Wednesday, January 5, 2011

In which the orchestra teacher chews us out

When I was in seventh grade, I went from the Catholic school, St Elizabeth's, to the public school, Mackenzie, which was about two miles away from our house. There was a Catholic junior high school, but it was across town and my parents were not big fans of parent-provided transportation to school. Kids can get themselves to school was their attitude.

My dad left for work too early to be able to drop me off, anyhow. I would often wake up at 6 a.m. because I would hear the farm report from the radio turned on in the kitchen. He was up then because he had to be at work early and because he often rode his bike to work, which was 20 miles away. There was no sympathy from him that I had a mere two-mile ride on my bike.

I do wonder about the moms I see picking their kids up at school now. We live in a town where there are not school buses, but probably because no kid is more than a couple of miles from a school. We have an elementary school one block from us. The next elementary school, which is across the street from one of the two high schools, is less than a mile from our house. There is a junior high three blocks from our house. Most kids walk to school, even in the winter, and many times without the proper warm clothing, but the streets are not littered with the corpses of frozen teenagers, so they must be warm enough.

But some kids get dropped off and picked up, which makes driving at that time of day a real pain in the neck and makes me wonder about the parents: Really? Your fifth grader can't walk a mile home? What kind of tales of suffering will those kids have to tell once they are grown up? That they had slow internet? That they didn't have movies on demand?

Back to Mackenzie. I rode my bike. Cynthia E., whose dad was a botany professor at Texas Tech, lived five blocks from me at 26th and Chicago. We lived at 29th and Chicago. She would wait for me on the corner and we would ride our bikes up to 12th and Chicago together, our violins balanced across our handlebars for yes, I was just as cool in junior high as I was in grade school. Now in addition to wearing funny clothes (more about those when I tell you how I split my pants) and glasses, I also played the violin! Everyone knows how popular orchestra kids are.

Despite my fifth-grade music class of singing along with The Carpenters, Lubbock had a really good music program. String education started in sixth grade, then you could be in orchestra starting in junior high. I missed the sixth-grade classes because I was in Catholic school and we didn't have violin lessons there, but when I got to Mackenzie, I decided I wanted to be a musician and joined orchestra. I didn't know how to play but really, how hard could it be?

Not that hard. I already knew how to read music from taking piano when I was in third grade. My mom was a clarinetist, so between the two of us and a few books, I picked it up, going from last chair at the beginning of the year to first or second most of the end of the year.

My main competition - if you can even say that, as she was far more talented and hardworking than I - was Hannah N., who was an Only Child who got Dropped Off and Picked Up at school. Bless her heart. She was a bit of a priss, but she didn't know any better. Her mother dressed her way younger than her age in frilly, full 50s-style dresses. She had short bangs, a little curly ponytail and pouty red lips. If I saw a girl like that today, I would think she was just as cute as can be, but as a fellow outcast seventh grader, I wanted to elevate myself on the social scale and the only way I knew to do that was to climb over the other nerds. Her clothes and her innocence were blood on the water to the junior high sharks.

Hannah wore an undershirt - the kind with lace straps and a little flower on the bodice - instead of a training bra. She didn't know any bad words. One day, she asked me why everyone had laughed in social studies when the teacher read from a letter written during the Civil War with the endearment, "Puss." She asked me because I was a fellow nerd, but I didn't want to be her guide to cool. I didn't have far to fall, though, to be as un-hip as she was. For PE once, we had to choreograph a dance to music of our choice. She did her dance to a Lawrence Welk record. I did mine to a Neil Diamond song. Not a lot of space separating us on the loser scale.

Let's stop while you picture that scene in your mind. Me, in my seventh grade glory of long blonde hair (which was the one feature I had going for me, except I didn't have it cut properly into a Farrah or wings), funny glasses, and my mandated gym suit from Penney's of light blue double knit polyester shorts (a wee bit tight) and a light blue and white striped sleeveless V-neck top, also too tight. A smelly light blue and white striped sleeveless V-neck top, because I undoubtedly did not take my gym clothes home for laundering nearly enough. It was a pain in the neck to take them home, what with balancing my violin across the handlebars and all. Nothing can hold a smell like polyester.

Then me, in my blue, blue and white outfit. Dancing. To Neil Diamond. [Whom I continued to adore, so much that my senior year of high school, when I worked at the Woolco across the street and got my $38.50 in cash at the back of the store every week, I could not walk to the front of the store without detouring through the record department and buying yet another Neil Diamond album.] In all my uncoordinated, unathletic loveliness. To a song that set my classmates snickering. How uncool could I be? Neil Diamond? Really? All the cool girls danced to Barry Manilow or Paul McCartney.

Hannah was what saved me from being the lowest on the cool ladder. As soon as she put on that Lawrence Welk record, everyone forgot about me and Neil and focused on Hannah and her precise, this is the show my grandma watches movements. Thank God for Hannah is what I say.

She has since become a flight attendant, flying to Europe and Asia for work. She is also a professional musician, playing violin with an orchestra in New Mexico. She looks nice. But I don't think I'll friend her on Facebook - if she remembers me at all, it might not be with fondness.

Neither of us, however, was a loser-y as poor, bless his heart, Ryan W. He was kinda funny looking. He was skinny. And meek. Had a runny nose. Was not a very good musician. OK, he was a horrible violinist. But that's no excuse to be cruel. Yet we were mean to him. We were awful to him. During school. At Tuesday night orchestra rehearsal.

To which I did not have to ride my bike because my parents didn't want me riding that far after dark. Cynthia's parents and mine took turns taking us to practice. Note: Rehearsal was not on Wednesday. No! When we were picking the night for rehearsal at the beginning of school, Miss Bonnington, the director, asked for suggestions. Someone suggested Thursday, but that wouldn't work because of basketball, etc. I finally raised my hand and suggested Wednesday, which nobody else seemed to have thought of, and every head in the room swiveled to look at me.

Miss Bonnington laughed and said not Wednesday. I asked why not.

The girl next to me hissed, "Because we have church on Wednesday night!"

I had never heard of Wednesday night church, but then, I was one of about ten people in town who weren't Baptist. Did you know that Baptists go to church on Wednesday night? I didn't. One day a week is enough for Catholics. It was sure enough for me. Two services a week would make me seriously consider converting.

We were mean to Ryan. So mean. Not physically, although he may have been beat up by other boys. In orchestra, we we beat him up with words and with the lack of words. Who wanted to talk to Ryan and be associated with him? He could do nothing but drag you down. It hurts me even now, 35 years later, to think of that poor kid, shunned and mocked by everyone else in school. I was only moderately uncool and moderately teased and I still remember it. He was tormented.

This is how bad it was:

One day in orchestra, Miss Bonnington sent Ryan to the office on an errand. She walked to the back of the room, closed the door, and returned to her stand. She looked at us, arms crossed, and didn't say a word.

Then she began speaking softly but emphatically.

I want you to quit being mean to Ryan, she said. Stop it. Stop it this minute. Quit picking on him. Quit teasing him. I am ashamed of you all. Ashamed!

The first violins, the second violins, the violas, the cellos and the bass all dropped their collective jaw. No teacher had ever spoken like that to us. Ever. Well, to me, anyhow. No teacher had ever scolded other students for how they treated another student. It hadn't happened up to that point and it didn't happen again after, either.

But it was her tone more than anything. She wasn't yelling at us, which would have been easy to defend against. Kids can tune out yelling easily.

She was calm, measured. She went for the "I expected better of you" tack, which is a far better method of shaming kids, at least children whom have been reared with a modicum of human decency. Who wants to feel that she has failed to live up to the standards set by someone she respects? We did know better. We knew we were wrong to tease Ryan so mercilessly. And we had done it anyhow.

There was not a sound from the students as she continued. We hung our heads in shame.

I don't remember what happened after that, although I would guess that after a short honeymoon, we slowly slipped back into our old, tribal, junior high ways. Ryan did not return to orchestra in 8th grade - you actually had to try out and he just couldn't play. I hope he is an internet millionaire somewhere, hanging out with his nerd internet millionaire friends and his sweet wife who loves him for the nice guy he probably was.


  1. There was a kid in my class in elementary school who was picked on mercilessly by my class. He must have moved after grade 6 because I don't remember him in jr high. Sometimes I think about it and I feel terrible about how we treated him (I personally don't remember doing anything "to" him, but I sure never did anything to defend him either). I was also low on the social totem pole, so I remember that feeling of "at least I'm above him". Anyway, a couple years ago, I ran into someone from my class, and she said she'd run into him recently, and turns out he's got a career and a family and he's happy.

    1. Oh good! A happy ending. I am happy to read this!