Whenever Mr. Banks, the art teacher, entered the classroom, my whole world became illuminated. He was the only teacher who made me feel valued. One time a pretty young lady named Miss Strauss came with him to class. She set up a record player to play music while Mr. Banks handed out our drawing materials. We were to draw whatever the music inspired in us. Some kids scribbled, some sat, unmoved, not knowing what to do. I drew a big bee hive with bees flying all around and lots of flowers. Because of this, I was chosen to participate in a new music program being offered to only a few. I couldn’t understand how drawing a picture of the bees qualified me for that special distinction and questioned Mr. Banks about it. His eyes twinkled as he reminded me of some aptitude tests previously given in which I had shown a gift for music.
“The drawing experience was just the icing on the cake.” He said. I wanted, so much, to tell him that he was my icing on the cake. But, I never did.
Shortly after that, I was given a violin and allowed to skip class two hours every Monday to attend the special lessons. I loved music, but I hated the squeaking sounds I produced on my instrument. So, I began to come to school on Monday mornings without it. I told Mrs. Rae, my sixth grade teacher, I had forgotten to bring it. She firmly said that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for exposure to the special classes and sent me downstairs to, at least, be in the room where the music was being taught. As it turned out, Miss Strauss, was the Music Teacher and she definitely did not feel there was any benefit for me to be present. She was disgusted with me for my lack of commitment to her program, and imperiously pointed me out of the room with instructions to report to the Principal’s office as punishment. Dutifully, I obeyed. It just so happened that Miss Johnson, the principal, was never there on Monday mornings. Her secretary, who was the mother of my friend, Cheryl, let me sit in Miss Johnson’s office until it was time to return to class. This went on week after week. I enjoyed getting out of regular class and was glad I didn’t have to stay in the room with Miss Strauss and the other “lucky virtuoso” students sitting through the squawking violin torture. Instead, I got to chat with Cheryl’s Mom and laugh at her funny stories.
When she had work to do, I listened to the classical music playing on Miss Johnson’s radio while I drew pictures. Sometimes, I poked around in her bookshelves investigating the latest on Childhood Education. As weeks went by, I grew a bit concerned, somewhat guilty, and very curious about how much longer the situation would continue. It was obvious to me that neither teacher was communicating with the other. And Cheryl’s mother apparently was keeping mum, or perhaps she was in the dark about the miscommunications. So, afraid of getting in trouble, I began to bring my violin to school again, even though I hadn’t practiced it. Mrs. Rae was very happy with me as she sent me off for my lessons. Miss Strauss, on the other hand, was not happy. I was so far behind the other children’s expertise in violin caterwauling, that she lost all patience with me. Every time I entered the music room with my violin in hand, Miss Strauss stopped me at the door.
“Did you practice this week? Do you know the piece we are working on?” I hadn’t. I didn’t. She wouldn’t even look at me. Just pointed. Obedient, yet perhaps a little bit smug, I headed for Miss Johnson’s office to enjoy my punishment! At the end of the allotted time, I went back upstairs with the other “music geniuses” and we all headed to our separate homeroom classes.
One warm lazy Monday, spring morning, I dawdled to school admiring all the daffodils along the way with the ever-heavy violin case whacking against my sore calf. I was surprised to see Mrs. Rae standing outside the door of school, arms folded across her ample bosom, high-heeled foot a-tapping. She scowled at me.
“Where have you been?” She didn’t really want an answer. “Get over here right now.” She grabbed my hand and pulled hard as she led me toward a big yellow bus full of kids I had never seen before. I balked, trying to hang back. I did not understand what was happening.
“Don’t give me a hard time, now, girl.” my teacher snapped. “You have held everyone back with your tardiness. Now, get on that bus and behave yourself. Make 79th Street School proud of you. Remember we will all be watching you.”
That made me feel really uncomfortable! I was so confused, I had no idea what she was talking about. Reluctantly, I entered the bus, climbed up the steps, awkwardly carried my lunch box, book bag, and violin with me.
“Give me THAT!” Mrs. Rae Barked as she held out her hand. Red faced with embarrassment, I began to hand her my violin.
“No, silly, I mean your book bag.” she said with a tight little smile, “You are not going to need that!” Then she scared me to death with the friendliest look I had ever seen on her face, as she said “ Don’t be so nervous. You will do fine.”
Suddenly I was overcome with a plethora of emotion, fear and trepidation beyond anything I had ever felt before., My body crawled with the cold fingers of shame. My mind locked down and froze with confusion. I was unable to move. The bus driver shut the door and revved up the engine.
“Go sit down!” He commanded. “I don’t have time to be waiting any longer for you.” The other children on the bus laughed. I hung my head and jolted my way to an empty seat as the bus swerved out onto the street. I could hear the bus driver mumbling under his breath as he raced through the traffic to take us to our destination while my stomach churned sickeningly whenever the bus lurched around another corner I could feel the other kids staring at me and was acutely aware that they were all dressed up in their Sunday best. And I was not. I just knew that all the talking, giggles and guffaws were about me. I kept my eyes downcast until the stinging in them began. I knew that if I started to cry, it would be the worse thing ever. So I moved over as close to the window as possible and glued my face to it looking out as far into the sky as I could see and imagined myself floating silently on a distant cloud, until the bus came to a stop in a big circular drive outside a large auditorium.
I didn’t recognize the building but I had a vague feeling that I had previously been in this part of the city, perhaps some years before, when my mother had taken me to visit my old playmate, Denise Fairchild. I hoped she would be around somewhere. Maybe I could ask her to take me to her house so I could call my Mom to come and get me. Obviously, there was some kind of terrible mistake!
The kids began to pile out of the bus. I waited until they were all gone and sat there quietly hoping the bus driver would realize the mistake and take me back to my school.
“Well, your highness,” He said, “Your pumpkin has arrived. You may disembark at your leisure!” I knew he was kidding and perhaps trying to make up to me for his curtness earlier, so I smiled politely, got up and headed down the aisle with my head up trying to play the part he suggested.
“Don’t forget your stuff!” He chided. I turned back and grabbed my violin, and my lunch box. A woman was standing in the open doorway of the bus. I was astounded! She looked exactly like Barbara Billingsly, the woman who played the mother on “Leave It to Beaver” on TV! I felt so disoriented, I began to think I was lost in the Twilight Zone.
“HURRY UP!” she commanded. I ran down the aisle and jumped out of the bus as she herded me and the other kids through a huge doorway, down a long hallway, up a winding staircase, until we came upon a stage filled with folding chairs,. It seemed the other kids knew exactly what they were doing and where they were supposed to sit. I hung back, dazed, confused, watching, and trying to figure out if I knew any of these kids.
The lady leaned toward me, “You’re from 79th Street School, aren’t you. Your group came way ahead of you. They’re sitting up near the front.” she said. “Come, let me show you.”
I had finally caught on! There must be some sort of performance! I tried to get her to listen to me. “But, I haven’t practiced!” I protested. “I don’t know the music. I don’t even know how to play the violin.”
“Nonsense! You’re going to do just fine,” she responded, as she guided me to my seat. She thought she was reassuring me. I was breaking out in a cold sweat! The other kids from my school turned and glared at me, just like Miss Strauss would have, then one by one, they lifted their noses and looked away. I wished Miss Strauss was there to point me to leave for my punishment. As soon as “Mrs. Cleaver” left, I got up and started toward the direction from which we came. She quickly interceded and put me back in my seat.
“Get your instrument out,” Beaver’s Mother admonished. “We’re about to begin!” The curtain opened as she slipped out of sight. The audience applauded as I, mortified, reached down to open my case. I picked up the violin, tucked it under my chin like the other kids and pretended to play along, as the whole group did a simple introductory piece. Again applause, and we all sat down. Then, small groups began to get up, go to the front of the stage, and play. I could see it was taking a normal progression, that my group would be coming up soon, and I could no longer contain what little shreds of dignity I had. The stinging in my eyes etched their way down my crimson cheeks. Tears careened off the tip of my chin. My body shook. Keeping my head low, I hunched down behind the student in front of me. I could only hope that no one in the audience would see me or, worse yet, be able to hear the strangled snuffling sound escaping from my tightly pursed lips.
Finally! During the next round of applause, Beav’s Mom scurried over, grabbed me, and quickly whisked me off stage, leaving my violin and lunchbox behind. I was so grateful I could have kissed her. But, by that time all I could do was great wracking, heaving, sobs. All the adults, packed like sardines backstage, opened a pathway for us. “Stage Fright” I heard someone whisper. I wanted to scream! They all looked upon me with great pity as she hurried me into the further recesses of the building.
She took me into a little room where she poked around until she came up with a box of tissues, gently wiping my eyes, encouraging me to blow and helping me to calm down. As far as I was concerned she was an Angel from heaven. I was very relieved when she had to leave me in the room by myself for a while. I was away from all the lights, noise, and attention. She discovered where Mrs. Rae was seated with the rest of my classmates and brought me to them. Mrs. Rae smiled and motioned for me to sit beside her. We sat through the rest of the performance, got on a bus and went back to 79th street school without my lunch box or my violin. Shortly after that, I took up listening to Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard and Bill Haley and the Comets. But, I still love Classical Music, especially if Itzhak Perlman is playing his violin.