Time flies. Two years ago this summer, New Times teamed up with Valley Bar to create a monthly live reading series. Our tagline: True Stories. And Drinks. We’ve lived up to that, with more than two dozen shows on the books — and documented in our podcast, available for free on the iTunes store. For information about upcoming shows, or to find out how to participate, visit barfliesaz.com. This week, we are sharing three of our all-time favorite Bar Flies stories, each touching on the theme “Back to School.”
There are all kinds of people in my family. There’s a much-talked-about rocket scientist and some less-talked-about ex-cons. A handful of accountants, a small number of gamblers. A former teacher, a current stripper, some retired construction workers, and more real estate agents than you can wave a “For Sale” sign at ...
But there’s one thing that you will not find in my gene pool.
As a family, we like music, sure. But we’ve never been so inclined as to get off the couch and learn a new skill set for it.
I mean, I found a guitar in my dad’s house when I was little. But I never saw him play it. My mom dated a guy in a band once. But then things went south, he left dead frogs on her windshield and, well, yeah, it kind of turned her off to the whole musician thing.
The closest I myself have ever come to making music with a wind instrument was that time I realized I couldn’t digest bell peppers. Point is, we do not read music, nor do we play music.
But you try explaining that to the Scottsdale Unified School District when you are 9 years old.
When you are in the fourth grade at Cherokee Elementary, you are required to take one of the following electives: choir, orchestra, or band. I was indifferent to the whole elective situation, so I decided to just pick what most kids were signing up for: band.
Being in the school band is a lot like wearing matching outfits with your best friend, putting Lisa Frank stickers on your Trapper Keeper, and not shaving your legs. It’s cool when you’re in elementary school, but by the time you hit puberty, it’s best to let that go.
Not that I knew much about being cool. I wasn’t exactly at the top of the food chain. But I didn’t think I was at the bottom, either. I had the social relevance of a movie extra. Though occasionally, thanks to my lazy eye and less-than-perfect teeth, higher-ranking children would feel the need to remind me that I was nothing special.
Fortunately, band put everyone on an even playing field. At first.
Perhaps it was a lack of school funding or a lack of trust for a group of 9-year-olds that stuck pens in pencil sharpeners but, for the first two weeks of band class, none of the students got to play real instruments.
Everyone had to use these plastic red-and-white recorders that looked an awful lot like something you would pull out of a Cracker Jack box.
For an hour each day, we would practice playing “Hot Cross Buns,” while our teacher, an older, mustached man named Mr. Soto, presumably took a mental inventory of which pre-pubescent assholes were going to push him into early retirement.
But once we were deemed capable of caring for more solid — and incidentally, more expensive — instruments, my mother, along with all the other soon-to-be deaf parents, drove to Milano Music so she could put down a rental deposit for whatever I decided to play that year.
While I would like to tell you that I had high hopes of being a musical prodigy, at 9 years old, with two of my mom’s divorces under my belt and the promise of headgear in the near future, I considered myself very much the realist.
Knowing that I had a genetic predisposition to suck at all things musical, I decided to go with the instrument that was not only the easiest to carry to and from school but also the one I thought would be least noticeable in a brass ensemble: the flute.
True, the flute didn’t warrant much attention in a class of 50-plus other students with much louder instruments, but it was pretty hard to ignore when I practiced it at home (it wasn’t pretty), or when I carried it on the bus (that was worse).
For some reason, despite the fact that one-third of the fourth grade class was also taking band, I seemed to be only person on my bus route who got picked on for carrying my instrument around.
Girls likes Brittney Ward and Kayla Vaughn, who had opted out of band for the much more hands-free choice of choir, would make a game of stealing my flute case when I wasn’t looking and hiding it elsewhere on the bus so they could giggle hysterically when my stop would arrive and I would realized I didn’t have it.
Even Eric Pittman — Eric Pittman! The kid with the bowl haircut who everyone knew because his mom was in furniture commercials — he played the trombone and yet even he felt he could take jabs at my newly demoted band status, which apparently didn’t apply to him.
One day during our ride home, a bunch of kids were playing the not-so-mobile game of Spin the Bottle in the back of the bus when the nose of the bottle landed on me.
“Oh, no way,” said Eric. “Not her!”
Mortified, I relocated to the front of the bus, JanSport backpack and flute case in tow.
I hated Eric Pittman.
More than that, I hated the flute, this instrument that I wasn’t even good at but nonetheless had to carry around with me. Like roll-on glitter and DJ Tanner bangs, the flute was something I could never pull off. And attempting to do so only made me more aware of my shortcomings.
It’d be one thing if I had been born with God-given talent like Brooke Stein, a clarinet player whose skills Mr. Soto would remark on often in class. Then, I could take solace in that fact that I would get the last laugh because I was going somewhere with my musical talent.
But I wasn’t a musical sensation. In band class, I was invisible at best.
So invisible, I realized, toward the end of one particularly long class, that I could probably just stop going altogether, couldn’t I? “It’s not like Mr. Soto would notice,” I thought as I sat in my chair pretending to play my instrument along with the other students. The guy rarely even took attendance.
When the bell rang, I put my flute back in its case and decided right then and there, halfway through the year, that band could suck it.
For the rest of the semester, I spent my after-lunch period in the library playing Oregon Trail and Storybook Weaver on the new ’96 Macintosh computers while the rest of the fourth-grade student body carried on with their musical electives.
I’d like to say that I was careful, that I made a point to return to homeroom class at the same time as the band students, that I did my best to blend in with kids from other grades in the library. But the truth is, it was public school — a large public school — and no one noticed.
Well, not until the end of the year.
By the last week of elementary school, teachers already knew what grades their students were getting. So in the final days, most of them were content with letting the class watch a movie or play Heads Up, Seven Up.
We were doing the latter when the principal arrived.
“Is Kathleen here?”
The lights went on and my head went up as the rest of the class turned to look at me.
I was confused at first … Then it hit me. “Crap. They know.”
They had found out. Somebody must have told them. Somebody must have seen me day in and day out hiding in the library. “This is why you don’t break rules!” I thought as an adult dose of anxiety began rushing through my adolescent brain.
“Oh, my God. What if they call my mom? What if I have to take band all over again? What if I have to repeat the fourth grade?!”
The principal looked down at her paper and continued.
“How about Jason? Stephanie? Alex?”
The other kids raised their hands in response.
“Wait a minute,” I thought. “What did they have to do with it? Had they ditched the band, too? No, that can’t be right. Jason was good at band. And those two took orchestra."
“Let’s give them a round of applause!” said the principal, who was leading by example.
The class began to clap half-heartedly.
“We would like to recognize these students who were able to achieve ‘outstandings’ throughout the entire year in one or more of their classes.”
She began handing out medals — cheap, mass-produced ones — but medals nonetheless. As she handed each student their award, she announced what they had been “outstanding” in: math, P.E., social studies, or in my case —
The clapping stopped. As she handed me my medal I heard someone audibly whine, “But she’s not even in the band!”
The principal either didn’t hear or pretended not to, and finished passing out the medals.
I looked down at my award. A faux bronze medallion with a genie lamp impression and a lanyard of royal blue ribbon.
Apparently, Mr. Soto really wasn’t much for taking attendance, especially for those of us that weren’t exceptionally talented or exceptional troublemakers.
Because he never had to call me out for bad behavior, and because I had never actually announced I was leaving his class, Mr. Soto had given me, of all students, a year’s worth of “outstanding” marks.
I’d like to say that I felt bad for getting an award I didn’t technically deserve. That the weight of my guilt made the medal feel heavy in my sweaty hand. But it didn’t.
I rolled it over in my palm.
I was okay with this …
I rubbed my thumb over the ridges of the genie lamp.
No. I was more than okay ...
I hung it around my neck.
I was great.
If anyone deserved a medal, I thought, it was me. As far as I was concerned, this was a reward for all the band-related crap I had put up with. Being overlooked in class, being teased on the bus, being pitied by my mom and sister who had bore witness to my flute skills or lack thereof.
Had I had cheated the system? Sure. But had I found a way to make the second half of fourth grade slightly more bearable? You bet. I had found a solution that wasn’t necessarily by the books but ultimately I had come out on top, and with a medal.
Not even Eric Pittman, who had lugged an entire trombone to and from class, could say that.
“Band” was performed as part of a special edition of Bar Flies held in May 2016 at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.
Katie Johnson is a Phoenix-based writer and co-curator of Bar Flies. When she’s not busy blogging satirical lists, tweeting jokes, or Peggy Olsonning it up in the advertising world, you can find her telling stories on stage. Follow her on twitter @HeyKatieJohnson.