Today I was channel-surfing and Mr. Holland’s Opus was on. (My favorite movie.) Richard Dreyfuss plays a musician turned high school music teacher. He turns their pathetic band around into something truly great and changes lives. If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s fabulous. Today, however, I turned it off about twenty minutes before the end because the end always makes me cry uncontrollably and I just wasn’t in the mood for that today.
So what does this have to do with anything? You’ll see.
I went to a K-8 school in the mountains. I started there from first grade, so I was pretty much with the same people for eight years. Bullied by one person or another, I never felt that I fit in anywhere. I was an odd child – full of emotion, imagination and originality, and a lot of kids don’t know how to handle someone who is different.
In fifth or sixth grade, a new girl named Alicia moved to our school, and she befriended me, accepted me, and we had a great friendship. She was goofy, funny, and great (and still is). I finally had a good friend. We ended up forming our own little group of misfits, girls who were all original in our own way. We had some great times. Things started to loosen up at our school, and everyone sort of meshed together by eighth grade, but I still carried a severe feeling of being alone and not belonging anywhere. I had a hard time connecting to people. The severe bullying I endured during third, fourth and fifth grades plus my mother’s mental illness had caused some problems.
Anyway, we all graduated eighth grade together, on the field at our little school that was nestled in the mountains among the pine trees. I was given an award for leading lady in the drama department, and I was a speaker during graduation. My mom had bought me a taffeta pink ball gown that I LOVED. All the boys made fun of my dress. Shocking.
We were all excited to be moving on to high school. We were headed down the mountain to a town 45 minutes away, to Sonora High. The change was exciting, yet frightening for me. At orientation, I had met some new kids that had been nice, but I trusted no one.
I was an artist all-around, so freshman year I was enrolled in advanced drama (I had been brilliant in Hurricane Smith and the Garden of the Golden Monkey in eighth grade, so I skipped a class), was a reporter for the school paper, and was a full-on band geek. I had been playing the clarinet since sixth grade in our tiny band back at Tenaya, and I really enjoyed it. I never practiced outside of class, but I could play any piece thrown at me and advanced quickly.
Okay, I know you’re thinking, “Oh lordy, is she really going to talk about being a band geek?” but this was no ordinary band. Sonora High had one of the state’s best marching bands in our division. Our teacher, Mr. Sieben, was tough. Like drill-sergeant tough. Once, during half-time at a football game, we were on the field after a song and the sprinklers came on. None of us moved. (Except the one girl who got doused directly in the head – she actually got knocked over.) Mr. Sieben shouted to the drum major to get us off the field, she directed us, and we marched off in perfect order. As the sprinklers were still hitting us. People asked us why we didn’t run off the field. Because we hadn’t been directed to move. We didn’t move without permission. Period.
We traveled to competitions and won. We marched in crazy formations, inside and out of each other, snaking around, marching backward … we were GOOD. We were one giant machine with hundreds of small pieces, and as long as each piece moved perfectly, the machine moved perfectly. We all counted on each other.
So imagine: I was a very lonely girl who never felt like I belonged anywhere, or was accepted by anyone. And now I’m part of this giant machine. I am accepted simply because I am one of them. Any time I felt like it, I could go to the band room and there would be other kids there, rehearsing, or playing cards, or watching a movie during lunch. I traveled with these people on three-hour bus rides. We confided in each other and laughed together.
More powerful than that, we were connected by the music.
My sophomore year I was in Honor Band, which was only for students who auditioned in. One night we played with the Sonora Orchestra in a public performance. Our number, which we rehearsed for weeks under intense scrutiny, was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. We were in sync, in tune, on time. We were powerful. We were perfect. Mr. Sieben’s fingers pinched off the last note, and that note hung in the air. I swear I could feel it on my skin like dew. The audience was silent for at least fifteen seconds, stunned, then erupted in applause. I’ll never forget that night – the feeling of completely being a part of something beautiful and strong.
Towards the end of the year, my parents told me I had to quit band because they were tired of driving me to night practices and football games. We lived too far away – it was an inconvenience. I cried for weeks, but there was no changing their minds. I had straight A’s. I worked hard. I was turning sixteen, but I wasn’t allowed to drive, and I would never be allowed to drive to school. Band was done.
That year, just like every other year, the band played at graduation. After we were done, I packed my clarinet in its case and I never took it out again. I sold it a few years later. I haven’t played another note on any instrument since.
I was no longer going to be part of a group that powerful. I had a teenager’s version of a nervous breakdown. (“I hate you! You’re the worst parents ever! *stomp stomp slam*) Part of the reason I refused to play my clarinet ever again was because my dad loved the clarinet, and he loved helping me learn to play one of many instruments he had mastered as a young man, and I wanted to hurt him. Part of why I never touched it again is because I didn’t really care that much about the music. I cared about the experience I had of being part of something bigger than myself. Of FINALLY being accepted and fitting in. Being part of the band taught me how to relate to other kids, how to form friendships and how to trust people. And I’m grateful for that. It changed my life.
About a year ago, when I was having an exceptionally hard time working through part of my past, Mark and I walked my old high school campus in the dark after we left a party. I’d been so busy working on the bullying I endured in grade school that the bullying I endured in high school had been shoved in the back of my head. Then one day it decided to come out. Well, more like bust out with a baseball bat.
Mark and I sat in the quad of my old school and talked about it. We walked the entire campus – a beautiful, rural, spread-out school surrounded by trees, complete with a stream running through it.
“Your school has a river going through it?”
“It’s just a stream, calm down.”
I showed him where we ate lunch, where my locker was my senior year… “There’s the cafeteria… wow, they pulled out all the ivy… There’s the library. Oh, there’s the greenroom, where we took drama…”
I didn’t start to cry until we were standing outside the band room. And when I say cry, I mean CRY. Like, the ugly cry. I peeled my false lashes off and left them on the barbeque pit. Mark said, “Hey! My school didn’t have a barbeque pit! You had a stream AND a barbeque pit???”
“It’s a really good school,” I said, wiping tears from my face, feeling ridiculous.
I could NOT understand why I was crying so hard. Then I realized I had never mourned the loss of leaving the marching band. It was so ridiculous (IS so ridiculous) that I started laughing and crying at the same time. When my parents forced me to give that up without asking me how it would affect me, I had simply shut my clarinet case and put it on a high shelf in my closet, along with my feelings. I couldn’t deal with how it made me feel, so I didn’t feel anything at all. Being in the band had taught me how to connect to other people and how to feel good about myself and have confidence, but it had NOT taught me how to deal with my feelings, that’s for sure.
So I cried. I let it out. Mark held me, giving me permission to feel what I needed to feel. I mean, that’s a great husband right there – a guy who will hold his thirty-six-year-old wife in the middle of the night outside her high school band room while she cries about how she had to give up the marching band TWENTY YEARS AGO.
After a while, I was ready to walk on. As we headed toward the wooden bridge that we used to march across to the percussion’s cadence on our way to a football game, Mark said, “Sometimes parents REALLY screw up. But you have to understand … they were doing the best they could.”
“I know.” And he’s right. They never meant to hurt me.
We crossed the field and I showed Mark the very spot where I met Sarah, my BFF to this day. He said, “Oh, so this is where your life took a turn for the worse,” making me laugh, as usual.
As we got farther from the band room, I told Mark about the competitions we won, about the bus trips and the sprinkler incident on the field. But Mr. Sieben had long retired and the band doesn’t win anything anymore. The coolness of being part of the famous Golden Regiment is a thing of the past.
I still have dreams that I’m at school and I’m lost. I’m walking around and I can’t remember what class I have, and I can’t find my locker, and when I do, I don’t know the combination. I am failing. No one will talk to me. I run to the band room and bang on the doors but the lights are out and there’s no one there. But once in a great while, I get to dream that I am playing the clarinet, and my fingers just move and the music comes out and I don’t even have to think, and it’s beautiful and I feel free.