I was a weird kid.
After the dog shit waffle-stomp incident of fifth grade in which I caused a bio-hazard, shut down my elementary school for a day and ruined some formative years (As my sister remembers, “That’s the day I realized there were bad people in the world”) I decided I needed an outlet. More specifically, I decided I needed to get me and my shitty-shoes the heck out of the classroom for as much of the day as possible.
So, I joined band.
Joining band meant missing a class subject every day to walk down the long fifth grade hallway, past the bathroom where I waffle-stomped dog shit down the bathroom drain, hooking a left past the nurses office where I faked illness to take naps, going around the corner past the cafeteria/gym/auditorium where we had our school events (including a time where I passed out on stage singing “Oh Tannenbaum” at the Christmas function, more on that later) and finishing in a small music room with big windows that let in light and doors that opened onto the playground.
It meant a fresh start with people who didn’t know about the weird acts of chaos that followed in my wake. (Everyone knew. Everyone.)
The first few classes were spent choosing instruments. The teacher would hold up each instrument, tell a bit about it, and demonstrate the manner in which it was played.
He held up drums. Drums keep the beat. They help the band know what to play. Bum ba-da bum ba-da bum.
Nope, I can’t do that. I can’t have that level of responsibility on my shoulders.
He presented brass instruments. This is a trumpet. It plays loud. When the veterans come in May you’ll have a special song to play.
A solo? Oh no, that’s definitely not for me. I can’t have all those eyes on me.
These are the wind instruments. Wind instruments have a special reed you moisten with your mouth. Puff up your cheeks and blow buzzing air into the reed to play this instrument.
Yeah–puffed up cheeks and a spitty reed in front of all these judgmental eleven-year-olds is exactly the sort of look that will salvage my self image. No thanks.
This is a flute. It plays quietly. This is a safe instrument that won’t tarnish your fragile sense of self-worth. Nobody will hear you.
So, that week my mother and I went to the local music store where we spent hundreds of dollars on a flute that–with hope–would elevate my social standing from shit-on-shoes kid to the exalted band kid. My mother, full of confidence and expectation (bless her heart), handed over the flute with its own special carrying case (a separate cost) as her mind filled with images of young music prodigies and simultaneously calculated the cost of performing art school.
This was it, this was my in, this is how I would make it in the world.
The first day of band fast approached. I half-heartedly practiced with my flute although I couldn’t seem to make sound come out. That’s alright though, I’d figure it out soon enough.
Boy was I wrong.
No matter how much I tooted, teetered, or puffed I couldn’t make the flute produce sounds. I felt discouraged, like a failure and no amount of band lessons made me any better. To my left sat a girl who wore her special flute case with the carrying strap (a separate cost) slung over her shoulder like a designer purse. Her flute tooted just fine. She practiced. What a load of baloney.
I bought the flute, I’m in band (the ultimate cool) and now I have to spoil this with homework? I wanted to go home, play Gamecube and practice drawing tattoos.
So, I didn’t practice. I never turned in a practice sheet and as weeks went on and the clamoring mess of a band room slowly fell into order I was left behind. I tooted, teetered and puffed but without practice under my belt the toots fell flat.
As time went on I realized the girl next to me had gotten so good that her toots, loud and clear, were toots enough for two so I gave up entirely and fingered my notes in silence. I mouthed along to the music, fingers moving silently like a puppet as my mind wandered and fixated on where I went wrong. At birth, I guess. Man–I felt low–but lanky-limbed and shy as a wallflower I couldn’t seem to break out of the cycle of odd behavior and social ineptness. I couldn’t even toot a flute.
The band recital approached and the music room was abuzz in preparation for the night’s events. The cafeteria/gym/auditorium multi-purpose space would be packed with grades K through 4 and parents pumped to rock out to Hot Crossed Buns.
Big on inclusion and making everyone feel special, somewhere along the line the band teacher decided it would be a good idea to give everyone a solo. Please, teacher, I promise I’m not special. Please don’t single me out. This would not only work each deodorant-free eleven-year-old into smelly, sweaty fits of anxiety but effectively prolong the band night into eternity and drive the parents in the audience to divorce.
The night came. I put on black pants, a white shirt, tied a red ribbon around my neck and drove with my family to the elementary school. My mother made a sign that said, “Go Ally Go!” (No Ally No).
Percussion had their solos. Brass had their solos. Wind had their solos. The clanging and clattering and clamoring of the music room somehow fell into a semblance of order and the fifth grade band members managed to toot, honk, and chime their way through the evening. Now was time for the flute solos.
In retrospect, a single flute in a sea of restless bodies is not enough to reach many ears. The band played with us through the first round of Hot Crossed Buns with clashes of cymbals and drumming of drums. Then, the clanging and clattering fell silent. The silence was deafening. Big tooter to my left jumped to her feet and pumped out the notes loud and clear. TOOT, TOOT, TOOT. TOOT, TOOT, TOOT. TOTOTOTO-TOTOTOTO… TOOT, TOOT, TOOOOOOOT.
My turn. I reluctantly stood up.
I puffed and I wheezed and I honked and I teetered but no sound came out of my flute. The crowd began to murmur. Eventually, red in the face I held my fingers over the right notes and sang, “toot, toot, toot. toot, toot, toot. totototo-totototo…toot, toot, toot.” My voice cracked on each toot.
I don’t know if you know how long it takes to verbally toot Hot Crossed Buns with the entire school, staff, PTA, and parents watching you but that night it took about two and a half years.
Through the glare of the stage lights, I saw my mother lower her “Go Ally GO!” sign.
The next flutist rushed to toot away my goof, but the damage was done. The flute found a space in the closet. I quit band for good after that year and promised myself that I’d never speak of it again.
Sorry, younger me, your shortcomings are my bread-and-butter now.
Keep tooting, folks.