I once played the clarinet for seven years, and it was those kinds of decisions that set the tone for much of my adolescence. For my graduating class, the whole band thing started in the fifth grade, and I think we were picking out our instruments at the end of the fourth. As with most memories from my school years, everything is chopped up with a white fog, each flashback lived in someone else’s shoes, some strange little boy being led around—asking no questions–from place to place. I was bright enough to avoid wandering off with honey-voiced strangers when left in a public place, but if an authority figure asked me to put on a pair of cat ears, cover myself in feathers and then climb into a big vat of strawberry jam, I’d probably just ask how long whatever we’re doing is going to take.
I’ve got the layout of that first tiny band room etched into my brain for the long haul. A row of little faces pours into a white concrete room, and inside dozens of mechanical instruments are laid out for observation. Expensive looking felt offsets the silver and brass, shiny things everywhere, and as with most days, I had no idea what I was doing here. The teacher explains that we’re to observe the instruments, ask any questions we had, then complete the form for our parents, who would then return with us that very evening to add to the reasons they regretted having children.
I ran my tiny fingers over everything, the long elegant trombone, the tight french horn, the simple snare, and the complex sax-a-ma-phone. When I was instructed to pick one that I thought looked interesting, the panic set in. “Was I expected to play one of these things? I can’t afford this, I’ve got like, three dollars in quarters from last Easter—surely that won’t cover it. Oh man, my parents are going to be so mad when I come home with a tuba, or one of those, what did they call them, wood wheats? I can’t play a wood wheat!” Riddled with tiny heart palpitations, I did what was to be the norm back then—give up. I stopped caring, orchestral future be damned, and did what would become a trend in my life—I based my decision on a girl.
I didn’t know that I didn’t have to play, hell, it took me years to realize I didn’t actually have to be in the school circus. I was nine years old, and I thought the girl I liked said “coronet,” which I had misunderstood to be “cornet,” the actual horn, so I went along with her game. When asked which instrument I was interested in, I told the teacher, “The same thing as Nicky.” She pointed to a small case with black pieces inside, asking, “This? The clarinet?” I shrugged, “Sure.” The idea was that I’d get to sit next to her in band class, and this would naturally lead to our marriage. Later that evening we all returned with our parents, and when they saw the $400 price tag and the bizarre little woodwind instrument, my mother looked at me as if to say, “Really? Okay, I guess… Really?” In 1989, a number like four double-bagel wasn’t something to scoff at, in today’s money that’s something like seventy thouso-hundred dollars. We were as broke as a chocolate orange, so my mother signed up to pay down thirty smackers on the instrument for the next three hundred years.
Fifth grade, band class. We were all there, arranged by instrument or whatever mysterious organization they teach you at band teacher school, or whatever. The plan had worked, I was sitting right next to Nicky, clarinet in hand, and we were all staring at white pages of hieroglyphics that we were told would make sense at later dates. On the third day of band class, our teacher stands from her piano, and addresses the class on what chair arrangements are, and how we’ll be testing for them. That’s right, my grand scheme, the one that I’d given almost two minutes of thought, it failed. I sat next to Nicky for two days, then I was moved to last chair. When testing, basically, the teacher was preparing to arrange us in our seats by the following method:
1.) You will be tested on your grasp of your instrument.
2.) I will then arrange your chairs based on how much I like you.
She wasn’t a bad teacher, on reflection. The terrible brood of harpies that taught in our school were many, but for some reason this particular teacher never had it out for your humble author—and I was prone to earning it. She was replaced, however, the next year. Her replacement was a young first-time teacher who was thrilled at the opportunity to shape young minds, and in forty years, maybe—just maybe—we’ll all arrange a surprise retirement concert for him, dozens of students from all the years, each taking pride in their teacher and playing out his opus. Yeah, he was a prick.
The guy was beloved by nearly everyone but me, it seemed. He sported an exuberant youthful attitude, took pride in his tiny orchestra, and was quick with a great sense of humor to the pop culture. On our first day of sixth grade, he lined us all up to stand at attention and face forward. With hands clasped behind his back, the man slowly walked up and down his line of troops, occasionally asking us questions, and occasionally having us chant in unison. I can imagine him thinking about it all night, excited to do the drill sergeant thing, something he’d run past his wife a dozen times. He was certain this would win our hearts and minds, and before we knew it, we’d all be referring to him by his first name while playing frisbee golf. He’d have to schedule his entire summer fifteen years later very carefully, what with so many wedding invitations.
Not sure what I did to the guy. I tried hard to like him, I really did. I remember him joining in with the laughter in our group on several occasions, only to look sharply at me, drop his face, and walk away. It probably didn’t help that I never learned to play the instrument I was in his class for. The stupid clarinet never made any sense to me, it always felt like trying to hold onto two handfuls of nickels that I need to keep a beat with. Testing for chair placement involved heading back into an office in the band room, hitting record on the tape player, then attempting to belt out whatever music was left on a stand for you. I remember the last test I took back there. I walked in, sat down, hit the button, squeaked out a few attempts, then just leaned into the microphone and said, “I think we both know where this is going,” then clicked the recorder off. There were five or six of us playing the licorice stick, and even then, I wasn’t last chair. I was sitting in front of a friend of my brother’s who didn’t use a reed (required to play the thing), and the girl who ate her own scabs. I struggle to think what they must’ve done to fair worse than me on those tests. Perhaps they never actually took the test. Maybe when they started to play, the sheet music simply burst into flames.
I did the marching band thing too, God help me. I wore the funny shoes and funny hat, did the funny march and held the funny instrument, pretending to play. Same thing for “pep band,” sitting in the bleachers at school sporting events. I wanted to try out for “jazz band” once, not sure why. The band teacher told me that the clarinet wasn’t a jazz instrument—a right damned lie—and refused to let me audition. It took years for me to realize that band was an elective—the only elective—in my course schedule. I never thought for a moment that this wasn’t something that I had to do. Not everyone was in band class, and for whatever reason I never questioned where they were, or what they were doing instead. “Probably something awful,” I thought. “Probably just sitting in a room with the lights off.”
I hated the class. I couldn’t play the instrument, I didn’t want to anyway, so I spent an hour each day looking as convincing as possible. During my senior year, when selecting the few classes I was able to arrange on my own, I noticed that there was a yes/no checkbox next to band class. My brain seized up for a moment. “What… what happens if I don’t check ‘Yes’?” Does the band teacher materialize from a grey mist and throttle me? Will he repel from the ceiling, a beeping sound coming from his watch, and club me with sheet music? I checked “No,” and felt the world open up. My mornings next year would be spent quietly reading books for an early English class. I wouldn’t be in band, I’d learn more about literature, and my food would taste better. I would be free.
On the first day of my senior year the band teacher came stomping up to me in the hallway. “You didn’t sign up for band,” he shouted like a half corked question. I turned from my locker. “That’s right,” I replied. He gave me the same angry stare he’d laid on me back in the sixth grade when he’d lined us all up, then simply turned and walked away. I figured if that was his hard sell, he’s got more problems on his hands than a greasy seventeen year old band dropout. The instrument sat in the trunk of my car for the next ten years, when I’d found it wedged behind a worn Garfield blanket and a boat oar. I figured I could sell the thing, or maybe donate it, but when I saw its horrible condition, I did what I wound up doing with most of my school-day memories: I sat and gave it a once-over, thinking about our times together, running my fingers through the dust it’s collected. “At least I got those two days next to Nicky,” I thought. I took the case in both hands, outstretched, giving it one more eyeball and a tiny smile. Then I dropped it in the garbage.