In middle school, one had the option of signing up for band, choir, or a rotating schedule of different electives. Though I had a strong voice, I always found the arrangements that choral members had to sing extremely silly and hackneyed. None of the electives offered seemed especially interesting. I didn’t care much for art class or whatever home economics had been renamed.
My decision had been made a couple years prior, though I didn’t know it then. Precocious as always, I’d watched a PBS documentary on 19th Century superstar John Phillip Sousa late one night. Instantly fascinated by the music and its construction, I scoured the local record store for a cassette tape of Sousa marches. They had approximately one in stock.
For months, my parents and siblings were forced to listen to the same military march recordings on car trips. My mother, exasperated, eventually put an end to the practice. I nonetheless would retain a lasting interest. Though I knew little to nothing about what band entailed, I was eager to challenge myself and do something different.
The first week of seventh grade band practice established what instrument one would play. Everyone went through the same process. First, I was handed the mouth piece of a trumpet, to see if I could buzz my lips well enough to produce the desired sound. I could not. Next, I was given a clarinet's mouthpiece to see if I could manage the wooden reed without producing atonal squeaking and squawking. Again, I could not.
Those unable to play brass or woodwind instruments were consigned to percussion. In some ways, percussion was the holding pen for the untalented and uncommitted. But in the meantime, I was given a rhythm test, which I passed with flying colors, missing a perfect score by only one point. I would be a snare drummer, and with time, a first chair snare drummer. I’m afraid I wasn’t always able to enjoy the distinction.
The others in my section were the hyperactive, nihilistic kinds. They weren’t especially interested in achievement, but they surely did enjoy breaking things. While the director was busy working on a particularly exacting section of a piece with the rest of the band, two of my fellow percussionists decided to completely destroy a cymbal. Eventually they managed a large crack by repeatedly bashing it with drumsticks.
They would also destroy their practice pads with time, large black plastic inventions that, when laid across the head of the drum, muffled the sound. Theoretically, they enabled one to practice in places where one needed to be quiet and understated, rather than prominent. Resorting once again to their favored tool of destruction, drumsticks were used to gash slits into the edges of the pad. Eventually, the whole thing came apart in a series of slashing rips, leaving behind only the solid, heavy center.
They were all snotty, rebellious, and cliquey. I was never going to be one of them, but I was their most convenient and frequent target. I was, without meaning to be, the goody-two-shoes of the drum section. Quickly, I learned how to read rhythm well and to understand the notation. Because they play no musical notes, percussionists only learn half of what a trombonist, for example, has to commit to memory.
Other percussionists had no such drive, and inevitably played the least challenging parts, often on the bass drum. In some sections of the band, there was competition for first chair, but not here. I was the only person who honestly cared, and that made me first chair by default. Sometimes I felt like the long-suffering mother, because I made copies for every one of the songs we tackled during daily practice. They’d never do these sorts of things for themselves.
Until then, I’d never been picked on and bullied more than occasionally. An easy target, due to my work ethic, I was subject to ridicule during every band class. The clothes I wore were mocked, as was my eagerness to follow the rules. Because I was already inclined to beat myself up with frequency, due to the anxiety disorder, their words only reinforced the way I felt about myself. It would get better, but not for a while.
The conductor was a woman of middle age who had no patience for idle chit-chat. Her job required her to manage hyperactive young teenagers and she always seemed at the absolute end of her rope. She constantly repeated the same phrase: Please stop talking! I wish she’d been more attentive to what was going on at the back of the room, where eight drummers sat, their drum kits set up and adjusted to the desired height.
Had I not experienced rough treatment at an earlier time in life, this aggressive bullying would have been more traumatic. I had been initiated into a culture of violence and no longer questioned why I’d receive abuse like this. These sorts of things had to be endured, like it or not, which was why I didn’t speak up at the time. If I had, I knew that they’d retaliate, which would only make it worse. I decided that ignoring them outright was the best strategy.
As children, we repeated the same nursery rhymes, the ones dusted off and reintroduced by every generation. Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me. I know I voiced that old saying a time or two in childhood. But I was only trying to comfort myself. Words do hurt and not just a little, either. I was told later to excuse this psychological abuse as idle teasing, this by the perpetrators. No one should be forced to play the role of punching bag for any reason, regardless of how it is justified.
I suppose what I never understood is why I was such a compulsive interest to them. Nothing about who they were or what they believed was appealing to me in the least. They were all too often the problem kids, the ones summoned shortly after lunch to the nurse’s station, so that they might take their Ritalin. Did they envy me somehow? If they did, that was news to me.
Whatever their motives were, they themselves and their attitudes remained mysterious and incomprehensible. One or two became borderline criminals later in life, or at least total losers. The most persistently hurtful one has gained so much weight that he now looks like an ogre. He’s never really gotten his life together and has served time in jail. The one woman in the group at the end of the year at least tried to excuse her behavior inside the pages of my year book. You knew I was just kidding, right? It certainly didn’t feel like kidding.