On Being the Audience

I grew up on the stage, playing my first violin recital at age three. I vaguely remember the corsage on my shoulder being bigger than my face at the time, and that I got a white ribbon afterward.  Everything else is a blank–including what I played, which was likely three notes.

At six, I switched to the cello.  From then on I performed, year after year, in venues as diverse as they were plentiful.  It got to be a thing where I felt a little nervous before a performance, sometimes, but usually only if I found myself queued up in an endless stretch of fellow recital-bots.

Weddings, office parties, tours?  Not so much.

It was probably good for me to have started so young, to have learned from an early age how to use the energy we call nerves instead of letting it use me.  There were crash-and-burn moments, of course, when my bow hand shook so violently it cut audibly anxious paths across my strings. But in time I got less nervous about getting nervous.  Or else I got numb.

Flash forward.

My kids started taking piano lessons this semester.  For one reason or another, my husband and I did not emphasize formal musical instruction with them for several years.  For one thing, we wanted to see if they actually wanted to put the time in to practice before we made the commitment.  We homeschool, and practicing an instrument felt like one more thing we’d have to “encourage” if it didn’t go well.  Then there was the fact that we lived for three years in a remote place where we couldn’t secure music lessons.

But we’re in the States now, and they really wanted to learn how to play the piano, so we let them.  The only problem is that they’re 14, 13, and 11.5–old enough to be self-conscious.  So I had no idea how they were going to handle their upcoming recital.

Who am I kidding?  I had no idea how I was going to handle it.

In the end, they did very well, though my daughter was shaking so bad she had to steady her hands before she began her piece.  They didn’t crack under pressure, didn’t goof up, didn’t get up and walk out, or nervous-burp, or barf.  Believe me when I say that those things are fairly common, and that I’ve seen enough recital train wrecks to have lost my innocence forever.

So they played while I cried in the audience like some kind of unstable Tiger Mom.  And, yeah, I aged a couple of years.  But the thing I learned is, they’re really going to be OK, after all.

And so am I.

No Room in the Inn: Why High School is No Place for Weirdos

weirdo, n.

1. A person who is considered strange to other people. One who may do strange things can be considered a “weirdo”.
2. A non-conformist who does not follow trends or a subculture.  Urban Dictionary

There’s no room for weirdos in America’s high schools. They exist, of course, but they aren’t welcome. I sensed it the moment I stepped through the front doors of the small town school I’d attend for the next four years. I was a transplant from another state and I’d been warned that I had several strikes against me. I talked with a Midwestern accent, for one thing. Then there was my upbringing. I’d traveled a fair bit, played the cello, cried to Rachmaninoff. I used two-dollar words, was unselfconscious. That last part would change.

I don’t know about other people’s schools. I hear that some students don’t feel like they’re in prison all day, or maybe it’s more accurate to say that they feel like the meals and the workout equipment make their jail time bearable. Whatever. I’m not here to argue with the jocks and the cheerleaders. If they like things the way they are, so be it. But what happens if you’re fat or pimply or strange?

We all know.

At the very least you sit at a table by yourself during lunch. In fact, this is small potatoes compared to what could happen to you and you figure that out soon. So then sitting alone surrounded by shiny-haired kids with good teeth starts to seem acceptable—like it’s the least bad thing that could happen to you and, by comparison, you’re kind-of thankful.

I was strange in an OK way. It didn’t feel like that at first but I came to see that I had it pretty good, all things considered. I mean, people didn’t really like or understand me but they left me alone, too. I managed to scrape together a few unlikely friends eventually, so I didn’t have to eat my sack lunch alone for more than a few weeks at the beginning of my freshman year. I always knew, however, that there was a Cold War on at our school. You could feel it. I knew that there were kids getting the treatment and it sobered me.

There was this guy in my classes. He was strange in a bad way, according to the social elites. He wore black clothes back before they became an organized statement. His hair was greasy and lank. Even I was grossed out. I don’t know why he refused to wash it. He’d let it grow long and some of the smart kids called him Jesus. He had zits and that was nothing new, only his kind left scars and made weird patterns along his jawline. The thing is he acted weird, too, and I kind-of thought he did it on purpose. He muttered to himself and had shifty eyes. They were Alaskan husky eyes, the lightest blue, deep set in a swarthy face. His zit scars were bluish. I felt bad about that.

He and I were in typing class together along with several other students of various backgrounds. Truth is, none of our backgrounds meant anything. The real divisions were Popular Kids and Everyone Else. Like I said, I wasn’t popular but I was pretty and kept my head down. I’d made my peace with being on the upper end of Everyone Else. Randy, however, was on the lower end. The lowest were the special ed. kids, which is what they used to be before they were differently-abled, special needs, and finally just special. He wasn’t quite that low but then, in some ways, he had it worse than they did. The special eds could swear in the middle of home room and no one batted an eye. They ran up and down the hallways sometimes, pants half down, drinking sloppily from a water fountain I’d reminded myself never to use. Randy couldn’t show up in a classroom without someone saying something.

It was a Thursday after lunch and we’d all filed in to typing class hoping that our instructor was distracted and bored, as he so often was. We plopped down in our seats and booted up our computers. I slid my backpack under my seat and took a minute to stare into space. The day was almost over. The school week, too. I’d have a couple of days to detox before it all started over.

As my computer came to life a green message popped up on the screen accompanied by a beeping sound. It read: Randy has sex with his mother. I stared for a moment as a sick feeling filled my stomach. I heard laughter and leaned back to look at the computer screen of the person behind me. She was an Everyone Else but she had sex with a lot of boys so she could sort of do what she wanted as long as it didn’t involve self-respect. The message was on her screen, too.

I leaned forward. I knew immediately who was sending the messages. It was a stupid football player who looked like Matt Damon. He was laughing uproariously behind a balled-up fist. He rocked back and forth in a chair that looked too small to hold him. I thought of a gorilla I’d seen at the Nashville zoo. Another message: Randy’s mom does him all night long. She wanted me, too, but I don’t have sex with whores. More laughter.

I’d been raised to value people, to stand up for the underdog. In that moment I had every chance to say something as Randy sat there, humiliated and growling like a junkyard dog. It wouldn’t have done any good but I could have. I should have. Instead I looked around the room at all the blank, merry faces. I let my eyes flick to Randy’s face but I had to look away again fast.

We’re all strange in our own ways. But the real problem is the cruelty and cowardice that exist in all of us. They were in me that day and I had to face it. Randy was a weirdo and there’s no place for weirdos in high school. And, sadly, hatred isn’t strange at all.