Friday, October 28, 2011

Seventh Grade

When I entered junior high, I was five-foot-two and 128 pounds. Whenever we shopped for cloths at the Sears in Oak Brook, my mom always directed me to the "husky" section. I might have been twelve, but I knew that "husky" was code for "fat". I longed to shop in some other section at Sears.

Edison junior high school had students from several grade schools and I was glad to be in a new mix of people. My life at Whittier Elementary School in Wheaton, Illinois had been, for lack of a better word, terrible.

In the summer after third grade, my dad was transferred from Holmdel, New Jersey to Naperville, Illinois. We moved from a street where almost every household had kids my age to one where it was just my brother and me. I knew this for a fact because I'd gone from door to door asking people if they had any kids my age. As the summer dragged on, I couldn't wait for school to start.

First day of school, I got up early (read four o'clock) and put on the new clothes that my mom and I had bought at Sears the previous Saturday (yes, we were in the "husky" section). I got together all my school stuff and sat in the kitchen organizing pencils and watching the clock.

It was pretty much downhill from there (all the way through sixth grade). In addition to being husky, my mom insisted me having a crew-cut (a haircut you could "comb with a washcloth") and wearing cloths that were "practical". In addition to being about as uncool as a fourth-grader could be, I was slow and uncoordinated, I had a funny accent (I'd never known I had an accent), and (perhaps most significantly) I had this compulsion to say whatever I was thinking (no matter how many times it got me beat up).

I think my crowning moment in sports was being beaten in the fifty-yard dash by Scott Wilson, a kid who regularly needed special breathing apparatus due to his chronic asthma.

By seventh grade, I was desperate for something to change, but I had no idea what let alone a plan. My mom and I had reached a compromise on my haircut, the "princeton". Basically, it was a crewcut with bangs. My cloths weren't much better, if at all, and, well, I was still husky.

The thing going in my favor was the junior high band program ran every day. This meant that all the band students were in the same class. While other kids were in art or shop or home-ec classes, we had band. Band was the one thing I was good at, and while my ability to play saxophone didn't completely makeup for all my other twelve-year-old failings, I at least felt confident when I was in band.

Edison Junior High had both seventh grade and eighth grade classes. Band was the only class where eighth-graders and seventh-graders were together. The first week of band, we had auditions for positions in our various sections: first chair, second chair, third chair, etc. In almost all instances, the eighth-graders were in the top positions (after all, their musical experiences were nearly twice as long as those of the seventh graders).

Waiting outside the band director's office with the rest of the sax section, I begin explaining to Barbara (another seventh-grade tenor sax player) what I'm going to do after I get first chair. It hasn't occurred to me that any other outcome is possible. It also hasn't occurred to me that someone might perceive my presumption as presumptuous. What I'm thinking is her listening patiently is simply the dumbness of her disbelief. After a bit, I stop talking and she finds words.

This kid talks about being first chair as if he knows he's going to get it. Can you believe that? What an idiot.

I look around at the other saxophone players who looked peeved but at least not the type to beat you up after school.

What makes you think that you're so great. Who made you king. How do you know you're not going to be last chair.

I don't know what to say. I've never heard any of the other kids play. Why do I think that I'll be first chair? I'm not thinking that I'll be first chair, I know it.

Well, I guess I thought I'd be first chair this year because I was first chair in the eighth-grade band last year.

How could you be first chair in the eight grade band last year? You were only in sixth-grade and we don't even have an eighth-grade band.

Well, not any more. But last year they had separate seventh-grade and eighth-grade bands and Mr Fridley had me come here every morning to play with the eighth-grade band. When we had auditions, I ended up being the first chair.

Sure you did kid. Sure you did.

The taunting and teasing continue pretty much until Mr Bloomer, the new band director opens the door to his office and asks Tim Gosling to come in.

The conversation shifts. I sit quietly trying not to draw any attention. As each kid auditions, I listen. I mutter to myself. She should be using the alternate B-flat fingering for the chromatic scale. Who do I think I am. Wow, that low D was really sharp. How do I know I'm going to be first chair. He missed the E-flat in his chromatic scale. They probably all hate me.

The door opens and Mr Bloomer points to me. I walk in and sit down in front of the music stand he has for site reading.

Before we start the standard audition, I ask each student to play something that he likes to play so I can get a sense of who he is musically. So please play something that you like, something that you feel good about playing. Please try not to be nervous, this is not officially part of the audition.

I think of what to play, apparently for a while.

Mark, please don't be nervous. You can play anything you like, even if you don't know all of it.

Well, I've been working on this one piece, but it's something that was written for the flute so I had to transpose it. I'm pretty sure I know it all now.

You've learned about transposition. That's terrific. Why don't you play what you've been working on. I understand it's a work in progress.

OK, but I can't play it up to speed yet.

That's fine.

I put the horn to my mouth and launch into "The Flight of the Bumblebee" which technically should played at 160 BPM, but which I had only got to 140 BPM. As I play, I close my eyes visualizing the notes. I forget about the other kids. I forget about Mr Bloomer. I just play.

When I stop and open my eyes, Mr Bloomer is looking at me but not saying anything.

Like I said, I can't play it up to speed yet.

Mr Fridley had mentioned to me that you played in the eighth grade band last year. You play quite well.

I know.

Uh huh. Well, I don't think I need to hear any more. Thank you, Mark.

Oh. OK.

When Mr Bloomer opens the door, all the kids are standing at his window that opens to the hallway trying to see through the blinds.

No one says anything.

By the end of eighth grade, I was still 128 pounds, but I was nearly five-foot-ten. I'd finally won the battle with my mom for haircut and clothing decisions and I'd learned how to run. I still had a problem with saying whatever I was thinking, but in band, people seemed to just accept that as part of who I was.

Happy Friday,

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