Do Our Early Seminal Moments Define Us Outright, Or As We Age, Do We Reconstitute Our Narrative to Fit Our Most Recent Version of Who We Are?
She stood ever-so-elegantly on a rickety wooden chair, her slender arms reaching out to the top left corner of another Duck and Cover poster where she applied a circular metallic tack. Rather kooky it all seemed to me as an award-winning third-grade teacher who was the very watercolor painting of late-1960s groovy decorated our classroom with the Gigantor-sized message of deceit (I just learned that word). Like an older child’s clothes boxed up for a younger sibling. stuff got handed down from above. This Bert the Turtle fairy tale featuring the bright flash that “might come without warning” was placed in her hands from Mr. Chadwell who received it from the county and state and as she taught us everything having to do with stupid (my word, not hers) war starts from that place in Washington, D.C. called the Department of Defense. But even at age nine (I’m the oldest in the class, okay?), I had to question how ridiculous it’d be to believe any single one of us would not be sizzled like Creepy Crawlers during a nuclear explosion. Jeez, okay, so I watched lots of science fiction movies and I read scary comic books. But, c’mon, really?
“Sandy,” she asked, “could you please hold the bottom of the poster as straight as you can while I do the other corner?”
“Sure bet!” I proudly exclaimed, knowing that having this special job was one I could blab all about to my older brother. He was her student two years ago and was always being sent to see the principal. “It looks swell from here, Miss Schaeffer.”
“Thank you, sweetheart.”
As I observed the way she gracefully descended, every strawberry strand of blonde hair properly held together. Probably by Nice n’ Easy. You know, “The closer he gets, the better you look.” I thought about how much I wish I looked like her. Boys never seemed to want to get close to me.
“Yes, Sandy, we make a terrific team!” she smiled at me, in that way she only did for me. I’d began using the word “terrific.” Using better adjectives made my book reports and stories more interesting, and she’d always draw smiley faces next to those. Sometimes even stickers! With her arm around my shoulder, brushing against the snaps of my overalls, she whispered in my ear. As she instructed, I quickly raced to get another box of tacks. When I returned, Miss Schaeffer had taken a few steps back and was lost in thought gazing up at the evil paper warning. Even I can be bossy and loud but I knew when to keep silent. Where she disappeared to I could only guess.
Wednesday after school
“Well it is so terrific to see all of your shining, smiling faces this afternoon!” she announced with an enthusiasm that was infectionist. That guitar with its shiny wood so smooth and mysterious rested on its stand to the side of her. Soon I knew most of the kids would be playing tambourines, recorders, bongos, maracas, castanets, and one boy, Early, (what a weirdo name), actually played piano pretty good. We sat in a semi-circle. Her on a stool. Most of the boys pushed and shoved in order to get as close to Miss Schaeffer as possible. And good gosh did they stink! All day long, playing dodgeball and handball and I’m sure none of them took showers except maybe on the weekend. Next to me were my best friends Carrie and Betsy, and they smelled just fine. I hoped I did too, but I had to go bad today after lunch.
It’d been back in the fall when she’d announced this afterschool music program. Attendance was voluntary and those who wanted to join didn’t have to come every week. A funny thing happened. Everyone came! Unless you were barfing or something gross or you were at the dentist or on vacation you didn’t want to miss out on the singing. I haven’t missed one Wednesday. Pretty proud if I say so myself. Her ground rules were simple. Everyone sings. And everyone is required to have fun! Easy-peasy.
Oh double good gosh when she began strumming the autoharp for just the slightest of seconds the room’s chatter died down. I’d get this chill. All around me were eager sets of eyes, wide open, hypnotized, red with a sty (gross), some even closed as their heads swayed like those hippies at the Summer of Love we saw last year on TV. Other than those cool flower children, I believed music found its way into children’s hearts much faster. Most adults were blind to it all wrapped up in their this and that. Another reason I found most of them so boring. Except of course for Miss S. She shared a secret with me about this back in January. Her purpose was to provide a place not only for everyone to shine, but for the shy kids, the angry kids, the kids whose parents got divorced (which was happening more and more), the class clowns (we had a buncha those), the new kids and the loners. Yes, we had those too. I tried with Sylvia but got nowhere.
Its strings made no sense to me really. How on earth could wires tightened around tuning pins produce such pretty sounds? Like a piano she taught us. She even opened up the old upright to see how similar they were. Its shape did make sense!
Like a rectangle with a corner of wood sliced out of it. Five-sided like a pentagon but not the shape of home plate. At first professional musicians strummed it on a flat surface like a table. Recently that changed. Now she stood it up against her body like she was hugging it! I bet those idiotic boys wished they were the autoharp but ha-ha you’re not! Miss Schaeffer would strum chords with her dominant right hand and play the chord buttons with her left.
If I sat close enough I could see which buttons she’d press. They were like those drawings in caves or on ancient Greek pottery. I can’t remember the word. Hyro something. There was a Gm, a C7, an F. At first we girls were just so excited to have something to be part of that didn’t involve stupid math or making volcanoes erupt. Everyone was talking about keeping up with the rushens. Made no sense to me. I just wanted to listen to beautiful noise. Later I was more familiar with matching the chords with their sound. Like those lame matching cinnamon worksheets that we did.
It was kinda like my ear was being tested. No not like that spooky machine with the squeaky tones where we get our hearing tested! Miss S. called them pergreshens. That was a series of chords that’d usually repeat. I’d listen for them as we sang “Marching to Pretoria,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Kumbaya.”
I knew then that I was in love with music. I would take piano lessons. I was gonna write songs like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. Take that, Early. Everyone needs their own thing. A way to stand out. Thanks to my teacher how could I not give it a try? Next year I would come and visit her, and play the piano and show her what I learned. Maybe she’d even play along with me!
Miss Schaeffer once told the class that teaching is a calling. I wasn’t sure what it meant until she made a comparison to ice cream. When you go into Baskin-Robbins couldn’t you just hear the mint chip calling out your name to have a scoop?! Okay so we all figured that certain things in life you just can’t resist. For her it is working with kids. Good gosh she can have it! But more important for me was my calling. Music. I’ve already been told I have a nice voice. (Let’s see, my parents, my best friends, Early, yes Early, my Aunt Bernice, the bus driver Mr. Ward, and of course Miss S.) It doesn’t hurt that at home I sing along with The Supremes in front of the mirror with my hairbrush as a microphone. The glass hasn’t shattered yet. Ha-ha. I’ve tried all the rhythm instruments. Miss Schaeffer is impressed with how good I do at keeping time. Sounds like it’s time to get some mint chip.
Really Sandy what are you gonna do? For a week or so, I’ve kept my secret from Carrie and Betsy. When we were given the news I was heartbroken. Not like those dumb boys. And even though I like most of the girls none of them knows Miss S. like I do. I’m not gonna go to her. She can talk to me. Or not. Just when everything was going my way.
Life isn’t fair.
Even before I had secured it along with most of my belongings in the storage unit, I rarely played the Yamaha. One of its keys was damaged. I procrastinated, as usual, with tuning. The pedals always needed realignment. For years I just became habituated to striking the keys along with stomping down on the sustain pedal. Sometimes I felt the piano was alive, situated in its corner belittling me. You call yourself a musician? She had every reason to call me on it. Thousands of dollars and endless hours spent, playing in clubs where there were more bowls of pretzels than dancers and fans. Demos, recording sessions, contests, cold calls, warm calls, friends in the biz who couldn’t (or wouldn’t help), photo sessions, conferences, royalty statements under fifty dollars, meetings with publishers, A & R men (always, men), websites, social media, my performing rights organization with its team who shut me down because one word in one line of a lyric needed to be changed (and it had to be perfect if they were to pitch it), and when I was younger there was a bullshit agent who “represented” me only to get into my pants. Cliché city, God I know.
What sickens me more than the business of music’s ugly underbelly was how often I heard that my songs were really great. Those words. If so, why wouldn’t they put one on hold, or shop it around, or sign it on spec? Something? Anything? Yes, thank you, Todd Rundgren. Two were published, co-written in fact, which taught me about how important it was to get outside myself, my habits, my predispositions when writing at or away from my instrument. However, when I hold up my catalog of over six-hundred songs and another one-hundred or so instrumental pieces, the results are, in a word, pathetic.
I still do get dollars and cents from Australia. Big whoop.
Often, Carrie gets riled over my whining and reminds me that my music has touched many lives. She cites several of my own personal favorites I’d written that brought tears to her still-beautiful face. You won’t get the same altruistic, sympathetic ear from my ex, a man once so loving and adoring who blamed so much of our marriage’s failure on my failure. How not being successful was the stinky elephant trumpeting through the room (dining, den, bath, bed). Moodiness was my typical state. After we agreed to forgo children of our own, my grump factor multiplied exponentially. His exit strategy was already playing out in the arms of a woman he met in a book group. Really? Why is it that men who want to end a marriage don’t just get down on one knee like they did at the beginning? Instead of asking for your hand, they ask to be set free. I’m down with that. Show me the respect. I can live with that. Then go out and have your second adolescence.
Meanwhile, my family of Pollyanna’s, ever supportive, would make statements like, “It’s okay, honey, even if you reach one person with your music, that’s success.” Man. Success and me? Not really tight. Apparently, we never were meant to be. All the trite adages about aiming high. Here’s a goodie, from the film Diner: “If you don’t have good dreams, Bagel, you got nightmares.” Just choose one pithy one or another. Truth is, very few human entities get to the hallowed land. That’s the order of things. That’s how it’s s’posed to be. If it were so easy, there wouldn’t be any actual talent anymore. Our ears would become saturated with sonic garbage. Oh, wait, that’s what Pro Tools and social media have done.
One of the last songs^ I wrote was this. Here’s a verse and a chorus:
Everything you do each day, an attempt to find your voice
All the years pursuing this as if you had a choice
Maybe you might come to terms and look it in the eye
Some things you’re not meant to do, you only get to try
Shut the door and pull the blinds
There’s just one place to go
Playing songs nobody else will know
How many times I heard those in positions of power say, “This is good. Now bring me ‘great.’” So, I did (no, I didn’t bring them great). I lived my lyric. I came to terms. Like the flip of a switch. I have not written a song in three years. That’s unheard of since I was fifteen. By that time, I’d never had a teacher quite like her. Never did after, either.
I suppose you could say, if music was my calling, there has never been anyone on the other end of the line. The whole thing just blew up in my face.
Addendum: Miss Schaeffer left us for a man. My entire year with her, unbeknownst to we students, they had dated. As June approached, they both realized engagement was inevitable. The only catch was he was beginning his new career in New York. She, a teacher, could work anywhere. That’s when she announced she was leaving. She never took me aside, put her arm around me, and whispered goodbye. Her last day we threw her a party. And then she was gone. However, as crabby as I was those last few weeks, her magic remained. My parents bought me my first piano, a Baldwin spinet, and by the next spring, I was playing my first recital.
How could I not be a success?
^ “Songs” © 2008 Gavin Lakin, Every Now and Then Music, All Rights Reserved.