasn’t enough to just sign my name. So I began writing, and it grew into a thing. Handwritten notes really mean something special to people.”

Myrna is also the first to reach out in person. Sharon Maloney remembers meeting Myrna at a Laguna Beach tennis class. “I was feeling so out of it, not knowing anybody and not having played tennis in years,” Sharon says. “Myrna is the essence of graciousness. She immediately included me, introducing me around and making me feel welcome. That was a gift. She has an enormous heart.”

My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary. Martin Luther

Bambi leaps are no longer in Myrna’s repertoire. A series of health troubles and medical setbacks have challenged her for years. And yet her positive attitude and hopeful spirit never waver.

A blood transfusion in Myrna’s late teens resulted in an undiagnosed case of Hepatitis C, which didn’t present until the 1990s. She’d been an asymptomatic carrier for years before feelings of fatigue began. 

After a series of experimental drug treatments at UCI, Myrna became a candidate for both a liver and kidney transplant. Understanding the odds were higher of finding a donor in the Midwest, she moved to Nebraska until organs became available. It took time, but Myrna waited while also battling breast cancer, and a separate cancer that appeared on her scalp. 

None of these setbacks dampened Myrna’s attitude. “She’s a fun spirit, as you can tell,” says Sharon. “She’s gone through hell with her health, but you’d never know it. She’s always smiling and anxious to talk.” 

Myrna Heitel with Zac

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Zac stayed in touch with Myrna over the years

Carolyn Delino, also a former colleague and teacher, agrees. “I have long been greatly impressed with Myrna’s fighter demeanor. Through her long fight with Hepatitis C, she never gave up, tried every possible solution, and maintained a positive attitude.”

Today, both Myrna’s liver and kidney are operating at normal levels. “Fifteen years ago, I was told I had 10 years to live,” Myrna says. “I’ve far exceeded those predictions.” And she has the organs of a 19-year-old young woman.

Bambi leaps aside, Myrna still maintains that youthful springing spirit, and the ability to elevate everyone around her. “She always bounces back from continuous setbacks,” says Carolyn. “She’s still bouncy today.”

 

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

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