After three decades of teaching, Jim Stanley, a chorus and piano teacher at Cartersville High School in Cartersville, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, is getting ready to retire.
But before he goes, there was one thing he wanted to do: reunite with some of his former students for one last hurrah.
That wish came true on May 13 -- and what a hurrah it was, culminating in a heartfelt rehearsal and alumni concert at Cartersville's auditorium.
Footage of the rehearsal was captured by photographer Cindy Harter Sims, and when it was uploaded to TikTok on Tuesday by her daughter Maggie Smith Kühn, it quickly went viral with 2 million views and counting.
The nearly two-minute video opens with soloist Lisa Douglas, one of Stanley's many former students, belting out an emotional refrain from "A City Called Heaven," a traditional spiritual arranged by Josephine Poelinitz. It then gradually pans to reveal Kühn as well, with the accompanying text explaining that Stanley was Kühn's former high school choral teacher.
"He asked 30 years of his alumni to come sing with him one last time before he retired," Kühn explained in the video text. "We only had this one day of rehearsal before performing, but we all remembered his style. He changed our lives."
Stanley told "Good Morning America" he came up with the idea of inviting his former students back to Cartersville last year.
"So many of the seniors after they graduate, you don't see them again," Stanley said. "And you always wondered, you know, 'I wonder how adulthood looks like for them.' So I thought this would just be a good opportunity to reconnect with a lot of those kids."
Little did he know at the time that what he figured would be a small group of 20 to 25 alumni would quickly balloon into a gathering of nearly 100 former students, some of whom flew back to Georgia from other states and as far away as Vancouver, British Columbia, to give Stanley a tremendous send-off into retirement.
"Everybody's sort of said this is the 'Mr. Holland's Opus' moment and it totally was. It was overwhelming to walk into the rehearsal space and see all these kids from all the way from 1996 up until 2022. It was wild," Stanley recalled.
"I choked up a little bit. But I tried to keep the tears from flowing," he added. "It was definitely an emotional day for me and I think for a lot of the kids too. We were all in a happy place."
"I was having to hold back tears the entire night. And I was crying at the end," Kühn told "GMA." "Stanley gave a speech where he talked about what music meant to him and why music education is so important and particularly now with education budgets and the way teachers are kind of being underappreciated in this country. It felt really powerful. It felt like a universal message at the right time. It was amazing."
Stanley, who first started teaching at Cartersville in 1995, said he was inspired to become an educator himself after taking a chorus class in the ninth grade and credits his own chorus teacher for the encouragement he needed to pursue the profession.
"My chorus teacher at the time actually saw something in me and she encouraged me to continue, and that kind of started me on the path to a lifelong love of chorus," Stanley said.
He said he hopes he has made a positive impact on his students over the years.
"One of the things that I wanted to do was to be able to give my students some music-defining experiences, like music has defined my life. So hopefully I've accomplished that," the 52-year-old said.
Kühn and Sims, whose five children have all had Stanley as a teacher, agree that Stanley's impact has been undeniable.
"I've really enjoyed the stories from students of his that maybe weren't even there that day," Sims told "GMA." "Now, to hear 30 years later what an impact he made, I mean, he saved so many kids just through giving them the gift of excellent music. And it's been so powerful to read their words and see what an impact it truly made."
To continue that impact, several of Stanley's former students have also started a scholarship fund in his name through the Etowah Scholarship Foundation to support aspiring music educators.
As for Stanley, even though he described retirement as "extremely bittersweet," he also said he's ready for his "act two."
His final lesson learned?
"If there was one message or one thing that could come out of any of this, even though I'm retiring at this point, [it's that] music can change students' lives," the veteran teacher said.
"I've had students say to me, 'Music is what kept me in school. Music was my safe place.' And I would stress that to every school administrator, every teacher, every parent, that music is that connection for a lot of kids. I would love to see it more supported, more encouraged, so that students have these opportunities."
Editor's note: This was originally published on May 19, 2023.