This past summer I attended a concert in honor of a person who profoundly influenced my life—my high school band director, Tom Kessler. He was the kind of teacher who educated the “whole student,” and though I suspect he originally planned to stay a few years on his way to another gig, he’s there today, inspiring students just like me, which is good for every kid who passes through that door.
He transformed the band program from a couple of classes into an institution. Everyone who was anyone in that town had something to do with the high school music program, and it became the very definition of “cool.”
I, however, was not cool. I was a walking anachronism. I floated around the 80’s in Jim Morrison flowered dresses listening to Bob Dylan and Loudon Wainwright III, playing Peter, Paul, and Mary, Simon & Garfunkel and The Who. I portaged my guitar up and down the hills to and from school so I could crack it open for a few moments before and after school—more for show than for the musical benefit of my audience—playing “meaningful” coffeehouse tunes like a self-proclaimed Joan Baez.
On a cheery day, I’d break out the Phil Ochs and play serious protest music, never minding that Ochs himself never really beat The Man. My favorite leftist socialist revolutionary went crazy, became homeless, and hanged himself in a fit of bipolar angst. I hoped I could be more effective than that in changing the world.
I wanted to be a musician, but there was one problem. I sucked. I was completely untrained, and I was not in a fiscal position to aspire to such training. Out of kindness, Kessler, who commanded one name, like Cher or Madonna, gave me an instrument—a bassoon. After a couple of days of my practicing El Condor Pasa, someone called the Department of Environmental Management to report a disturbance in the local moose population, so I switched to clarinet.
I was Third Chair Third Clarinet, only because lesser-skilled fourth and fifth clarinets do not exist. I worked hard. Most third clarinetist I met did not work hard or practice. That is how they remained third clarinets. In our group, they were routinely slumping over eating Doritos or passing notes instead of taking home their music to practice.
I, however, was different. I was not an uninspired Dorito-eating note-passing nonpracticer. I played, I suffered, worked hard, and toiled. I went on band trips, where I was repeatedly ditched by the girl who channeled the inner mean in crowds otherwise destined to be nonchalant or even kind to the socially less fortunate. And I became stronger. I was determined to be cooler, better, and more famous than these people, despite the fact they had been “properly trained.” I would march in bands, I would write songs proclaiming my own greatness at the expense of the People I Didn’t Like, and I would use my music to achieve world peace. Arabs and Israelis would hug while listening to me, and the Cold War would end. I would walk around in all my folk musician glory, playing guitars with flowered straps, wearing my Salvation Army India cotton tunics, regrowing my straight chestnut Joni Mitchell hair from the Age of Aquarius perm I had suffered while trying desperately to fit in.
No longer would I merely fit in. I would transcend. And someday, in their lives of quiet desperation, The People I Didn’t Like would in fact, rue the day they ignored my greatness. And so…I determined…I…must become famous. Not because I cared about fame. I didn’t. By definition, self-proclaimed folk musicians are compelled to remain aloof and unapproachable. Fame is only acceptable as a public soapbox to deflect ones’ inner angst at the injustices of the world, or as an interlude to drinking oneself half to death while being unable to solve problems that never affected us to begin with. I was going to correct the greatest social injustice of all by leaving my detractors in the dust.
In many ways, I have done so, and have passed those lessons on to the students I now teach. Yesterday, as a matter of fact, I wedged myself in on a roundtable discussion on the topic of “She’s a ho,” getting to essence of high school life with five very great kids, looking for some better solutions. We talked and uncovered reasons for high school drama, and for a brief moment, I was able to travel in my time machine back and forth to my own high school failures and oppression being a human illustration of “It Gets Better.” For all of us. Because our failures “back then” are a drop in the bucket of the universe, inconsequential except for the lessons they provide us, lessons on how to succeed later on.
It took me decades to laugh at some of those lessons, and now that I had passed them on, they had fulfilled their destiny. But at the time, I had no knowledge of any of this. I just wanted to be a musician. And I was determined to carry on… (to be continued).