When I was a kid, no one used backpacks. We just carried our books in our arms. So it wasn’t unusual to lose stuff on the way to or from school, or for parental forms to come home with wet dog-eared corners. On one such day, I handed a piece of white mimeographed paper to my mom, the top of the kitchen chair reaching just under my chin as I stood looking up at her hopefully.
She read the form and looked down at me. While shaking her head from side to side, she said, “Girl Scouts. You don’t want to do this, do you?”
That was my first experience with extracurricular activities.
The next was orchestra. Like I said, we didn’t have backpacks, so if you didn’t want your parents to find something, you couldn’t crumple it up and hide it in the bottom. My mom discovered the notice as I was doing my homework at the dining room table. Her face turned dreamy as she said, “Oh, Orchestra! Wouldn’t you like to play the cello?”
Indeed, I had never given a passing thought to the cello. Suddenly, I was getting the vibe that this would make my mother happy, and so I nodded yes.
The cello made my life a living hell. Firstly, unlike the Girl Scout form that I handed to her the minute I arrived through the door, this one had been in my math book for a while and, as such, was the last in my class to be turned in. The orchestra director was a little disappointed at the late submission, but when my mother assured him I could already read music, he accepted my form.
The school was able to find one last cello, presumably from the thrift store, riddled with scratches and graffiti from previous orchestra drop-outs. I wish I had a nickel for every kid who asked me in horror, “What did you do to your cello?”
My social life needed all the help it could get. Sitting on the bus next to a 4-foot instrument didn’t do me any favors. I envied the girls with the cute little flute cases, their hair impeccably braided. Not only did I suffer the slings and arrows of mean-hearted boys, and the sidewise glances from flute-cased girls, no room remained for my closest defenders to sit next to me. Alone in my seat, arm draped grudgingly around the awkward luggage, I intently engaged the changing landscape out the frosted window.
Practice was torture. I knew my parents were out in the living room laughing. I could see their stifled grins when they stopped in to my bedroom to tell me how good I sounded. Even as a kid I recognized a snow job. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star never screeched so bad. Forced to form new unwanted callouses, my fingers burned.
Rehearsals were embarrassing. Anyone knows that the better one likes a thing, the easier it is to learn. Mom was right — I did know how to read music. But reading it and applying it to an instrument takes devotion. I was more determined to find a way out of it than to learn it. It didn’t take long for me to realize I couldn’t blend in. The director had a keen ear for the kids who played the wrong notes. Lucky for him, I learned how to fake it.
After our first concert, Mom said, “You sounded so great!” I replied, “You couldn’t hear me.” “Yes I could,” she encouraged. Another snow job.
“No, you couldn’t,” I explained, “because I wasn’t playing.” As it turns out, it was easier for me to learn how to move my bow left and right at the same time as everyone else than it was to play the thing. I’d hold my bow just above the strings, so as not to make that awful screeching sound. And being able to read music, I knew when to turn the page, further corroborating my own personal performance. I may have failed at the cello, but my acting performance was remarkable.
The next week she asked if there was something I’d rather play than the cello. I wanted to be in band. I wanted a clarinet, or maybe a flute. “Really?” Mom asked in disbelief. I nodded emphatically and my mother went to the school office and asked for the appropriate paperwork.
She dropped me off early the next morning with the completed form and signed check in hand. The band door was open, the teacher rustling through papers with his back to me. I handed him the envelope buoyantly. I still remember my excitement.
But it was too late. The other kids were a year ahead of me. There was no way he’d let me join unless I was able to take private lessons and catch up to the rest of the band. Even then I held out hope. I had taken private music lessons before. It was hard work, but I thought I could do it.
Unfortunately, it just never came to fruition. Whether my parents were too busy, or I found other interests, or they distracted me by signing me up for bowling and golf and more organ lessons, it just never happened.
Some memories make your heart warm. Some make it weep. We live them and then learn from them and then go on to choose what today will be. We do our best as parents and hope the love we spent was enough to balance the times we broke their hearts. Fortunately for me, the abundance of love I received more than made up for any misdirected parental form.