Jackson County

Choir teacher shares thrill of victory, agony of his illness with students

OCEAN SPRINGS -- Eric Funches had to break the news to his students that life isn't fair.

Funches' music class at Ocean Springs Upper Elementary School was the winner of the Sun Herald's Sing With Foreigner contest. They received the most online votes for their video submission of their version of Katy Perry's "Firework," and they will join rock band Foreigner on stage Saturday to sing "I Want to Know What Love Is" at Hard Rock Live in Biloxi.

But Funches has a class of about 50 students. Only 25 will be allowed to perform with Foreigner.

"This is a life lesson for y'all," he told his class Tuesday morning, the first day of auditions for a spot on the Hard Rock stage. "Do your best at all times because life is not always fair."

Funches knows firsthand how unfair life can be.

Mr. Funches' swan song

After Tuesday's hour-long music class, Funches stayed behind with his 2-year-old son by his side. It would be one of his final visits to the school. He worked his last official day April 8.

He was less than a month away from finishing his first year at the school but health problems forced him to bow out early.

Funches, 47, was in his 30s when he developed acromegaly, a hormonal disorder that causes the pituitary gland to create too much growth hormone. It can create gigantism in children.

"I was in my mid-30s when we found out I had it," he said. "It was like I was going through puberty again -- to say it was painful is an understatement."

One of the side effects of the disease, he said, is brain tumors, which he suffered with for about five years. His position as music teacher at the Ocean Springs school was his first full-time job since a tumor was discovered on his brain in 2010.

"I came here to help build the choral program because the focus had been on the band for a few years," he said.

Ups and downs

Funches said the disease has caused issues with his spine, giving him stroke-like symptoms if he moves his neck too much.

He spent most of the school year in a large neck brace. On Tuesday, he was without his brace.

"They are out of the foam for my neck brace so I'm enjoying a little bit of freedom," he said.

Although the spinal condition kept him from returning to teaching, he said he wouldn't change a thing.

"I went through a lot with students, and they got to see me have some good days with my illness and some bad ones, but that's a life lesson for them," him said. "As a matter of fact, I had told the class I was leaving about an hour before we found out we won the Foreigner contest, and man, that couldn't have come at a better time for me and the kids."

More to do

He said he plans to do some community work and to spend more time with his son.

But before he rides off into retirement, there are pressing matters at hand.

The choir will be performing at a special pep rally Thursday. And there's the upcoming choir concert May 9. And Saturday's appearance at the Hard Rock Live with Foreigner.

Saturday's show created a whirlwind of questions from his students, such as "How much are tickets?" and "Can I bring my mom?"

He was soft-spoken but firm as he answered the questions.

But he reminded the class they are still auditioning for Saturday's performance. He had them submit an essay on why they want to sing with Foreigner and do part of a routine for judges.

"Mr. Funches, I put in my essay that I want to sing with Foreigner because that's my mom's favorite band," said Lauren Raybon, 12.

Funches was diplomatic in his response.

"That's good Lauren. I like Foreigner, too," he said. "This is very exciting for all of us."

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